Sally is a business communications coach who gives workshops on how to keep your professional reputation squeaky-clean and drama-free.
The difference between a good speech and an awful speech is often determined within the first few moments after a speaker takes the stage. The manner in which the speech giver delivers his opening lines will set the tone for the rest of the speech.
If you want your audience to be warm and receptive to what you have to say, then be sure to avoid these ten worst ways to begin a speech!
1. Not preparing ahead of time: Ralph Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters International, a renowned speaking and leadership training organization said, “The unprepared speaker has a right to be afraid.”
Don’t even think about starting your speech without having done any planning or preparation! Even if you were told you were doing a speech 10 minutes before the curtains part, that’s 10 minutes of time you can spend drafting a quick outline of your speech and jotting down some key points. If you’ve had more than 10 minutes to prepare your speech and you didn’t bother to use that time wisely, you don’t need tips on how to be better speaker, you need time management advice!
2. Apologizing: There’s a time and place to say sorry. When you’ve made a mistake that hurts someone else, when an error has harmed another party, or when you’ve been rude and impolite, by all means, express your regret. But apologizing at the beginning of your speech for any other reason will simply draw attention to an issue that your audience might not have noticed to begin with.
If you feel the urge to apologize, try re-framing the apology by expressing appreciation to your audience instead. For example, rather than saying, “Sorry I am late!” say, “Thank you for being so patient!”
3. Approaching the stage with low energy, poor posture, and aloof body language: You don’t have to bound onto the stage and yell out loud to energize your audience. But you do need to move forward with a confident stride and a spring in your step. If you’re delivering a eulogy at a funeral, of course your body language is going to be more subdued as you begin your speech. But for almost all other occasions, approach the speaking area with energy and enthusiasm.
4. Starting your speech with the word “so”: So, how is everyone doing tonight?...So, I was on my way to the store the other day...So, let’s get started! The word so shouldn’t be used to start your speech. It's a weak opening and much too casual for anyone who wants to be taken seriously as a professional speaker.
5. Technical difficulties: Although this list of the worst ways to begin a speech is in no particular order, technical mess-ups at the start of a presentation are at the top of my list of pet peeves about unprepared speakers. Sure, you can’t control every glitch that happens when you launch your audio-visual display—a power outage caused by a storm is beyond your control. But for all other mix-ups, arriving early before your speech begins and testing all the equipment ahead of time is definitely within your control.
6. Not knowing your audience: The best speakers and entertainers are the ones who've done their research ahead of time and have a good understanding of who's in the room. Having a good grasp of your audience demographics, from age to gender to profession, will help ensure a smooth start your speech. Imagine how embarrassing it would be to ask a room full of people recovering from hip surgery to stand up and stretch. Or how about making a bold statement about climate change to an audience composed of workers from the energy sector struggling to hold onto their jobs. The more you know about your audience ahead of time, the more confident you will be when you begin your speech.
7. Saying “I’m not an expert, but...”: If you are not an expert on a particular subject but are about to make a grand---and possibly incorrect---pronouncement on the matter anyway, saying you are not an expert doesn’t waive your responsibility to your audience to deliver a speech that is accurate and well researched. On the other hand, if you just want to express an opinion, then state that what you are about to present is your opinion. Better yet, instead of prefacing your speech with any type of preamble, just launch right into your speech. Your audience is free to accept or reject your ideas whether or not you are an expert.
8. Starting with “My name is _____”: If the first thing you feel compelled to do is to tell the audience your name then something has gone wrong in the run-up to your speech. Your audience should already know your name. It should be in the program and in all the promotional materials leading up to your speech. The emcee or host of the event should have already given the audience a brief three to four sentence introduction as you were brought to the stage. But what if the emcee doesn’t know you, you ask. It doesn’t matter. You should have already prepared an introduction for the emcee that tells the audience who you are and the general-purpose or title of your speech. One of the worst things that can happen just before you begin your speech is for the person introducing you to crack a bad joke at your expense, mispronounce your name, are give incorrect information about your topic. By providing a tight, well-crafted introduction to the presenter ahead of time, you are managing your image and your personal brand.
9. Telling an offensive joke: Often when people are nervous about giving a speech, they turn to humor as a way to break the ice and ease their anxiety. Indeed, when done properly, generating some light laughter can be a way to warm an audience up and put them in a good mood. But whatever you do, don’t start your speech with an offensive joke. In fact, don’t tell any offensive jokes during your speech. Take the high road and treat your audience with respect. If you must make a joke, make it a self-deprecating one. It will show that you're human, just like your audience. Gently making fun of yourself is a great way to boost your relatability factor.
10. Eating and drinking the wrong things before your speech: It’s not a good idea to start a speech on an empty stomach or with a parched throat. A grumbling tummy and a dry mouth will distract you and impact your performance on stage. But not all food and drink is created equal when it comes to what you munch on and sip before you start talking. Avoid dairy products; milk, yogurt, cheese, even cream in your coffee can cause excess phlegm in your throat. And speaking of coffee, that’s a drink you should be avoiding or, at the very least, imbibing in moderation before your big presentation.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 Sally Hayes