Speakers do stupid things, like any other group of people.  The problem is that they subject whole audiences to boredom and, yes, pain as a result.  So it’s not only the speakers themselves who suffer.  In an effort to mitigate the suffering, here are 5 of the most egregious stupid speaker moves.  If you know someone who perpetrates these, tell them!  Stop them!  You’ll be doing the windowless meeting room world a huge favor. 

1.  You Can’t Read This, But…..

As regular readers of this blog will know, one of my particular pet peeves is badly done Power Point.  Well, the worst offense is all too common.  The speaker throws up a slide (I choose the phrase deliberately) and it contains a dozen lines of text, or a chart that has dozens of boxes, labels, and tiny data points.  Then the speaker says, “You can’t read this, but what it’s saying is…..”  If you know we can’t read it, why are you showing it to us?

2.  ‘Guess What’s In My Head’ Questions

There’s a truism in the legal world that you should never ask a witness a question to which you don’t know the answer.  I’m sure that’s good advice, but when you’re working with audiences, you should never ask a class of questions that involve haranguing the audience about things that you know better than they do.  “Why isn’t it a good idea to choose the red ones over the green ones?”  Questions of that sort are “gotcha” questions and they kill audience enthusiasm and participation.  Instead, ask open-ended questions about the audience’s experience.  “Which have you found work better in your life, the red ones or the green ones?”

3.  ‘It’s All About Me’ Introductions 

I have seen an astonishing number of speeches start with the speaker going into a 5 – 10 (15!) minute description of himself and his company.  That’s not only boring, it’s rude.  It’s bad enough in a conversation when someone you’ve just met insists on talking only about himself, but in front of an audience the offense is compounded because the audience has no escape options.  If you’re not going to be introduced by someone else, then begin the talk with a brief frame for why the topic is important to the audience.  Then, once you’ve established what’s in it for them, spend one or two minutes – no more – telling the audience very briefly why you’re passionate about the subject. 

4.  Sales Pitches Disguised as Presentations  

I was at a conference recently where one of my competitors was presenting the afternoon before I had the keynote address.  Naturally, I attended his talk, curious as to what he would talk about, and anxious not to repeat advice if he had already given it.  I was appalled to discover that all he talked about was advertising his business and what clients would get out of working with him.  “This is how our patented method for improving your company’s communications works….”  Once again, this is a rude and thoughtless way to proceed with a captive audience. 

5.  Not Waiting for the Audience

How many times have you sat in an audience and watched a speaker ask a question, only to answer it himself after waiting a nanosecond or two for a response.  Getting none, the speaker plows ahead, creating a perfect feedback loop that entirely eliminates the need for the audience.  Why ask questions if you’re not interested in what the audience thinks?  People often ask me how long they should wait, and the answer is 6 full seconds.  If you count 6 seconds out in your head, by the time you get to the end of that seemingly interminable sequence, someone will speak.  Promise.  Don’t answer your own questions.  You’re just telling the audience it doesn’t need to be there. 

That’s my list for today.  I confess to having committed one or two of these myself, partly why I know them so well.  What stupid speaker tricks have you, ahem, witnessed?  Friends don't let friends make these mistakes!   


  1. Thanks Nick — these 5 not-to-do tasks are the least that most speakers can “not” do — even better, whatever you suggest will not take them a minute longer to accomplish. In fact they can do things sooner!

  2. Re: #3 – I went to a presentation by a leader in the field, excited to be able to hear her speak in person. I was hanging on every word when she started with, “Every time I speak to people, individually and in groups, they always ask me the same question…” wondering what brilliant knowledge she would share to answer this burning question… and then the question turned out to be “How did I get into this field?” I should have left right then. Awful. She droned on for what seemed like forever. And the rest of the presentation stunk, too. Thanks for letting me vent!

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