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.



    1. Agreed, David — though I can understand the conference organizer’s failure to discriminate a little better if the speech was a freebie and the company had a good rep. Still…..where was the video of the speaker?

    2. I would have to agree. The organizer should’ve taken a look at the speaker’s previous engagements. If this guy is so bad, I would bet that the other videos prove the point.

    3. It’s easy to think ‘should have done my homework’, but the fact os that many mediocre speakers are quite skilled at bluster and bluff when it comes to landing engagements.

      1. Alan — thanks for your comment. There are several steps to being a successful speaker, and one of them is sales. Obviously, our subject was better at that than the other thing — oh, yes, speaking.

      2. I agree… there are plenty of speakers that I have seen in a very short video or interaction, then when they had to deliver a longer speech… there was no depth. They had 3 minutes of content… and nothing else.

        I know another speaker who has 45 minutes of brilliant content… but you have to get him off stage before questions… because he has nothing else… he is a brilliant actor delivering a script… but not a human being sharing his life experience.

        I am sorry for your pain! However, it made me reflect on something I read once about being a writer: “keep a copy of the first really terrible published book that you read… it shows that you could be a writer… this is the most important book in the life of a future author… the book that proves that you can”

  1. Oh no! Isn’t it awful to watch someone be so unaware and embarrass himself? It’s hard to imagine someone being so clueless, but they are certainly out there. (If I’m honest, I’m dying to see a video of this train wreck.)

      1. Austin, thanks for your comment. One can only hope. I didn’t feel I could, since I am a speech coach — I didn’t want to appear to be plumping for business.

    1. Hi, Susan —

      Unfortunately, the conference wasn’t videotaping! Alas, indeed — it would have been priceless (for educational purposes).

    1. Hi, Warren —

      I love that episode! I used it in speaking seminars for a while, but people actually found it too horrible to watch:-)

    2. Feel like I should have watched the Office series – this was hilarious! Thanks for sharing.

      The fine line in all of this is exposing who the bombed speaker is – in the industry we are quick to share who is great but never cross the politically correct line of saying who bombed. Then it’s hard to expect that this fellow won’t sell his way onto another stage in the near future making another unsuspecting meeting planner crawl in a hole.

      1. Thanks, Allison, for your comment. Hmmmmm — name and shame, eh? That might take it from funny to actionable….I don’t know..What do other people think?

  2. Not sure Name and Shame is a good idea, you could crush someone’s career and maybe he was just having a bad day, but merely pointing out the catch 22. This level of bombing could ultimately mean another meeting planner gets sucked in and lose his/her job after booking him. I have lived my life taking the high road and believing ultimately the cream of the crop rising to the top, the challenge is the people who are good at sales and not at the speaking profession risk making us all look bad! Not sure the answer – the question is does an audience have the responsibility to protect other audiences? stereotypically, in Canada we are way too polite to ever oust someone!

  3. What a terrible speech, especially at the beginning when he expressed his/her love to the audience, i know its a technique to get the audience attention and also relate to them in a way, but i truly believe that people aren’t falling for this anymore, it desperate.

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