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.

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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.


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

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