(This blog is based on the talk I gave at the opening of the Public Words Speaker Forum, June 11-12, 2010.)

Why is most public speaking – especially in the business world – so awful?  And how can we raise the bar, which is set distressingly low.  I think there are three principal reasons. 

First, speakers make it about themselves, and their information.  Too many speeches are data dumps.  But the oral genre is an ineffective format for dumping information.  We only remember 10 – 30 percent of what we hear in speeches. 

And of course, because public speaking is a self-conscious activity, speakers naturally focus on themselves.  Often from the best of intentions, speakers try to tell the audience everything they know on the subject (whatever it is).  They’ve prepared exhaustively, thinking that they have to know everything and are not allowed to say, “I don’t know,” in response to an audience question. 
Second, speakers fail to focus on the passion – something they really care about – and so the emotion doesn’t come through, either in the text of the speech, or the delivery.  As a result, presentations are too often boring.  Whether it comes from a mistaken belief that passion is out of place in business, or simply a fear of opening up, the lack of passion makes all too many speeches unbearable. 

Third, there’s Power Point.  Too many people use Power Point as a speaker outline, asking their audiences to read the slides along with them.  That’s idiotic, off-putting, and counter-productive.  And it happens every day.  Probably every hour of every day somewhere in the world. 

What are the alternatives to each of these grave public speaking offenses? 

First, make your speech a journey that you take the audience on – to what you want them to do differently.  Audiences come into a speech asking why – why is this important, why should I care, and so on.  If you answer that question for them, they’re happy and they move on to asking how – how can I get started, how can I make this my own, etc.  The ancient Greeks understood this well, and suggested a good speech should start with a problem the audience has and then lead to a solution.  If you do that well, you will move your audience to action. 

Second, make the speech both an intellectual and emotional journey.  To change our minds, we need to have both intellect and emotions engaged.  Telling stories is the best way to engage the emotions of the audience, since we respond easily to stories with characters that we can identify with. 

Third, use Power Point sparingly, and only for images and video.  Images and video both can convey emotion and clarify, for example, complicated data and concepts.  The goal should always be to simplify.  What’s the one point you want to make?  Make that and get off the stage.

When you do that, it’s fun for everyone, and it’s fun for you – and that’s the Zen insight for success in public speaking:  it’s not about the speaker, it’s about the audience.  That’s the way to move an audience to action and the way to change the world. 


  1. I enjoyed your post. You are right about those powerpoint presentations. Too many would have been better written in word and emailed to the audience.
    And you included some zen insight too.

  2. Blimey, BIG question!
    There are loads of reasons why business presentations suck! The biggest one, though, I believe, is the same reason that most people aren’t any good at golf! They’ve never had any training! The people who are great at golf, practice, they have lessons and (crucially) they enjoy playing it! Shouldn’t come as a surprise that it’s the same with presenting!
    In a business context an organisation will think nothing about asking an employee to give a presentation (but ironically wouldn’t dream of getting them to play at a client golf day) without giving them any training.
    Unfortunately most people start, not with their audience in mind, but by opening up Microsoft PowerPoint*! This fantastic presentation tool then becomes an auto-cue for the speaker (rather than a visual aid for the audience) allowing them to turn away to read out loud their pre-prepared script. This breaks eye-contact – an essential way of connecting with an audience – who, by the way, hate being read to!
    Speakers who know they’re not very good are understandably nervous and this means that any passion that they have can be well hidden. Those speakers who don’t have any passion for the subject on which they speak shouldn’t present at all!
    *There are alternatives to using PowerPoint – Apple’s Keynote and the humble flip-chart. See http://newtrickstraining.wordpress.com/ for advice on both.

  3. Hi, Ken —
    Thanks for your great comment. You’re absolutely right about Power Point being used incorrectly as speaker notes, and that becoming a barrier to the audience. It’s something I’ve blogged about often. When PP is used as a crutch, bad things happen.
    And I love your point about speakers who don’t have passion shouldn’t present — there ought to be a law!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.