Six Common (But Overlooked) Speaking Mistakes

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When having to get up in front of a group to present, it’s always important to remember, know and master the basics of what makes a presentation great (those include structure, knowing your content, making eye contact, hand gestures, etc…).

There is no doubt about it, the big things that will take a presentation from good to great are critical at every level in your professional development. While you’re at it, it’s also important to remember the little things that make even bigger differences. Sometimes fixing up and focusing on a few of the little things can also take your presentations to the next level.

Here are six common (but often overlooked) speaking mistakes: 

  1. Hands in the pockets. Speakers tend to think that keeping their hands in their pockets helps make them looked relax. From an audience perspective it doesn’t. In fact, hands in the pockets registers in the audience’s mind as someone who is hiding something or is not that interested in being there.
  2. Leaning on the podium. This one if very similar to #1. Again, the speaker feels like if they lean on the podium it’s demonstrating a level of comfort, when in reality it gives off the aura that the speaker is tired, bored or just plain lazy. I’ve never seen a great speaker who leans on a podium.
  3. Crossing your arms. Even if it’s freezing on stage or you’re just trying to demonstrate your presence, crossing your arms closes you off from the audience. It’s amazing what open arms and keeping your heart open and in the direction of your audience can do for your presentation presence. Crossing your arms is almost as bad as turning your back to the audience.
  4. Repeating content you already discussed because it’s on another slide. This is one of the reasons many people are calling for the death of PowerPoint presentations. A presentation is a time to tell a story and share information you have with an audience. If you’ve already covered off a point, but that same point shows up later in the PowerPoint presentation, feel free to skip over that point entirely. Some speakers will say things like, "even though, I have covered this before…" and then proceed to repeat themselves. The audience is smart. If you make a point and it shows up later in the presentation again, please skip it. The audience will appreciate you more for not belabouring a finished thought.
  5. Speaking to the slide. Some speakers love their slides just a little too much. Don’t ever say things like, "this is an interesting slide," or "I really like the content on this slide." You’re in the middle of presenting valuable content. No one cares about what you think about the slide, they care about your content, you and the story.
  6. Using the slide as the content and not as the visual support. Always remember that the slide is not the content. You are. The slide is there as a visual support to your content and stories. It’s there to enhance your voice and presence through graphics, images and words. Better yet, consider your slide visual anchors that will help people to remember the content that is coming out of your mouth.

Do you have any additional common (but overlooked) speaking mistakes to add?


  1. The No 1 mistake I see is presenters trying to cover too much in their presentation. A presentation is a very poor medium for conveying lots of information. It’s a great medium for convincing your audience of a single message.

  2. Ignoring the Audience is the biggest mistake I see speakers make. Often they haven’t tailored the presentation to the audience and it sounds “canned”. A good speaker also scans the audience to see how well she is being received and adapts on the fly.

  3. Forgetting to use the washroom before hitting the stage. Seriously. Nothing is worse the not being able to concentrate. ๐Ÿ™‚ Has only happened to me once. Maybe it isn’t THAT common.

  4. Mitch… having seen you present a few times, public speaking is one of the areas in which I have the most respect for you. These points are spot-on.
    My main suggestion relates very closely to point #6 above, but to be more explicit: crowded slides.
    There’s nothing worse than sitting through a presentation full of slides crowded with text. If you have that much that you feel HAS to be in writing, create a handout.
    People are there to hear you speak, not to hear you read.
    It’s so basic that you probably don’t even think about it any more, Mitch, but I see a lot of people who make that mistake all the time.

  5. Mitch
    You have some great tips here. Thanks!
    One other thing I’d add is that if you’re planning on using YouTube clips to augment the presentation, be sure to preload them ahead of time, so that there’s no delay due to buffering. Or even better, download the clips using something like Tooble,tv. That way, you don’t have to rely on an internet connection at all.
    I’ve shared some additional tips (mostly for my students) at my blog Public Relations Matters:
    Barbara Nixon
    Assistant Professor of Public Relations
    Georgia Southern University

  6. I think you’ve probably covered this, but I feel compelled to state it explicitly: Don’t read your slides. If that’s what you’re planning to do, you could just send the deck ahead of time and not bother showing up.

  7. As a member of Toastmasters I should be able to add more to this list… but I think you’ve hit some really key things.
    I’ve also heard things like “no objects in pockets” which could be both visually and audibly distracting.
    Eye contact is probably a no-brainer.
    Here’s an interesting tidbit: in Toastmasters we are taught never to say “thank you” at the end of a speech. The theory behind that is that it is the audience who should be thanking for presenting. What do you think about that, Mitch?

  8. Mark, no stuff in pockets is another great (and subtle one) that should be on this list. Watching a wallet or cell phone protrude from someone’s pants is a distraction. Don’t even get me started on keys and loose change.
    As for saying, “thank you”… I’m not sure. I have no issue with thanking the audience for giving me the opportunity to connect and meet with them. I appreciate them as much as they (hopefully) enjoy the content.

  9. Yeah, I know what you are saying about thanking the audience. Heaven forbid if I were ever given the opportunity to speak at, say, TED or something like that. In a situation like that, I’d definitely be thanking the audience AND the organizers!

  10. Two things that I have noticed about public speaking is the over usage of “ummm” between statements and the over usage of one word/phrase in speakers. I have seen some incredible speakers who are brilliant in their fields, however, seem to be stuck around a phrase that is repeated throughout their presentation. Having somebody who will be constructively critical of your presentations before you go live, can help flush out some of this repeats.

  11. The “me me me” speaker – someone who talks only about themselves, their accomplishments, their qualifications, their experience. Boring, frustrating, annoying…
    A speaker needs to deliver valuable content to their audience. If a speaker takes the time to research WHO they’re speaking to, WHY these individuals at the event, and WHAT they expect to get out of the presentation, and then structure their content to address these needs and interests, their experience and qualifications will come through automatically. Plus, the audience will truly appreciate a speaker who’s taken the time to gear content especially for them.
    And one more thing…don’t go over time. No one wants to stay late because a speaker didn’t prepare enough to stay within their time limits.

  12. I’ll add a few more into the mix:
    You mention don’t lean on the podium – I’d expand that to “work the stage.” It really does make a difference when a speaker combines some movement on the stage/in the room with making eye contact and engaging the audience (as was mentioned in an earlier comment). It helps express emotion and excitement. A bit of an extreme example, but how boring would it be if Bono sat still when singing each song.
    Another would be to involve the audience – throw out a question, have them raise hands, get them to identify with the topic and see that others share similar experiences or thoughts.

  13. Excellent points made by all. As a speaker and audience member, I always appreciate a bit of humor within the speech. This usually helps the audience connect with the speaker, and if you’re nervous, or a first time speaker, it might put you at ease. The best speakers tell a story and can relate it to the content.

  14. All the above are great tips. Here are 2 additional suggestions:
    1. The first impression is very important so you better look the part.
    2. Do not answer a question from an audience member if you are not certain of the answer (avoid giving half an answer or turning around the subject without answering really the question). Instead say that it is a very good question, that you are aware of the subject but would rather do some researches on it and get back to him/her via email.

  15. I would just say that some good clips to break the rythm, and keep the interest are always good for me
    and humor i agree is a very good connector

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