Why Do Good People Give Bad Speeches? 7 Lame Excuses

bad speechesI still don’t get it. Why do good, smart people still give bad speeches and presentations? It boggles the mind.

It’s not like we haven’t been shown how it’s done. Examples of great speeches abound, from Martin Luther King to Steve Jobs to the latest TED Talks. But for some reason, we don’t absorb the obvious lessons.

We step up to the podium and subject audiences to Death by PowerPoint: dense, wordy slides, unfocused content, lackluster delivery, and a multitude of other presentation sins.

One of the biggest issues is one I’ve written about before: we cheat on our audience with a one-size-fits-all presentation designed for the people who aren’t in the room.

That’s why you get those awful, ugly slide decks packed full of text. Not only are they terrible to look at, but the audience is reading the slides when they should be listening to the speaker … So your first priority is to design a presentation for the people who are right there with you. That means your slides should act only as visual accompaniment, providing support for the words you say.

Here are some of the common excuses I’ve heard for delivering a sub-par presentation and why they don’t hold water.

1. A Captive Audience Has to Listen to a Mediocre Presentation

A client once explained that because the meeting we were preparing for was mandatory for employees, we would have a “captive audience.”

Of course, being physically in the room and being mentally present are two entirely different things—especially with the world of distractions offered by our cell phones.

So don’t take people’s attention for granted. Treat them like you would a paying audience. Seek not just to inform, but to entertain.

2. This is “Need to Know” Information

Okay, let’s stipulate that you have vital news to share—a sure way to make money or important changes to your employees’ benefits. Even if that’s true, you’re certainly not the only source of that information.

You’re competing against Google and the grapevine and countless other channels. So again, don’t count on their undivided attention.

3. My Subject Matter Is Dull

It’s true that few of us get the opportunity to, say, unveil the new iPad to the world or announce that we’re donating half a billion dollars to fight AIDS.

Most presentations are more along the lines of pitching business to a prospect, explaining a new policy to employees or justifying a budget to a boss.

But that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. There are any number of small things you can do to enliven your content:

  • Try telling a relevant story.
  • Use metaphors and comparisons to make abstract numbers meaningful.
  • Get the audience involved with some interaction, directed dialogue or role- playing.

And, of course, whatever the topic, you should put conviction and even passion behind your words. After all, if you’re not convinced that the subject is important, how do you expect your audience to care?

4. My Ideas Aren’t Visual

You may not think your concepts lend themselves to exciting visuals, but with a little imagination it can be done.

Seth Godin wrote a great treatise called Really Bad PowerPoint in which he said:

Talking about pollution in Houston? Instead of giving me four bullet points of EPA data, why not read the stats but show me a picture of a bunch of dead birds, some smog, and even a diseased lung?

Get creative. What’s the emotional core of your message? When I wanted to make a point about confronting unpleasant tasks, I went though images of dirty dishes and unwashed laundry before settling on a stalk of broccoli.

Browse stock photography sites for ideas or take your own photos.

5. I’m Better When I Wing It

Really? Are you sure?

As a trained improviser and an impatient audience member, I assure you that you can do better with some preparation.

Presentation expert Nancy Duarte practiced a full hour for every minute of one her TED Talks. Are you better than she is? Watch this talk of hers then get back to me. (You’ll also get some more great lessons on public speaking.)

6. I Don’t Have Time

Lack of time, of course, is the mother of all excuses. Allow me to quote Lao Tzu, the ancient father of Taoism:

Time is a created thing. To say ‘I don’t have time,’ is like saying, ‘I don’t want to.’

Put another way, if it’s important, you’ll make the time for it.

7. The Stakes Aren’t That High

At this point, you may be saying, “I’m not giving a TED Talk, I’m just presenting to Phyllis and her team in accounting.”

If that’s the case—if it’s just not that important—consider sending an email or memo instead. There’s a whole world of communication options out there.

But if it’s a big event or a big sale and you have a lot riding on the outcome—your business or your reputation—then isn’t it worth the time and effort to get it right?

And if it’s not worth getting it right, why bother to give the speech at all? The world will be just fine without another dull, ordinary presentation.

Photo Credit: Neal. via Compfight cc

(A version of this post originally ran on the Spin Sucks blog.)