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41 Reasons Good Speakers Give Bad Speeches

We all have moments in public speaking we'd rather forget. Every good speaker has tripped, fumbled the verbal ball, lost their place. In my first speech contest in Toastmasters, I used overhead slides, spoke eloquently, whizzed by the deadline of 7:30, and prattled on for about 12 minutes, much to the chagrine of my friends.

Speaking coach John Watkis observed that good speakers can give bad speeches and proposed this short list of 41 reasons why it happens.

41 Reasons Good Speakers Give Bad Speeches

© Copyright 2011 John Watkis used with permission.

This year, I didn't even think about it.

On my birthday, I usually attempt to do the number of push ups that equals my age. 40 was good. Now I'm moving on.

This year, my birthday list comes from an observation I made while watching a good speaker (polished, well spoken, etc) give a bad speech. This lead me to write a list "41 reasons good speakers give bad speeches". Most of the items I've listed come from first-hand experience. Feel free to add to the list.

I hope you enjoy!

1) [Rely on] Natural ability - Many speakers with the gift of gab fail to work on their gift. When you don't work on a speech, it usually shows.

2) Lack of quality feedback - Every speaker should have a qualified person to provide feedback on their content and delivery. Those who don't often miss their blind spots.

3) Don't speak at the level of the audience - Whether it's using acronyms the audience doesn't understand or explaining concepts the audience already knows, a speech can turn sour if the speaker doesn't speak at the level of the audience.

4.) Disorganized material - It's painful to listen to a speaker who jumps from one place to another without any apparent rhyme or reason.

5) Self-absorbed - Some good speakers treat a speech as their opportunity to show what they've got. It should be about the audience, not the speaker.

6) One-size-fits-all approach to every audience - Giving the same speech to every audience is a sure-fire way to fall flat. A well-delivered speech to the wrong audience doesn't get a passing grade.

7) Too many stories - Good speakers are usually good story tellers. Unfortunately, their speeches sometimes turn into one story after another.

8) Lack of evidence - Too many stories usually means too few statistics and case studies. A good speech includes "proof" along with the pudding.

9) Gimmicks - Magic tricks, card games and other "interactive" gimmicks can work, but too many of them detract from what the speaker is trying to get across to the audience.

10) Too much detail - Long-winded descriptions are the death of many good speakers.

11) Imitating other famous speakers - I can't tell you how many of my clients tell me they want to be able to speak like (insert speaker here). When they focus on being like someone else, they fail to be authentic.

12) Too emotional about their message - Being passionate is good. Being overly emotional is not. If you're too attached to your message, people may be hesitant to question you for fear of offending you.

13) One-sided approach - Good speakers usually make the mistake of building a strong case for their viewpoint without discussing (or understanding) the topic from the opposite point of view.

14) More sizzle than substance - Great inflection, gestures and voice modulation are poor substitutes for quality content.

15) Intention to impress - When a speaker's intention is to impress the audience, rather than improve the condition of the audience, the speech tends to fall flat.

16) Don't connect the dots - The audience may understand what you've said, but they may not understand why you said it. Connect the dots for them throughout the presentation so that it's easier to follow your train of thought.

17) Don't do their homework - Although not exclusive to gifted speakers, this is usually a bad habit that can lead to a valuable learning experience.

18) Home movies - It's okay to tell a story or two about your family IF the story is relevant to the speech, but if your speech isn't about family life, people will feel as if they're being forced to watch home movies.

19) Bash others - I've made this mistake too often. It's a bad idea to bash individuals or organizations during a speech.

20) Go on tangents - Once you go off track, it's not easy to get back on.

21) Stay on the surface - Some of the most entertaining and "motivational" speeches are full of platitudes and worthwhile concepts. The problem is, those concepts are rarely explored in adequate depth to make any difference to the listeners.

22) Cover too much material - The audience can only remember so much. Covering too much material in too little time doesn't benefit the audience.

23) Ignore time - Even a good speech can turn sour quickly when a speaker ignores time because he's having too much fun.

24) Speeding -The audience needs time to digest information. Some speakers go so fast, the audience has no time to process the information they're hearing. This is usually a result of nerves or number 22.

25) Assume the audience wants to be there - Audience members want to feel understood. If they don't want to be at a speech, the last thing they want to hear is a happy-go-lucky speaker who demands they stand up, sit down, clap and repeat motivational phrases to the person sitting beside them.

26) No purpose - Some capable speakers give speeches with no purpose except to fill the time slot. The audience usually leaves this type of speech wondering why they just sat there for 20 minutes.

27) Nothing memorable - Some speeches would make more of an impact if they were memos. At least the memo could be read again. Every speech should have bits and pieces the audience will remember.

28) Don't tailor examples - Generic examples tell the audience you either don't know enough about their job/challenges/situation or you were too lazy to tailor those examples to fit their needs. Either way, it doesn't make for a good speech.

29) Use old, outdated material - The first 4-minute mile. Abraham Lincoln's record of failure before being elected to office. Edison's attempts at inventing the light bulb. There's nothing wrong with these stories, but too many of them in speech is not good. Tell the audience something they haven't heard before.

30) Wing it - This one needs no explanation.

31) Don't understand the audience - If you don't know your audience, you don't know what information will motivate, connect with, confuse or offend them. This was a mistake I had to learn a few times before it really stuck.

32) Don't understand the topic - The speaker may know her viewpoint on the topic, but she fails to research or discuss differing points of view. Until you understand all sides of a topic, you don't understand it.

33) Performing ... badly - It's one thing to see a bad performance when you go to a play. It's unbearable when you go to hear a speech. While it's good to map out movements and gestures in some situations, a completely choreographed speech rarely works.

34) Minimize audience experiences - Telling the audience their experiences don't matter is one way to have a message fall on dear ears. "Motivational" speakers are the worst offenders.

35) Brag - Back in the 80's, Tina Turner sang "We Don't Need Another Hero". The song probably plays in the mind of the audience when speakers brag about how much they've done and how great they are. Put it in the bio.

36) Put themselves down - Self-deprecating jokes are one thing. Continually apologizing for boring the audience is another. I'm amazed when speakers are doing a good job and then start to apologize.

37) Lack of sign posts - An organized speech is even easier to follow when the speaker provides sign posts that tell you where the speech is going next. If the audience knows where the speech is going, it's so much easier for them to stay with the speaker throughout the speech.

38) Don't adjust energy level - A room of 10 people requires "different" energy than a room of 100. I've seen speakers bouncing off the wall in a boardroom and shrinking like a violet in huge conventions. Even a good speech can go bad when the energy is off.

39) Over dependent on PowerPoint - No explanation needed here either.

40) Read speeches without practicing - There are times when it's necessary to read a speech. There is a NEVER an excuse for reading a speech without practicing.

41) It's just one of those days - We all have them. So if you give a bad speech, learn from it, let it go and move on to the next one.

Our homework, our personal work is to take each cause for bad speeches and convert it into what we CAN do to deliver a good speech.


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