Communication Rebel Blog

5 Horrible Pieces of Public Speaking Advice (and What to Do Instead)

Have you ever gotten a piece of bad advice?

Once I gave a speech about leaving a great job in paradise to pursue happiness in my personal life, and a piece of feedback I got was “You should wear a grass skirt and coconut bra when you give this speech.”

There's about a million reason WHY I didn't take that advice, but it shows that not all public speaking advice is created equally.

Bad public speaking adviceThe Internet is full of horrible tips that won't improve your speaking. Here is my top 5 bad speaking tips list and what you should do instead.

Picture your audience naked

Unless your audience is filled with Channing Tatum or Angelina Jolie types, this piece of advice is going to unnerve you (or if the audience is filled with beautiful people it's going to be highly distracting).

Picturing your audience naked is supposed to help you feel that the audience is as vulnerable as you are as the speaker. It's intended to ease your nerves, but it doesn't help. It just makes you feel weird.

If you want to picture anything, visualize your presentation. Visualize stepping on the stage with your nerves working for you and giving a great presentation.

Practice in front of a mirror

Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the fairest of them all?

Not you. Now, stop practicing in front of the mirror.

Why shouldn't you gaze upon your reflection as you practice your speech? Easy. This turns the focus of the presentation on you and makes you self-conscious.

Pretty soon you'll be more focused on the way your nose smooshes up when you say the word “onomatopoeia” instead of being concerned with connecting with the audience and getting your message across.

Want tips for making practicing a bit less awkward? Click to get my No Sweat Speech Prep guide to practice your presentation in less time and ease your mind.

Start with a joke

Is your name Jimmy Fallon? How about Billy Cosby? Perhaps you're Billy Murray? If you're not, then starting your presentation with a joke is a bad idea.

Audiences remember most what they hear first. If your joke bombs, your listeners are going to remember you flopping. If the jokes offends, well that is even worse.

Additionally, you're most nervous at the beginning of a presentation. Telling a joke puts a ton of pressure on you to perform. Why put that kind of pressure on yourself?

Instead tell a story, ask a question that gets the audience involved

Tell the audience you're nervous, drunk, hung over, etc.

The belief is if you come clean about the fact that you're nervous or had bad personal news before the presentation that this will humanize you and endear you to the audience.

It actually makes people think you are making excuses about why you didn't bring your A-game to the presentation. Your nerves will dissipate. You'll be able to rally to give a great presentation despite the fact you're tired or hungover.

You don't want to give a world class presentation then have your audience leave wondering “hmm…I wonder how much better that could have been if she hadn't been so nervous.”

Do NOT look them in the eyes – the forehead will do

At a networking event, one woman told me “The best piece of speaking advice I ever got was to look at the audience members forehead. I never feel nervous because I don't look at them.”

I hated to break it to her that the WHOLE audience knows you're not looking at them. I can totally tell when someone is NOT looking me in the eye. I bet you can too.

Better advice – pick a couple of members of the audience who you are comfortable making eye contact (these are your SAM – Spectacular Audience Members) with and focus on them. Then as you get more comfortable, start making eye contact with more members of the audience.

Don't be a victim of bad speaking advice that is bound to freak you out and make your audience frown. Not everything you read on the Internet is great advice. Trust an expert (like me…that Ph.D. in Communication pays off) or ask your coach.

We've talked about bad public speaking advice, but what was the BEST piece of advice you've ever received? Leave it in the comments section below.

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  • Great points, and such advice we hear often. I swear I can always tell when a speaker is looking over my head or at my forehead. Great speakers lock eyes, even for just a fleeting moment.

    • Looking at someone in the eyes (even for a moment) is connection. Eye contact keeps the audience engaged. You miss out on making a connection when a speaker looks just above your head.

  • Great point about the “start with a joke” reference! It takes a little time to build rapport with an audience and that’s when a joke can be much more effective.

  • Carly Wennogle (@CarlyWinter)

    First, lovely post Michelle. I’m a huge believer in storytelling (versus jokes)! But I think the best advice I’ve gotten is KISS (keep it simple stupid). When you’re concise you make room for digestion– not to mention it’s much easier to get your message across in a pointed manner.

    • Thanks Carly! KISS (such a great advice and a good rock band too). I’ve noticed a tendency among speakers to try to squeeze everything in and that just results in confusion in the audience.

  • Dinah

    Great post Michelle,
    Some of the best advice I’ve been given is to slow down. No matter how slowly I think I’m going, still slow down. It’s proved to be right so many times and feedback often includes that people found me clear and easy to understand.
    Loved your post,

    • Thank you Dinah! You and I are fellow members in what I like to call the “fast talker society.” It’s funny that in our heads we think we are going so very slow, but to the listener we are speed demons.

  • Sunrise Guided Visualizations

    Hello! A couple of things – “looking at the forehead” is not advice for great public speaking, but it is great advice for those who are so nervous they cannot otherwise perform. Have some compassion for those for whom public speaking is not fun, as it may be for the rest of us.

    The best advice was a story I heard about a famous magician, but I don’t know who — each night, in the wings before the performance, he would say aloud to himself: “I love my audience. I LOVE my audience! I LOVE MY AUDIENCE!” And he would go out and give a great show. Because it’s true — and he created that connection. The audience became friends that he had simply not yet met.

    • As as someone who started off as a terrified speaker, my speech coach in high school told me that I would never improve if I didn’t look at the audience. He’s right.

      It’s far better to find your SAM (Spectacular Audience Member). Your SAM is going to give you confidence. They are going to be happy to see you. They are the one who is cheering you on and smiling. Looking at someone’s forehead is not going to give you the same level of support as finding your SAM. Even if you plant your SAM beforehand, you’ll make a connection with that person that is going to allow even the most shy speaker to gradually make connections with other people in the audience and gain confidence. Plus, it eliminates the bad habit of not looking at people in the eyes. Speaking is about connection. The eyes are how we connect.

      I love the “I love my audience” attitude. Going in with that attitude makes it easier to find your SAM and sets you up to serve the audience (or in the magician’s case entertain). I’m going to use this one!

      • Dave Marsteller

        I couldn’t agree more with both of your points Dr. Michelle! 🙂

        But the key is the words the Sunrise GV used…

        but it is great advice for those who are so nervous they cannot otherwise perform…

        The forehead advice is used for STAGE ACTORS/Opeartic performers in an Opera who must NOT connect with the audience because to do so breaks theatrical convention in really distracting and heinously awful ways.

        When we are sharing a REAL part of ourselves in a presentation, speech or shared experience–we can’t be acting!

        It has to be real–and it has to be us… 🙂 Thus why your advice, dear and Good Dr. Mazur, is absolutely correct… and the other is misapplied.

    • Nervousness for new speakers is understood by all, but the best approach is to jump in and engage. It’s hard for a lot of new presenters to understand, but the vast majority of the audience wants you to succeed (who wants to sit through a bad presentation). Make brief eye contact around the room and you’ll find the SAMs Michelle is talking about, and you’ll make some new friends along the way!

  • Dan

    Hey Michelle,

    Great advice about poor advice! Couldn’t agree more. I talk about all these things in my public speaking class, especially the naked audience thing…it’s just creepy! Keep up the great work.

    • Dan – picturing an audience members naked is the creepiest advice ever!!!

  • Michelle, very useful advice. Here’s one that I have found helps to get the eyes, the voice and the gestures – the energy – flowing to the audience: the word “you.” The more that word is in the content, the more connected the speaker is to the audience in every way.

  • Great advice, can I add one? Test your presentation in front of a bunch of kids (I do with mine), they’ll give honest feedback!

    • Good suggestion. Since I don’t have kids, I test mine in front of my cats…they aren’t at all helpful. 🙂

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