Myths and Bad Advice about Public Speaking

Christopher Witt —  July 10, 2014

Bad Advice about SpeakingThere are a lot of myths, misconceptions, and flat-out bad advice about public speaking.

Here’s my list of the Top Nine Myths and Bad Advice about Public Speaking

  1. It’s not what you say that matters, but how you say it.
    Delivery is important. An articulate, powerful, and charismatic delivery can make a mundane message seem more important than it is. And a really bad delivery can kill the best message. But it is the message that counts. It’s what will change people’s thoughts and behavior. It’s what they’ll remember.
  2. To develop confidence, look over the heads of your audience or imagine them in their underwear.
    There are better ways to develop confidence when giving a speech. (Check out “The Three Best Ways to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking.”) Looking people in the eye helps make a connection with them and gains their trust, which in turn will make you more confident. Imagining people in their underwear is disrespectful, and you never want to disrespect your audience.
  3. Start your speech with a joke.
    Never start your speech with a joke…unless you’re a professional comedian and the audience is already warmed up. Your odds of bombing are astronomical. (Check out Should You Tell Jokes or Use Humor in a Speech?) Humor — which is different from telling jokes — is almost always appropriate.
  4. End your presentation with Q&A.
    You can save Q&A to the end of your speech. But after you’ve answered the last question, don’t simply thank the audience and sit down. Take another half-minute or minute to end your speech: recap your main point and give your audience reason to act on it.
  5. Use PowerPoint because most people are visual learners.
    Making people read words is something entirely different from showing them images. As a matter of fact, people can’t read and listen at the same time. You have two alternatives. Use visuals (not words) on your slides: pictures, graphs, charts, and the like. Or tell stories and uses the type of words that engage people’s imaginations, where they create their own visual images.
  6. Some people are natural born speakers, some aren’t.
    Giving a speech is a skill, like learning how to read or ride a bike. Some people seem to have more of an aptitude than others (for speaking, reading, or riding a bike). But with guidance and practice most (not all, but most) people can learn how to give a good speech.
  7. There’s never any need to write out a speech.
    Writing out your speech or, at least, writing out parts of your speech can make it more powerful, compelling, and memorable. It will force you to clarify your thoughts and to hone your message. (Check out Should You Write Out a Speech?)
  8. Rehearsing a speech is a waste of time.
    Never give a speech or presentation without first rehearsing it. At least once, stand up and talk through your speech out loud. Do not think that thinking it through in your mind is enough. You have to get your mouth around your message before you stand in front of an audience. (Check out How to Rehearse a Speech.)
  9. Watching a videotape of yourself speaking is the best way to improve.
    Most speech coaches swear by videotaping their clients. I find that, at best, it makes people aware of their bad habits and allows them to improve them…temporarily. At worst, it makes people even more self-conscious and hyper-critical. I recommend practicing in front of a supportive audience. (Consider joining a Toastmasters club.) You can also work with a speech coach who will help you create a message you believe in and the confidence to deliver it.

Do you agree or disagree? What myths, misconceptions, or bad advice about public speaking would you add?

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Christopher Witt

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Chris Witt was born in Los Angeles, California. He currently lives in San Diego. He works as a speech and presentations consultant, an executive speech coach, and an orals coach.

7 responses to Myths and Bad Advice about Public Speaking

  1. Great advice Chris! I love how you tackled all of that bad advice. I’ll disagree though on the videotaping. I would never have learned or believed that I had a bad habit of swaying back and forth unless I saw it. I also wouldn’t have heard all of my filler words (in my first appearance on TV no less!) Videotaping is humbling and not for the timid. In my opinion it is the most effective tool a speaker can use to improve. Thanks for sharing your expertise — you are a super speech coach.

    • Dana, I think videotaping has its merits… for accomplished speakers like yourself. I don’t recommend it, however, for beginners who are, for the most part, timid and who fear being humiliated. With them I want to focus and to get them to focus on their strengths. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Excellent advice (as always)! I would like to emphasize the need to practice *out loud* – same advice that any sports coach gives “Practice how you play, play how you practice”

    I am a little leery of writing things down, however. That can lead to a feeling that you have to remember your speech word-for-word, which adds an extra level of anxiety to the speech. Instead, I prefer to write down the *points* you want to make, and practice (out loud) shaping your speech around the points. That way, you can make the points in different words each time you practice, and when you go onto stage you will have an air of spontaneity and come off as conversational instead of stiff and nervous.

    • I share all your reservations about writing things down, but I find the positives outweigh the negatives.

      Writing a speech ensures that we make tight connections. As experts we see connections — how one element of the idea being developed is related to another. But sometimes we see the connections so clearly that we assume others see them too. That’s one reason I like to focus on the segues, not just the main points of a speech.

      Writing a speech — especially the key points — helps sharpen them. I’m in favor of using certain rhetorical devices to make our points clearer, more powerful, and more memorable.

      Writing a speech provides a script to rehearse from. I don’t try to memorize the entire thing. You’re absolutely right: doing so adds an extra level of anxiety. But I find that I’m able to commit much of it to heart. The sign of a well-written speech is that it’s easy to remember…both for the speaker and for the audience.

      Writing a speech is good practice. I can spot weaknesses in my speeches (or in other people’s speeches) — bloated words, tired expressions, unnecessary asides, etc. — much more easily when viewing a script. For example, a speech teacher once pointed out that I could almost always delete the first 200 to 300 words of my speeches and, in the process, strengthen them.

      Writing a speech is really only practical for majorly important occasions. But then I think most professionals speak too often. (That’s a topic for a future post.)

      Thanks for your comments.

  3. Wow, that’s quite a list! When you see them all set out like that, you realise just how many myths are around.

    I really like that you acknowledge how important delivery is (in myth #1), and give examples, yet still rate the message as more important.

    So many people keep spouting the Mehrabian Myth (about body language being more important than words), as you might see in this post about the problem.

    Personally, I do find videoing my speeches really useful. You can still get feedback from other people, but there’s nothing like seeing (and hearing) for yourself what the stronger and weaker aspects were. (I don’t usually cringe at my videos, so that helps!)

    Quite often, other people give misguided feedback anyway. For instance, many Toastmasters fixate on body language, and unfortunately too many of them seem to give discouraging critiques, thinking they’re “helping”. Having a video lets you see which parts of the feedback to actually take notice of!

    • Craig,
      I like videoing my speeches also, but I only recommend it for experienced speakers who are somewhat confident. Other people find it intimidating which only makes them more nervous and self-conscious about their speaking.

      In Toastsmasters, I always listen when people tell me that they didn’t understand something I said or didn’t follow my main point or didn’t like an image I used. But I stop listening when they tell me how to fix my speech; they’re usually unhelpful.

      Thanks for your insights.


  4. When I was in Toastmasters,* I recorded members’ speeches and the corresponding speech evaluations. I uploaded these items to YouTube — but set the access to “Private,” so that only individuals with the URL could see the video. I sent the links to the speaker and their mentor. The goals:

    1. To allow the person to experience the speech as an audience member.
    2. To allow the member to see their progression, over time.
    3. To allow the mentor to observe the speech even if they couldn’t make that meeting.
    4. Regarding the evaluations – if the member didn’t understand a particular comment, the member could watch the speech again in order to better understand the point of the evaluator.

    After getting over the initial feelings about watching their performance, our members expressed appreciation for the experience. The most common comment: “I didn’t look as nervous as I felt.” I see hundreds of YouTube videos of Toastmasters presentations now, but this is how we used that platform.
    *I served as the VP Education for two clubs.