I recently attended a conference on matters high tech in the UK. Good conference overall, but one speaker was so awesomely bad that the experience nearly killed me – and the rest of the audience. I find bad speaking depressing. But insincere bad speaking is execrable.
The speaker was American, as I am, so I was ready to support him enthusiastically as he started; he was, after all, a fellow traveler. But he quickly squandered my good will by so ludicrously fulfilling the cliché of the Ugly American that I wanted to crawl under my uncomfortable conference chair and hide.
What struck me was that the mistakes he made came from a real attempt to follow some half-remembered rules of good speaking. He was particularly bad, not because he was simply boring or not present or had bad slides, but because he was trying so hard and missing the mark by just a little bit.
Maybe more than just a little.
He has inspired me to come up with five tips for giving a truly awful, no-good, hands-down horrendous speech.
1.Start over the top. This speaker began by walking to the middle of the stage and saying “I love you.” Attention-getting? Yes. But not in a good way. Too over the top for – especially – a tech audience. And it had very little to do with the speech that followed. You do need to grab attention at the beginning, but do it in a way that is relevant, tactful, and respectful of your audience.
2.Forget authenticity; just get to the sex and violence fast. The speaker then followed up this appalling start by telling a cringe-worthy anecdote about sex at Club Med. OK, not only did he miss his audience by a country mile (Club Med, really?), but the sexism offended everyone, male and female alike. If you’re going to spice up your talk by going to the edge of propriety, be very, very sure you know exactly where that edge is and what will amuse and what will offend.
3. Insult the audience’s intelligence. The speaker repeatedly told the audience that “you won’t take my advice, even though it’s great.” I suppose he was trying to shame us into following his (horrible) advice, but the result just started us thinking about all the ways in which we wouldn’t do what he asked. It’s great to get your audience involved and to give them lots of things to do and takeaways to act upon, but make them positive. Don’t go negative here.
4. Give the same speech to every audience. This speech might just barely have worked with a group of inebriated used car salespeople on a junket somewhere in deepest darkest Florida, say. But to an audience of European techies, it was nightmarish. The Scandinavians looked particularly bewildered by the speaker’s display of Lowest American Common Denominator. You have to research each of your audiences and understand what interests them, and what their standards are. You can’t assume that all audiences will be motivated in the same way, will listen in the same way, or will respond in the same way. Yes, you do want to give brand-consistent speeches. But you also need to be aware of the differences among your audiences.
5. Bribery makes a good action step. At the end of his speech, the speaker actually asked us to repeat what we had learned, as if we were in grade school and he was a particularly awful social studies teacher. To top it off, he offered us money for responding. I couldn’t resist – I raised my hand and got twenty pounds. But the offer of money was so jarring in the context of the conference that the speaker made his horrible, no-good, idiotic speech even worse. Yes, you want to interact with the audience. Yes, it’s good to close with action on the audience’s part. But don’t try something as manifestly insincere as bribery when you don’t have a strong relationship with an audience already established.
You will have noticed a theme: this speaker didn’t understand his audience. He cannot possibly have done his homework. Real passion in a speaker is always worth watching. But canned, insincere incompetence is horrifying.
The sad part is that the speaker’s examples, once he finally got to them, revealed a company that knew what it was doing and truly transformed the web pages it worked on. By then it was, of course, much, much too late.
I bought a decent bottle of wine with the twenty pounds. I needed to drown my sorrows.