True confession: Several years ago a couple colleagues and I were informed by our board of directors that our speaking and presentation skills could use some improvement. The board was kind enough not to specifically say that we were bad speakers and presenters. At that time, poor speaking skills hindered our ability to get others passionate about our innovative ideas and products.

For me this spurred a personal and professional transformation that was painful, but also important and timely. I’m happy to report that with some coaching and a lot of practice I‘m now competent, and I frequently speak and present to customers, at conferences, to professional and social groups, and most recently I was invited to provide a guest lecture to a graduate course at NC State University.

As a recovering bad speaker I’m very attuned to the mechanics of speaking and presenting. When a speaker captures my attention, I ask myself why. Conversely, when a speaker has me ready to shoot myself I ask myself what they could have done differently. Here are some of the common mistakes I see.

Mistake #1: Bad Technique

I listed this category first because it contains the most common errors. A great speaker could read the phone book and make it engaging, while a bad speaker can ruin great material. Here’s how they do it.

  • Ums, uhs and other verbal crutches. This sin is almost universal among new speakers. Also, most people have no idea how often they say like, you know and right.
  • Lack of pauses. Bad speakers pummel the audience with a torrent of words. They don’t realize the power of silence. A pause alerts the audience that you just said something important. It also gives you a chance to formulate your next words.
  • Annoying mannerisms. Bad speakers make things worse with their bodies. Throat clearing, extraneous hand movement, pacing back and forth, and facing the screen all serve to irritate the audience.
  • Monotone delivery. Many people do not get enough sleep. That’s no reason to try to help them catch up during your presentation by lulling them to sleep by droning away.

Cure: Practice presenting while being recorded (you can use your smart phone). You’ll see/hear exactly what you need to fix and can then remedy these faults. After that it’s practice, practice and practice.

Mistake #2: Bad Material

It’s bad enough that people rely on PowerPoint to carry their message. Using bad PowerPoint slides adds insult to injury. Here’s how:

  • Bad topic. What makes a topic bad? The most commons mistake is having a topic that is not appropriate for the audience in terms of knowledge or interest. Attendees at a conference on cloud computing probably don’t want to hear about LTE deployments. Know your audience!
  • Wordy slides and excessive detail. Even with a good topic, bad speakers can destroy it with way too much detail and/or by reading the slides. By the third slide nobody in the audience knows or cares what’s being said. Remember that a talk or presentation is almost always best when given at a high level, and your slides are not a script.
  • Bad organization. At the end of a poorly organized presentation the audience will feel as if they just went on a tour of the Winchester Mystery House. Inside is a maze of dead-end stairs, doors that open into a 20-foot drop, and windows facing interior walls. At the end of the tour you’re glad to be back outside. Likewise with a rambling presentation.
  • Lack of examples, anecdotes or stories. Bad speakers fail to periodically re-engage the audience with relevant examples or amusing anecdotes. Interesting stories need only be tangentially related to the subject matter to serve as a means to wake up a sleepy audience.

Cure: Carefully pick your topic, limit your material and simplify your slides.

Mistake #3: Bad Timing

  • Alloted time is too long. This may seem like the fault of the event planner rather than the speaker. My view is that you are in charge of your slot. I’ve been invited to speak for an hour on a topic that I felt was only worth 20 or 30 minutes and I refused to go longer. Instead, I arranged for a complementary topic with additional speakers. The result was much better for everyone.
  • Failure to finish on time. I attend a lot of conferences, and the schedules are usually very tight. Speakers who fail to meet their timeline can throw off an entire half day of sessions. Hit your marks!
  • Rushing to cover too much material. Bad presenters wildly underestimate how long it takes to fully present a slide. As a result, they prepare too much material and feel compelled to present it. I usually allow two minutes per slide, which is twice the time many recommend.

Cure: Practice giving your presentation using a timer. If you’re running close to the allotted time, cut some slides.

Choose to Be Great

Now that I’ve shared what not to do, all you have to do is the opposite – and practice! Think about how muscle memory kicks in after the right sort of physical repetition. With plenty of practice you’ll develop your own speaking muscle memory – and confidence.

I’m always working to improve my speaking and presenting skills. You can catch me next at TM Forum Live in Nice on May 9 at 4:55 p.m. I’ll be sharing my views on the real-world progress of network functions virtualization.