As a teacher, consultant, and preacher, I talk to groups for a living. In fact, I’ve been a student of public speaking for more than 30 years. I’ve learned by studying in the classroom and simply by listening to others. Too often, I’ve learned the hard way by making my own mistakes.
On a positive note, I’ve seen that it’s possible to exercise
leadership from the public platform. A well-timed, welldelivered
address can rally the troops, strengthen the team,
and compel people toward excellence. On the other hand,
I’ve seen (and exhibited at times, I’m sure) some mistakes in
public speaking. Here are a few.
1. NOT KNOWING THE AUDIENCE
Speaking to teens is not the same as speaking to senior
adults. Communicating with a gathering of relationship-oriented
non-Westerners is different than speaking to a group
of Western businessmen. Most speakers have some sense
of the importance of audience analysis, but understanding
analysis and acting on it are two different matters. I’m
amazed by the number of speakers I invite to different venues
who never ask about the intended audience.
2. INVITING INDIFFERENCE
Maybe you’ve heard speakers do it:
• “This point isn’t exciting, but it’s important.”
• “I really haven’t had much time to prepare, so please bear with me.”
• “This really isn’t my area of expertise; I’m sure there
are others who are more qualified.”
Although humility may be the driving force behind these
kinds of statements, don’t be surprised if the audience is
uninterested after you’ve told them you’re unexciting, unprepared,
and/or unqualified. Let your hearers make that assessment
without your help. They just may find you engaging
3. BORING THE AUDIENCE
Here’s the difficulty with this mistake: Only once have I
ever met a boring speaker who knew he was boring (he was
forced to admit it after he fell asleep during one of his own
lectures!). It would not hurt us to have friends who evaluate
our speaking and critique us honestly. Good training and
increased passion can help overcome a boring style, but not
if we fail to recognize the problem in the first place.
4. USING IRRELEVANT STORIES AND ILLUSTRATIONS
Much of the world learns best through stories and illustrations,
so using stories is a significant communication
strategy. Watch an audience when you begin to tell
a story or use an illustration; often, they will lean forward,
almost as if they are closing the space to hear better. This
speaking strategy opens the door to effective communication. However, if the story lacks relevance (for example, using
automobile illustrations when speaking to city dwellers
who have never owned cars), the technique loses its force.
Again, knowing the audience matters.
5. ASSUMING AUDIENCE APPLICATION
Public speeches have different purposes. Some inform,
others convince, and some simply address a special occasion.
Many public speeches, though, are intended to lead
the hearer to action—support a candidate, give to a cause,
adopt a belief, accept a decision, join the team, celebrate
a victory, change a lifestyle. The problem is that speakers
often fail to state clearly what they want the audience to do.
Instead, they assume the hearers will listen intently, naturally
connect the dots, and respond appropriately. But a lack of
specific instructions from the speaker results in a lack of
intentional application among the hearers.
6. IGNORING TIME PARAMETERS
Seldom are speakers given open-ended time slots for
speaking. Usually they have an established time period that
fits neatly into the organization’s overall plans and goals. To
ignore those parameters is not just disruptive to the schedule; it is inconsiderate at best and arrogant at worst. Finishing
within the allotted time shows respect, and it might even
strengthen the speech by demanding brevity.
7. NEGLECTING CONTINUED IMPROVEMENT
suspect that the more we speak, the less we see a need
to improve. Perhaps we subconsciously convince ourselves
that practice really does make perfect. There is little question
that speaking regularly can make us more comfortable with
the task, but actual improvement is not always the result.
Growing as a public speaker requires an intentional strategy
Unfortunately, this list of mistakes is not all-inclusive.
What other mistakes have you seen in public speaking? On
the flip side, what characterizes strong public speaking?
Think about them as well.
Chuck Lawless currently serves as professor of evangelism and
missions and dean of graduate studies at Southeastern Seminary.
This article first appeared in Best Practices, April 22, 2013.