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The Top 5 Public Speaking Sins

The Top 5 Public Speaking Sins

Photo credit: WilliamMarlow via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-SA


I know you’ve been there – sitting in an audience listening to a speaker and wondering “Why am I listening to this and when is it going to end?”

Such is the agony of sitting through a terrible speech.  But what makes a speech terrible? This is something I get asked a lot. Differences in taste and preferences means that one person’s god-awful speaker could be someone else’s guru, but there are a few key sins that can kill just about any speech. Here’s a list of the things I consider especially egregious. Read, my friends, read and learn so that you do not commit these sins yourself:


1. Giving a talk that has nothing to do with its title

Well, the title said “Upcoming Trends for Online Marketing,” but it really ended up being about the speaker’s business training course.

Giving a talk that’s not related to its title is the speaker’s equivalent of a bait-and-switch.2 If someone’s decided to spend their time listening to you speak, you’d better deliver the topic that was promised or else you risk annoying and confusing your audience. Speak on what you promised to speak about.


2. Not having a clearly defined message

I have no idea what that talk was about.

Your entire speech should hang on a clearly defined message – a key takeaway that the audience can pick up on quickly and remember easily. Everything in your speech should support and build on that message. I’m militant about this, because not having a super clear, concise message is one of the fastest routes to Wandering Topic Syndrome and confusing speeches. It’s also a slippery path towards committing sin #1.


3. Making it all about you

Me, myself, right? And then I and then myself and then me. Meee. MEEE!3

Personal stories are important. They help you and your audience connect. But there comes a point when you should move on and switch from talking about you to talking about your audience. Going on with personal story after personal story and never really getting to some kind of actionable, audience-centered point is going to make you seem completely self-absorbed. I’ve seen some horrendous examples of me-focused, navel gazing speakers (one involved the speaker making a “spontaneous” phone call from the stage to prove how awesomely connected they were with Big Important People. UGH).

A speaker’s platform is not a venue for therapy or self-aggrandizement. If the speaker is making it all about themselves, it come across as though they neither know nor care about their audience. Make it about them.


4. Reading from your notes or slides

I don’t need you to read it for me. I know how to read.

This sin is why I discourage people from memorizing their speech, bringing up extensive notes, or putting too many words on their slides. You can’t engage your audience if you’re staring at a piece of paper or a slideshow.

Click to Tweet: You can’t engage your audience if you’re staring at a piece of paper or a slideshow. #presentationskills #publicspeaking

If you come up with long, extensive notes, I will guarantee that your eyeballs will be drawn irresistibly to that page and you’ll revert to reading mode. The same thing goes for text-heavy slides. I’ve seen internationally lauded professors on the pop lecture circuit commit this crime as often as speech neophytes. Free yourself of the temptation of reading and avoid this sin by using only the sparsest of speaker notes and extremely limited text on your slides.


5. Going overtime

Do we really need to talk about going overtime? YES! This happens with astonishing frequency! Going overtime throws the event agenda off, steals time from other speakers, and deprives the audience of their transition times and bathroom breaks. It also makes you appear unpolished and unprepared. The only way to avoid this sin is practice, practice, practice your talk, timer in hand, and then ruthlessly edit if you find yourself consistently going over time. Have your timing down cold and always leave a buffer in case there is an interruption or you mess up a bit of your timing. Did your talk get cut short because the person before you went over time? Then you need to adjust your talk so you still end according to your original time slot. Know what pieces of content (stories, examples, slides, etc) you can skip or gloss over in case you find yourself with a shortened speech time.4


Most of these mistakes may seem obvious, but they’re easy to commit if you don’t spend enough time creating, practicing, and rehearsing your talk. Speaking is a craft, and you need to have a craftsman’s attention to detail if you are going to perform with polish and ease.


  1. I’ve committed every last one of these sins, by the way. I don’t know any speaker who hasn’t.
  2. I find this happens most often when the speaker is attempting to sell from the stage. Typically, they rapidly veer off their promised topic and on to how their latest offering is going to solve all your ills. Lip service may be paid to the original topic, but it tends to be shallow and never really addresses the subject promised in the title. It’s infuriating.
  3. Hat tip to Vince Poscente for making me aware of that clip. It makes me laugh until my sides hurt every time I see it.
  4. This is a skill worth practicing. I often have to adjust my content on the fly because of variances in the event agenda. Being able to adapt and adjust at the last minute can save you a lot of grief and make you look really good to event organizers.

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