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10 public speaking traps and how to avoid them

You can sail past most problems that pop up during a presentation if you're ready for them. These strategies will help you finesse common public speaking pitfalls.

You can sail past most problems that pop up during a presentation if you're ready for them. These strategies will help you finesse common public speaking pitfalls.


Any time you speak in public, risks and problems confront you. The better prepared you are for them, the better your chances of resolving them and thus having a better presentation. Here are 10 common issues you may encounter.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Nervousness

Whoever says he or she lacks nervousness before a presentation is apathetic or untruthful. The best way to handle nervousness is simply to tell yourself that you have valuable material to share with your audience and that you have the energy needed to deliver it effectively. In other words, channel your nervousness to a good purpose.

2: Unfamiliarity with the setup

In the movie Hoosiers, Coach Dale takes his high school basketball team to the fieldhouse a few hours before the Indiana state championship game. He has the members measure various parts of the court, and they discover these measurements exactly equal their own court, back in Hickory.

If you have time, think about doing the same thing. Visit beforehand the place where you'll be speaking. You'll be more comfortable once the actual time comes. In addition, you might spot issues with the equipment or setup in time for them to be corrected.

3: Failure or malfunction of audiovisual equipment

You KNOW Murphy's Law will one day show itself, if it hasn't already. Your computer dies. The projector dies. The speakers fall silent. Whatever happens, make sure you have a plan B in place. For example, can you deliver your talk without the PowerPoint slides? Maybe it won't be as interesting or effective, but it's better than just standing there awkwardly. Have backup notes for your slides and be prepared to switch to them.

Most important, try not to lose your cool. If someone can work on the problem, call on that person, but don't make a big deal about it. Go ahead with your backup notes, and if by chance the problem is fixed, just switch back and thank the person involved.

4: The "know it all" expert

You may discover that one or more attendees knows as much about your subject as you do. You may find, in addition, that they want to display their knowledge. Rather than view them as a rival or a threat, get them on your side. Before your presentation, introduce yourself to them. Then, acknowledge them to the audience, make a joke about how their job is to keep you honest, and thank them.

5: Lack of control over slides

For me, nothing is more annoying than the speaker who, when using slides, has to constantly prompt an assistant to advance the presentation. That person invariably ends up going too far and then has to back up, thus delaying the presentation.

Reduce this problem by controlling the slides yourself. Remember that if you're presenting to a large audience, you will need to have your projector a distance from you. If you have only a standard length video signal cable, your computer will need to be close to the projector and out of your reach. Therefore, to keep control of the slides, you will need an extra long video signal cable to connect that projector to your computer.

6: Room temperature water vs. ice water

At a convention or conference, you will usually find pitchers of ice water. That water is fine for the audience. However, if you drink cold water, it will constrict your vocal cords. Stick with room temperature water instead.

7: Preceding or following another speaker

Being gracious costs nothing, takes little time, and earns respect for you among your audience. When I precede a speaker, I'll often open with the question, "Who's looking forward to hearing [name of speaker]?" After they raise their hands, I'll continue, "In other words, you can't wait for me to finish." After the laughs that result, I'll say a few words about the next speaker, then mention how our subjects relate to each other.

If I follow someone, I often will try to relate my points to those of that speaker. I also will thank and compliment the speaker.

From a practical standpoint: If you're using notes, it's better to keep them with you, rather than leave them at the lectern. Otherwise, you run the risk that previous speaker might accidentally walk off with them.

8: Hostile questions

The most important point in dealing with hostile questions is to avoid arguing with or belittling the questioner. Doing so will only create sympathy for that person. If you can answer calmly, do so. However, be wary of the unspoken assumptions in any question you hear and be prepared to politely but firmly refute them. So to the classic, "When did you stop beating your wife?" you could respond, "Sorry, but I do not beat my wife, so the question is invalid. Next question, please."

If you get a question that's too complicated to answer, say so, but think about inviting the person to stay behind so you can discuss the question in more detail.

9: Speaking during or after a meal

Try to avoid speaking during a meal. You will be competing with servers and the noise of china and silverware. If you must do so, at least ask the meeting planner if you can speak dessert time. The best option, though, is to wait until the dishes are clear. At that point, you can joke about having to make sure you keep them awake.

10: Time constraints

What do you do if you're told that your speaking time is reduced because of scheduling issues? Rather than rush through every topic or slide you originally had planned, consider dropping topics or slides. Doing so will allow you to cover each of those topics to the original detail you had planned. Your audience will appreciate that approach better than a superficial treatment of all of your original topics.

About

Calvin Sun is an attorney who writes about technology and legal issues for TechRepublic.

19 comments
kieroneil
kieroneil

One thing to remember about nervousness is that a nervous speaker makes the audience extremely uncomfortable. Think of the best speaker you have seen and emulate them for the audience's sake.

stvroy22
stvroy22

This is a good article. I definitely have the "foot in mouth" syndrome.

bstewart0118
bstewart0118

The use of humor during a presentation is a good way of relieving the nervousnes one may encounter. I have used it at the beginning of my presentations and found it to be a valuable tool.

Silverlokk
Silverlokk

One handy device, if it's available, is the remote control. Also gives you freedom to move around. If you're using your own laptop and both it and your cell phone have bluetooth, there are BT applications that let you control your computer from your phone. Wirelessly of course (duh!) <g>

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

I don't normally result to this but you are clearly some up tight prick who has issues with the world with some kind of inadequacy you are trying to compensate for. Most folks would have said screw you and not even bothered reading your rather verbose tirade but I did thinking that perhaps you could at least explain your incompetent comments but alas I was wrong. In my original post, which I have to wonder if you even read, I asked you as clear as day where the poster you replied to had said anything about canned jokes. The poster was only recommending the use of humor and not canned jokes per say. But oh no you had to go off on your tirade and try to put me in my place for daring to ask you, mister superior intellect, why you made the comment you did. Well not only have you made a you know what out of yourself you?ve also let everyone here know that you?re an uptight jerk who hates the world. For the record I have done numerous presentations where I DID you use humor that DID go over well and often resulted in a standing ovation. So you can take your canned jokes attitude and stuff it where the sales don?t shine. Have a nice day

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

Don't let the "Foot-in-the-mouth" thing get to you because few speakers are natural out of the box. Just about everyone gets the stomach butterflies and or trips during their speaking engagement in the begining no matter how prepared they are. Unless your one of the few naturals you just have to go thru the first few bumps. The good news is that for most, not all but most, it does get easier after those first few.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

A poorly timed, poorly presented joke is the most horrendous crowd stopper of all, especially opening with one, which is actually REALLY tacky and old school. Building humour into a presentation is one thing, offering a canned joke or two (again ESPECIALLY opening with a joke) is the worst thing one can do. Why notjust say somethign about yuorself that you and others can laugh at instead, it's much more natural and also allows teh audience to understand that you are humble and grounded. Being able to laugh at yourself is always a crowd pleaser, that's why so many comedians do it. If you're chubby, SQUEEZE behind teh podium if you have one. If you're skinny, make a joke about that as you stand right in front of your presentation without casting a shadow on it. Trip, stumble, pronounce your name wrong and then correct yourself. Some of the most successful sit coms are comedies where the cast make simple social boo-boos that everyone has made and people love to laugh when they see someone else do what they do too. Canned jokes? You'd lose my interest or I'd walk out before you got to the first slide.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

As they are so common now and a dime a dozen, just get a notebook with a remote, my cheapo HP has oen that works perfectly. For controlling a standard notebok Power pOojtn presentation just buy a bluetooth or USB mouse and then yuo can hold it in your hand and still click through slides whiel standing. Why bother with connecting BT to a phone and running a phone app? That sounds like a real pain in the arse.

taserian
taserian

At the risk of sounding like I'm advertising a product, I'd recommend that anyone who wants to be comfortable with public speaking try out their local Toastmasters club. There's nothing that develops your confidence more than getting through a few speeches and noticing that you don't spontaneously combust despite all your fear of speaking to an audience, and Toastmasters is an excellent environment for getting over the initial awkwardness with public speaking.

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

In addition to the 10 (all very good) you've mentioned I add these based on my own 5+ years of speaking/training in a technology environment. 11: Rehearsal - No matter how well you know the material/topic, unless you are doing the presentation a few times a week you should at least do a quick run thru of the slides and point the day of (or night before) the presentation so its fresh in your mind. This is especially true if you normally handle more than 1 presentation or training class. 12: Ice Breakers ? Ice Breakers are one lines intended for public speaking and business introductions in general. There are books out there on these and you should pick up one and pick out a few that you are comfortable with and that are applicable to your material/topic. When I was doing public speaking/training I found it invaluable to add humor at various points to break up the material and to keep attendees attention. No matter how good you and or your material is you always will have 1 or more attendees who?d rather be somewhere else or (more likely) are easily distracted by cell phones & PDA?s.

Calvin T Sun
Calvin T Sun

Good point, and one I should have mentioned. Thanks. With the remote device, one doesn't need an assistant, but also, one isn't tied to being close to the PC.

BlueCollarCritic
BlueCollarCritic

All I see are recoemndations to add humor which you yourself backup so where do you see anyone promoting the use of canned jokes?

arthurborges
arthurborges

This is definitely an option because it has a method that works however the mix of folks will vary from one group to the next. You're allowed to attend three meetings for free. Visit several groups. Then choose.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

Having hosted Toastmasters and taught Dale Carnegie, there is a MSSIVE difference in the focus and training in Dale Carnegie, by far a better TRAINING and practicing course for public speaking. Toastmasters offers some exposure and practice, but you don't learn anything about the actual structure, presentation and body language techniques for a winning presentation. Take the proper Dale Carnegie training and apply it in Toastmaters to get more comfortable, but Toastmatsers itself teaches very little at all.

mmoran
mmoran

Inexpensive, generally less than fifty bucks. Well worth the money.

Oz_Media
Oz_Media

I SEE and HEAR it every time I see some guy in a pair of tan Dockers trying to sell his software at a trade show or office meeting. You are quick to rush to another's defense, obviously someone that has the comprehension skills that you seem to lack though. "Building humour into a presentation is one thing, offering a canned joke or two (again ESPECIALLY opening with a joke) is the worst thing one can do. " Right there I differentiate my comment from the last poster's comment and detail the minute but often commonly confused difference. I posted after his comment because the two are closely related but different all the same. Almost every presentation I see these days, especially south of our border, has some IT/sales rep wannabe in a pair of tan dockers telling some stupid joke or tying to add what he feels is humour to his presentation and failing miserably at it too. I remember a time when sales presentations were conducted by seasoned sales reps and they were clever, eloquent, entertaining and still very informative, perfectly timed etc. Presentations were focused on trial closing, answering objections before they were even asked and they resulted in sales on the spot. In the last 10-15 years, more and more tech minded and start-up businesses have decided to use their own, very inexperienced staff as salesmen to save money actually hiring someone for the job. It usually results in some bumbling fool, with terrible pitch, no timing and no presentation structure, stumbling through some power point slides while describing a product without understanding how to properly sell its features and benefits. They include nervous humour to try and mask their inadequate presentation skills and will only cover a few of the key presentation sales steps, missing trial closing and too often missing closing entirely. Presentation does not lead to sales, presentation is the third step in a sale and while part of the process, it's one that holds little importance to actually moving a product compared to other steps. It's laughable actually and costs companies a lot more money in the long run than hiring someone with the skills to do it properly. Everyone is a public speaker and presenter these days, and only perhaps 10% of them are actually any good at it or realize that EVERY word spoken has a place, a reason and is used specifically to move a product. It's not a matter of just standing there and making it through a slide show without peeing your pants or stumbling over your words. These keynote sessions that you see at CES shows etc. are always by some complete fool with no sales skills at all, they fumble awkwardly through a slide show and even a Q&A,they try to offer humour in the mix while just making themselves look stupid and the product look weak. When they are done, people pick up brochures, free keychains and pens and leave. They aren't customers, they haven't been sold, and the entire presentation becomes some passively put forth info session with no purpose to it. It's no different than the salesmen you see that hand you a brochure when you ask a question. "Everything you need is in here" which is complete BS, sure INFO is there but info doesn't sell product nor pay the bills.

arthurborges
arthurborges

If you start by trashing the other party, that says alot about you and anyone you represent. I do beg to differ: I can assure you Toastmasters training provides for structure, body language and other elements of a "winning" speech, as you term it. Perhaps there is a distinction, however, in that the emphasis at Toastmasters is sooner "mutually supportive" than "winning". You know, like, "Dog eat dogfood" instead of "Dog eat dog"?

taserian
taserian

Comparing Toastmasters (come to a club as a guest, no commitment, and see if you like what we're about) to Dale Carnegie (courses and training being sold) is comparing apples to oranges. Toastmasters is more of a social gathering with certain objectives, while Dale Carnegie is a business venture. Both are good at what they do, and if you're interested in what Dale Carnegie offers, go for it, but the availability and sociability of Toastmasters is a very strong point in its favor. Not having tried Dale Carnegie before, I can't speak about how well they train, but the closest franchise is well over 3 hours away, while I have 16 Toastmaster clubs within 50 miles of my location.

bobt
bobt

Keep spare batteries for your remote or any other electronic device handy. Again, Murphy's Law. Also, remotes are not all made alike. The more expensive brands will have a greater range.

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