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Public Speaking Master Class: How To Avoid The 4 Most Common Pitfalls

Losing your audience is all too easy! It’s even easier to blame them for your failure to make the experience worth their while. But it doesn’t have to be that way at all; if you know the four places where the mines are laid in your engagement with them. In this article I summarise your dos and don’ts in this delicate relationship and help you do the best for your audience. Your comments or questions are welcome.

It’s just as easy to be blown off course as it is to be blown up!

We’ve all done it before: going on stage or getting up to speak, somehow managing to deliver the material to the audience, receiving some polite acknowledgement from them, sitting down and afterwards wondering why nothing seemed to have changed. No new business. No new subscriptions to our point of view.

Of course, it’s the audience’s fault. They obviously don’t “get” us or the subject matter. They were probably not paying (enough) attention. In fact, they were clearly the wrong audience! Failure of marketing, that’s it!

The only thing wrong with this post-mortem is that it’s focused on the wrong body! Any and all conclusions are therefore irrelevant and useless at best, even if they’re technically accurate.

There are deadly land mines around and I want to help you avoid the lethal mistakes that can cost you so much in resources and lost opportunities.

The first and most important diagnostic point is that it’s always your fault, never that of the audience! If you don’t agree with this, stop here. There’s no point in reading any further.

Now that you’ve (grudgingly?) accepted this fact, let me show you how to side-step the land mines.

How to avoid being blown up

The simple answer is to prepare, connect, call to action and follow-up. That’s it. Done. Everybody go home. (Except that the story is a bit more nuanced than that, so we need to go into some detail).

Land mine #1: (Lack of) Preparation

This one is not difficult to understand, although it’s nevertheless easily missed and is in any case not so easy to do.

For the avoidance of doubt, preparation has nothing to do with your normal core competency. Yes, your area of expertise helps to validate your authority (to speak credibly), but your specific preparation for the speaking event or presentation is crucial. If nothing else, it demonstrates how much respect you have for the audience. Conversely, lack of specific preparation is the surest sign of how much you hold your audience in contempt, and they can feel it! So no prizes for guessing that in this situation, they will not readily reward you with their patronage.

I really like what am seeing here and…

Preparation can be looked at in three segments:

  • Research the subject or topic. You must know much more about the subject or topic than the audience, otherwise what would be the point of them investing their time and attention with you? Sometimes what you bring to the table is not necessarily depth of knowledge but breadth, i.e. unusual insights or even contrarian perspectives. Bobby Knight put it very well: “The will to succeed is important, but what’s more important is the will to prepare.” Even Scar in “The Lion King” is well aware of the critical importance of preparation, not just for himself but also for his co-conspirators.

    One obvious consequence of adequate preparation is the ability to easily and quickly adapt the material and its delivery to the particular audience, exactly as Ingmar Bergman said: “Only someone who is well prepared has the opportunity to improvise.”

  • Know why they have chosen to come and listen to you. Every effort must be made to have a good appreciation of why majority (if not all) of the audience is sat there listening to you. Without that information, there’s a real chance that you’ll fail spectacularly to give them what they came for. And don’t for a moment think that the marketing for the event takes care of that; it might not, as the audience’s understanding of your marketing spiel may in fact diverge significantly from yours. The easiest way to be sure of the motivations of your audience is to ask them:
    1. Preferably before the start of the main event, either by you and your assistants as they’re coming in to take their seats.
    2. Just before you launch into your main talk, right after introducing yourself.
    3. Better still, ask them on social media well in advance of the event.
    4. You could also get some relevant insight from the organisers of the event (they should be able to give you the audience demographics, etc.
  • Practice! The hallmark of the best actors and musicians is their flawless delivery, which directly comes from their uncompromisingly long hours of practice. For example, to avoid fluffing their lines, actors must practice, practice and then practice a bit more. Clearly, talent is necessary but it’s not sufficient; rather, practice is what “makes perfect”. I’m sure you’re listened to speakers who intersperse their sentences (and even phrases!) with lots of “uhms” and “ahs”. Did they fill you with confidence that they were prepared to deliver a great experience to the audience? I suspect not.

Land mine #2: (Not) Connecting on the day

In business – just as in life – one thing trumps all others: connections! Its importance goes beyond the ability to pull strings (of people you know) to the ability to influence the course of events and people (who know you). Trying to communicate with an audience without an effective connection is ultimately futile and wasteful.


Here are six tips (the six Es) to help you “work the crowd” and guarantee their engagement with you and your subject matter.

  1. Empathise with your audience.
    • This is by far the most critical requirement for successful communication and the one most commonly got wrong.
    • You need to be so tuned in, that you accurately establish the dominant “personality code” in and of the audience.
    • This is very difficult to do without extensive training and practice, and you should invest in this skill set if effective communication is important to you or your business
  2. Enthuse them about the subject matter and most importantly about you! The three commonest questions in people’s minds when you get up to speak are
    • Who are you?
    • What have you got to say? and
    • Why should I care?
      These questions must be answered right at the beginning of the engagement, to have any prospect of success.
  3. Educate them by giving value. Lots of it.
    • The more people learn from your talk, the more they appreciate, respect and trust you (this is why school teachers are some of the most trusted people in every society).
    • By the same token, the more they realise that you appreciate and respect them. This puts them in the frame of mind to buy from you or “buy into” your idea or suggestion(s).
    • It’s seldom a good idea to use a general public talk to energetically pitch your wares, unless you had told people beforehand to expect something like that. If you “sell” too hard, more often than not, the opposite effect to what you want will happen as people normally want to learn something that helps them, long before they want to be persuaded to buy from you.
    • Be sure to give some specific high-value tips that your audience can easily or immediately implement. This makes them seriously excited that they can start making improvements on the same day, literally as soon as they get home.
    • To help the audience easily see the value they get from your talk, you can do a little exercise: e.g. brainstorm with them to list 5 short term and 5 long term goals related to your topic and how they will use the learning from the talk to achieve those goals.
  4. purposeEntertain them.
    • There is no subject so serious that it cannot be delivered to an audience with humour.
    • There will of course be situations where the humour needs to toned down or sensitively delivered, but to leave it out altogether risks not connecting with the audience.
    • The easiest and quickest way to entertain an audience is to tell them stories.
    • The legendary Les Brown put it best when he said, “Never make a point without a story, and never tell a story without a point.”
  5. Edify them.
    • Genuine appreciation of your audience is like gold dust, it’s so valuable!
    • There is no need for cheesy meaningless expressions; you just need to acknowledge the effort they have made to come and listen to your talk.
    • Since they could have chosen to go do other things instead of coming to your event, they deserve gratitude and praise, at the very least.
    • In addition, you should announce that you will give them the opportunity at the end of the event (to validate themselves through associating with you – since you’re now an accepted authority figure) by taking photos – including selfies – with you, having your autograph, etc.
  6. Energise them.
    • No one willingly invests time, effort and maybe even money to go and listen to a depressed or boring speaker. They can get that by themselves without travelling to your event, so you need to make their presence worthwhile, for example by showing that you’re full of life and also involving them in the discourse at every opportunity.
    • Sometimes stretch exercises can be very useful, especially for long training sessions.

Land mine #3: (Non-existent/Inadequate) Call to action

It’s neither right nor fair to your audience and indeed yourself if you don’t provide a means for them to take action during or after your engagement with them.

It doesn’t matter how subtle or obvious the call to action is, it just needs to be there and to be clear as to the expected action and the anticipated results or effects.

It’s really important to ensure that every conceivable obstacle to their taking action is removed as much as possible. This in fact helps your audience by enabling them to easily extract the value you intended for them and by extension improves their perception of you as a deliverer of value.

Some of the ways you can promote action are by encouraging them to:

Random quote:

“Extroverts … cannot understand life until they have lived it. Introverts cannot live life until they understand it.”

— Isabel Briggs Myers
  • Follow you on social media
  • Subscribe to your mailing list
  • Enter your competition to win a prize
  • Register for another event of yours: special discount only if done on the day
  • etc.

Land mine #4: (Non-existent/ineffective) Follow-up

By and large, your return on investment of time, effort and money to stage or participate in the event will likely only be realisable from the follow up you do after the event. Majority of people in the audience will need multiple exposures to your message or interaction before they can/will do what you are suggesting to them.

If you’re unable/unwilling to follow up effectively, you might as well not bother with the event!

Some ways you can follow up are:

  • Keeping in regular touch with them by phone, email, social media or even snail mail. A very important aspect of this is listening to them and better understanding their dreams, anxieties, likes, dislikes, etc. Listening effectively is extremely powerful; they will tell you everything you need to know to serve them well.
  • Rewarding them for being your acquaintance through gifts, bonuses, discounts, prizes, etc.
  • Giving them opportunity to acknowledge your expertise and identify with you (social media likes, shares, pins, etc.)

Avoiding the commonest pitfalls in public speaking is clearly not a trivial undertaking, but it’s also not optional, if the activity or event is to have any meaning at all. In this article I have discussed the problems and provided practical solutions to help you overcome this huge business issue. I hope you have derived value from this.

Please let me have your comments or questions on this or any other topic (whether discussed on this website or not). I would also like to hear about your own experiences of public speaking land mines (whether it related to yourself or a speaker you had listened to).



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