5 Public Speaking Missteps You Need to Avoid

August 28, 2015

speakWhat’s one fear coursing through the veins of most people, even PR wunderkinds? Public speaking. You would think, at least in the PR industry, those fears are left at the door — but there it is.

How can some PR pros excel at their jobs without conquering public speaking? Well, they can be great relationship builders, phone pitchers and even masterful email writers — where they don’t have to speak much at all. But for business development, public speaking is critical. I’ve seen stage fright take hold in pitch meetings, and it’s not good for business. There are five tips I like to share to help people overcome a fear of public speaking, be it in a business pitch to five potential clients, or at a conference before an audience of 500 (click to tweet).

So, if you are among those whose knees are knocking, palms are sweating and throats are cracking as you read this post — don’t fret. Here are my five common missteps to avoid when speaking to a group.

1. Reading word-for-word. You lose eye contact when reading from a page. That alone is bad enough, but consider when you are nervous — you read … slower … than … usual … and … don’t … sound … like … an … expert. You should be prepared and not rely solely on improvisation, but please do not read. You become a complete bore and sound unprofessional. Learn to thrive in an organic setting — roll with it,  listen to the audience and be yourself. You would be shocked how much that helps when you pitch, or speak to groups in general.

2. Stepping over other people in the room. We have all sat through a meeting or a panel presentation when a person is talking and someone else is intent on getting in that “one brilliant point.” So, an interruption here, an interjection there, and then when they can’t get a word in edgewise — the tap dance begins. It’s uncomfortable, improper, and so unkind to the ear. I have always believed that if you cannot wait to make your point, and must interrupt someone to do so, your point is probably not worth making (click to tweet). Besides, people listen better when there is silence just before you drop your knowledge bomb.

3. Speaking too loudly or quietly. We all know that special someone who gets his or her coffee in the morning and ends up sounding like Chopper Dave stuck in the skies. And then there’s that other pro who simply can’t project, regardless of the setting or stakes. The right tone is everything, and those are not the people you typically want to be in the foxhole with because, while they may be pleasant enough quietly sitting across from you at the lunch table, or loud enough to be heard in a crowded bar, they’re ineffective when it counts. Don’t be them, okay?

4. Using jargon. It sometimes feels as if we all have a secret sheet of “Buzzword Bingo” hidden in our desks in the hope that using buzzwords and corporate jargon makes us sound like experts. As much as “moving the needle” and plucking that “low-hanging fruit” makes you feel like the superhero of the PR galaxy, it can sound amateurish on stage or in a boardroom. You are better than that. Abstain from the clichés and build your argument on a foundation of insight and clarity. You’ll be a better person for it.

5. Forgetting to have fun. It’s amazing how a little levity tends to make things easier. Ever hear of an icebreaker? Use one! Humor is more than that though — it connects you with your audience. Understand, however, that you are not hosting a late night talk show — but a little crack of a smile won’t kill you. Those “why so serious” people give the rest of us a bad name. Make your own name and have a little fun.

Do you have a public speaking tip that works for you? Please share them in the comments section below.

Shawn Paul Wood is a managing supervisor for Ketchum’s Digital practice, responsible for integrating strategy for digital capital and social media.

Prior to Ketchum, he represented the full gamut of verticals from Hollywood A-list talent to Fortune 500 companies to dynamic start-ups looking to make a difference in its field. In a former life, Shawn was an award-winning on-air talent, producer, voice-over artist, and news director.

In his spare time, Shawn is a national blogger, published author, and speaker.