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Five Public Speaking Mistakes and What To Do Instead

Want to improve your public speaking in 2020? It’s just as important to know what not to do, as it is to know what to do on stage. As TEDxMileHigh’s Content Producer, I review hundreds of talks each year, searching for the right ideas for our stage. Here are the top five most common public speaking mistakes we see and what you can do instead. Read on, and see if you can recall speeches you’ve done or heard in the past.

Five Public Speaking Mistakes

1. Your Topic is Too Broad

Ask your average speaker what their talk is about, and they’ll say something like “social media marketing” or “virtual reality.” But that could mean a million different things! Are we talking about Facebook or LinkedIn or Instagram? Are we talking about designing VR, or watching it?

Most speeches are way too broad. The speaker has no idea what they’re really talking about. As a result, the audience will leave with only a vague notion of their message. Or, as Harvey Diamond put it, “If you don’t know what you want to achieve in a presentation, the audience never will.” Yikes!

At TEDxMileHigh, we require speakers to summarize their message in one sentence. If you can’t summarize something in one sentence, you have more than one talk. Split it up, and pick one to focus on.

If you’re stuck, simply fill in this sentence: “I want the audience to know that _____.”

Check out these three talks that have clear, concise topics:

“I want the audience to know that sports journalism perpetuates racist stereotypes.”

“I want the audience to know that solitary confinement is torture.”

“I want the audience to know that getting out of a gang is easy, but staying out is hard.” 

2. Your Speech is Too Long

In 2019, TikTok reached 1.5 billion users, making it one of the fastest-growing social media channels on earth. If you have a pre-teen, teen, or college student in your life, I’m sure you’ve seen it. Do you know how long the videos are on TikTok? 60 seconds. 60 seconds! We live in an era of short attention spans.

But it’s not just our diminishing attention spans that are the problem: most speeches are simply too way long from a content perspective. 

Despite the common misconception that TED Talks are 18 minutes, TED now averages 12 minutes. And for good reason. It’s long enough to cover one idea, but not too long to drown the audience in the information. At TEDxMileHigh, speakers are assigned timeslots varying from 8-12 minutes. 

We even had a speaker do a 1-minute TEDx Talk! Have a watch. I’m pretty sure you have enough time.

So next time you’re preparing a speech, ask yourself: how long does this speech NEED to be? Most of the time, it’s much, much shorter than you think. You don’t need to beat the proverbial dead horse. Get to the point, and get out. The audience will thank you and event organizers will book you again!

3. Your Material is Too Advanced

Here’s another major misconception about TED and TEDx: in order to sound smart, you have to use fancy language, and talk about your subject at an advanced level. Not true! In fact, quite the opposite. I believe TED’s viral popularity is due to the fact that most talks are written in plain language and explain concepts at a very basic level. 

Think about it. In order for something to go viral, lots of people have to like and share it. That’s simply not going to happen with super-advanced material. 

How many Harry Potter books did you read while Infinite Jest sat untouched on your bookshelf? That’s what I thought.

At TEDxMileHigh, we routinely remind speakers to remove jargon and explain concepts in simple terms. Some speakers worry that they’re “dumbing down” their material. But, here’s the truth, from none other than Albert Einstein himself: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Check out these TEDxMileHigh talks about very complicated subjects explained in very simple terms:

Next time you’re speaking in public, share your script with someone who’s unfamiliar with the subject. If they can’t understand each and every sentence, simplify and clarify.

4. You Waste the Introduction

Remember Renee Zellweger’s classic line from Jerry Maguire: “You had me at hello!” Unfortunately, it’s the opposite for most public speakers. How many times have you sat in the audience as a speaker droned on for ten minutes, thanking the organizers or detailing their entire professional history?

If you think that’s boring when someone else does it, it’s boring when you do it. Or as Andrii Sedniev put it, “Always give a speech that you would like to hear.” 

We put a lot of effort into the first minute of every TEDxMileHigh talk. If you can rope in the audience for the first few minutes, you’ll have them hooked for the whole speech (that’s why we call it a hook!). If you lose them in the beginning, you’re likely to lose them for the whole thing.

Check out these TEDxMileHigh favorites with awesome hooks. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself still watching 10 minutes later! That’s the power of a great hook.

5. You Lose Momentum in the Conclusion

“All’s well that ends well” isn’t just a Shakespeare classic: it’s a good rule of thumb for public speaking. On the flip side, “All’s bad that ends badly.” We, humans, are biased to judge an experience based on how it ends. It’s so disappointing when you watch a great movie or read a great book, and then the ending sucks. The same is true of speeches.

Put as much effort into the end of your script as you would the beginning, and that is to say, more than the middle! So many people just throw up a “questions?” slide at the end. That won’t cut it. 

End with a bold statement, a vision for the future, or a rallying call-to-action. The audience will be on their feet in no time.

Check out these inspiring TEDxMileHigh conclusions:

Now What?

Don’t be disappointed if your speech falls into one or all of these categories. Like everything else, public speaking takes practice. One way to practice is to sign up for TEDxMileHigh’s auditions. Pro-tip: Use what you’ve learned in this article (especially #1) to write a great pitch. And, check out this article on What Makes a Great TED Talk for more TEDx talk tips.

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