Why speakers suck

Photo: Rui Vieira / PA

Recently, Reid Hoffman penned a piece titled Why panels suck. I completely agree panels are mind-numbing most of the time, but I want to talk about an issue that is even more insidious. I have low expectations of panels and expect them to be of limited value, but when it comes to keynotes and individual speakers, I hold out hope I’ll get something good. Unfortunately, I’m disappointed a lot of the time because most speakers suck.

In many ways, a bad speaker is worse than a bad panel. With a panel, you might be “lucky” and get one panelist that tries to make it interesting. If you have a bad speaker, the entire speaking slot, which can be 30 minutes to an hour, will be devoted to them droning on.

What can go wrong?

There are so many things that can go wrong when a speaker takes the floor. Most of it stems from either the speaker not being empathetic to the audience or not practicing enough. It’s simple really: speak unto your audience as you’d want them to speak unto you. Put yourself in their shoes. Do you think they’ll like your talk? Would you like your talk if you were in the audience? How about if you were the guy sitting in the back row?

I was pretty bad at speaking for the first five or so years of my career. I had written several books and was a regular on the tech conference circuit. Initially, I spoke on networking topics, then sports media, then startups, and now it’s mostly AI-related.

When I started my own company, I got the opportunity to speak in front of groups frequently. As a startup founder, you have to be ready to give your pitch on a moment’s notice to any kind of crowd. Sometimes it will be to one potential investor and other times to hundreds of people at a startup competition. As my company grew, I was doing monthly company meetings to 50+ employees, so I got a lot of practice. Like with most things, practice makes you better when it comes to public speaking.

Here are some of the things that go wrong most often with talks:

  • Reading straight from the slides. This may be the preferred approach when dealing with my 2-year-old son, but as adults, we don’t need things read to us. Slides should be more visual, less text. It works for Google’s CEO. The only exception is talks where you are doing code walkthroughs or need to demonstrate something from your computer.
  • Expecting the audience can read your slides. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard “you probably can’t read this slide” from a speaker. I’ve given talks in venues of every shape and size, and if there is one thing you can bet on, you have no idea how visible your slides will be from the audience. Maybe the screen is small. Maybe it’s large, but the lighting is bad. Maybe it has some weird color issues that fade out part of your slides. You should be able to give your talk without the aid of slides.
  • Using a pointer. If you can’t count on slides being visible, then you shouldn’t plan on pointing to things in slides unless it is absolutely necessary. Especially when it comes to large venues, pointers are pretty much useless. Avoid them.
  • Having no voice inflection. This is one of the most common and annoying problems. The presenter will talk and talk and talk with no intonation or inflection in their speech. The speaker will just go on and on and on. It’s hard to know where a new thought starts and stops. Often, the only queue that a thought is over is when the speaker stops to click to the next slide. Vary your speech patterns. Don’t make it monotone.
  • Talking too quietly. Either due to the microphone setup or the speaker’s low volume, not having good sound can be a killer. As a listener, it’s frustrating to make out only parts of a talk and straining just to hear the words. Always use a mic if you are in front of more than 20-30 people. In my experience, most people think they talk loud enough not to need a mic — they don’t like the hassle of setting it up. Most people do not talk loud enough and should use a mic.
  • Having low energy. The crowd feeds off the energy of the speaker. If the speaker has low energy, it makes everyone want to take a nap. Having a lot of energy on stage can make up for many other issues.
  • Repeatedly stopping to ask for a time check. Losing track of time and asking someone to tell you if you are on schedule is bad form. You should always have a watch or time tracking device within eyeshot. This is often easier said than done. If you haven’t given a particular talk before or get questions from the audience, it’s easy to get off schedule. That’s why it is best to “leave questions until the end.”
  • Going over on time. Always end early! “That speaker sucked because he ended early” has never been said in the history of the internet. At a minimum, end on time. Never go over even if you are getting lots of good questions during the Q/A section. It’s better to leave them wanting more than to wear out the audience.
  • Too many filler words. Umm, ok, ah, uh. It takes a lot of practice to get rid of unconscious filler words that invade your speech. Filler words can range from being irritating to somewhat (but rarely) charming depending on their frequency and where they show up. Here are some tips to remove them.
  • Uninteresting content. Do you have boring material to cover? Can you spice it up in some way? Sometimes you are stuck with a topic that is less appealing, but you need to add humor, snark, or a good story that makes it more interesting. More on this later.
  • Too much selling. Unless your talk is supposed to be about your company or product, avoid selling. The best you can hope for is that you leave the audience with a good impression that leads them to want to look up your company or product later. We see enough ads in a typical day. Rarely do people want to sit through an hour long advertisement. Even when you are selling it shouldn’t feel like you are selling.
  • Too many slides. I was guilty in my early days of public speaking of trying to throw the kitchen sink of material at my audience. I wanted them to have ALL the information. It was too much. Focus. Focus. Focus. What is the goal of your talk? Just when you think you have the right amount of content, cut it by a third. Kill your darlings.

A good speaker entertains

A presentation consists of the delivery and the content. Form and function. Style and substance. You need both to have a good presentation, but if you could have only one, I’d say that your delivery style is more important. That may be controversial. Some may argue and suggest that style isn’t as important, it’s all about the content. You are trying to be informed and you can’t be informed without good content, right?

I’ll repeat, you want both. To be a good speaker you have to have both, but you are not always trying to inspire with a talk. Not every speaking situation is like a TED Talk where you are trying to share ideas worth spreading. In many situations, you are just trying to give an overview of a new technology. Or maybe you are trying to relay some information about how your company performed last quarter. Or perhaps you are giving an update on the new things your department has worked on. You can’t always be assured of speaking on an inspirational topic. You can, however, make up for that with a speaking style that is engaging.

I’ve seen it time and time again at conferences. Early in my career, I thought I had an engaged audience as I nervously walked through 50+ slides of a high-quality code tutorial. Then I’d see one of my more entertaining colleagues give a talk with a fraction of the content, but receive rave reviews and earn the highest speaker ratings. What I found is that on average, an audience member will appreciate a good laugh or good story more than a good bullet point.

Let’s review my list from the What can go wrong? section. Nine items are related to presenting style and three are related to content. While there is a lot more I can say about content dos and don’ts; there are more things that can go wrong with how you present than what you present. You could have the best content in the world, but if your delivery style is boring or annoying, the audience won’t stick around (physically or mentally) to get it.

Also, I’d argue that getting the content right is much easier than getting the delivery style right. You can work on the content late at night, on a plane, or with your headphones on in a cafe. It’s easy to tweak and improve. Your delivery style takes more effort. It’s hard to practice unless you are doing it in front of people. You can’t measure how well you are engaging an audience by visualizing a crowd. You need to be in front of one.

If you want your talk to be memorable, then you should try to be different. Stand out in some way. Try to connect with the audience in a unique way. You’ll have much more success transferring knowledge and ideas if you have the audience’s attention versus just spewing words at them. Conferences are filled with speakers that do a poor job and blend in. Stand out with humor or something controversial or a completely different way of presenting material.

How TED Talks

Fortunately, there is a great how-to guide if you want to learn how to be a good speaker. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking is an easy read that touches on all the key aspects of becoming a good public speaker. Chris Anderson has been helping people give compelling talks for many years, so he knows his stuff.

I like the TED Talk format: short with a focus on the speaker more than slides, and no podium to hide behind. Again, not every talk you need to give will be TED-style. Many times you need to present something more mundane. That’s ok. Most of the advice in the book is still applicable.

Another good resource is to listen to the talks mentioned in the TED Talk book and see Chris Anderson’s comments on each talk. If you learn best by example (as I do), this playlist will serve you well.

Becoming a good public speaker is within reach of anyone that is willing to put in the time. It doesn’t require any special skills, just lots and lots of practice. I’m an introvert by nature, but after enough practice, I got to the point where I feel comfortable in front of any crowd. You can too, but don’t expect to be polished after your first or second attempt. It takes years to perfect the craft.

This topic is of particular interest to me right now because I’m co-chairing CED Tech Venture this September 19–20. CTV is the largest venture conference in the Southeast and draws more investors than any other local conference. Drop me a note if you’re interested in entertaining and informing a big gathering of investors and entrepreneurs!

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