April 25, 2016

Speaker & Writer Tips

Don't Make These Two Rookie Speaker Mistakes

I have a great love for speaking. It is a privilege to be able to get up in front of an audience and share a moment with them. You are given the opportunity to challenge them, inspire them and educate them. And so it just drives me crazy when I see a speaker make these two “rookie mistakes”.

I was recently on a college tour with my son. He had been accepted to five schools and after ruling out two of them, was trying to decide between the remaining three. So we set out to visit each campus and attend their events for admitted students.

If you’ve ever been to one of these, you know that these events are where the schools try to convince the students that they’ve admitted to actually choose them. They often involve campus tours, sessions on financing and a chance to meet professors, current students and other prospective students. And, inevitably, the event kicks off with a speech by the president of the school or a dean of some sort.

It was at one of these speeches that I most recently saw one of these “rookie mistakes” committed again – and frankly, the speaker was no rookie. The head of admissions welcomed everyone to the event, covered some housekeeping and then introduced the President of the school. And then it happened.

In the school gym with at least two thousand people in attendance, he jumped off the stage.


When he did this, I literally groaned and cringed. I just hate it when I see a speaker give up one (or both) of his or hers most valuable tools. As a speaker, our job is to entertain, inspire, educate and otherwise create an intimate connection with our audience. Whether you’re hoping to be a professional speaker or just want to be better addressing small groups as part of your job, it is critical that you learn to use the tools that you have available to you and not give them up.

The reality is that as speakers, we only have a few simple tools that we can use to fulfill our mission of entertaining, inspiring and educating our audiences. So you need to use them.

Rookie Mistake #1: Getting Off Stage

I am quite sure that the president of that university thought to himself, “I don’t want to seem ‘above’ my potential students and their parents, so I’ll talk to them from the audience where I can be closer to them.”

It sounds good, but it’s the completely wrong approach. As I was trying to watch him, I kept losing him or almost losing him in the crowd. We were quite a distance from him and it became distracting because he kept moving up and down one aisle and then repeated this on the other aisle. My eyes were constantly pulled to people in the audience as I noticed a hat they were wearing or that someone was nodding off.

While it may seem that jumping off stage will create more intimacy, the reality is that it creates much less intimacy for almost everyone in the audience other than the few people who are right in front of you. For everyone else, you are now either behind them (where they can’t see you at all) or they are distracted.

Now I’m not saying that you should NEVER get off stage. Sometimes it can be a useful way of creating dramatic effect. But that’s what it should be: an effect. Use it to make your point, get the laugh or whatever it’s purpose and then get back up there.

When you’re on stage you are actually inviting each and every member to enter into an intimate one-on-one relationship with you. I know that may sound strange, but when you’re up there, it’s just you and them. When you jump down into the audience, they become mere observers. It may sound backwards, but it’s true. So don’t do it.

Rookie Mistake #2: Refusing the Mic

I was hosting an event in Austin, Texas a few months back and I was witness to the text book calamity of a speaker making the rookie mistake of refusing the mic. We had about 100 people in attendance and the speaker was a representative of the event sponsor, so he was given 20 minutes to address the executives in the room. This speaker fashioned himself a “pro” and refused the mic when I offered it to him saying “Oh, I don’t need that. I am great at projecting my voice.”

I sighed and shook my head as he proceeded to shout at his audience for the next twenty minutes. The net result was that the people in the front were blasted and the people in the back still couldn’t hear. It was so bad, in fact, that some of the folks in the back just gave up and starting having their own conversations.

Here’s the little secret. A microphone is not really there just to project your voice. What it really does is allow you to have a deeply intoned, conversation with your audience. When we are speaking we really only have our ideas, the stage, maybe some props or visual aids and our voice with which to work. When you refuse the mic, you are essentially giving up one of your most valuable tools: your voice. You will be forced to essentially scream at your audience just so they can hear you.

When you use your mic, on the other hand, you can modulate your voice from a loud, commanding presence to a whisper to create different emotional responses within your audience. You can speak to them in a normal, conversational tone, which creates a deeper sense of intimacy. But you can’t do any of that if you don’t use a mic. So unless your audience is small enough that you can speak to them conversationally and still be heard, use the dang mic.

Ok, I feel better now. I just needed to get that off of my chest.

I really want you to be a great speaker. There is a lot to being a great speaker and it takes a lot of work and a lot of practice. But even if you do everything right, these two rookie mistakes will undermine you at every turn. So please don’t do them! Use the platform and the tools you have been offered to make a difference in the lives of your audience. Educate them. Challenge them. Inspire them. And make them glad that they spent this moment with you.


You may also like

    • Hi Rachel – the simple, short answer is practice, practice, practice! Going all the way back to my first Toastmaster meeting over 20 years ago, I see speaking as a lifelong practice. It is something that you must continually study and just do as much as you can.

      Another thing that I have found very helpful is to study speeches by speakers whom I admire and respect. By watching how they speak and address the audience, I’ve learned a lot! (I’m also a big fan of the work of Nancy Duarte — check her out!)

      Finally, if you’re thinking about being a professional speaker, I’d definitely look at joining the National Speakers Association. It’s a great network of speakers and a very giving community full of people that will help you develop and grow as a speaker.

      Hope this helps!


  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}