Giving a speech? Never do this

Do you want to be a good speaker? Someone people remember and thinks highly of? You can find many articles on how to become a great speaker, but one important tip is always missing. Perhaps the most important one. Never, ever begin a speech by talking about yourself.

Am I telling you not to be engaging, personable or generous with your insights and experience? Not at all. Give, and give generously when you’re up there in the limelight. Share personal exeperiences, let them see the real you. That’s not at all what I’m talking about.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

I’m a little nervous

You know, the speaker that begins by telling everybody how he or she feels. It can be sharing that you’re nervous or that you don’t feel well because you were out partying late last night (true story, someone actually did this once). It can be a hundred different things about your health, your state of mind that you feel that you have to start your presentation by sharing. But we, your audience, couldn’t care less. We just want you to start talking about something that’s relevant to us.

Message: don’t care

Then you have the speaker that start of with something like “I’m not sure what’s on my slides, I haven’t looked at them in a while” or “These slides are a bit old”. If you don’t care enough about your topic to make sure that you have an updated and relevant deck, at least don’t tell us about it. Or are you trying to send us a message that we’re not that important to you? In that case, a job well done!

Here’s my CV

Suddenly there’s a slide on the screen that looks like someone’s CV. Or a company presentation. And you have no idea why this is happening. Is it the next speaker? A message from a sponsor? Has someone take over the event and is now showing random powerpoint presentations?

Then a disconnected voice says “I wanted to start by telling you about myself” or “Here’s what my company does”. The worst example I’ve come across was the speaker who opened with “My CEO is forcing me to show you this”. Why are you doing this to us? Unless you are specifically there to talk about what your company does, or what your role is in the company, don’t start by telling us this. Later, when you’ve managed to convince us that you know what you’re talking about, or given us insights we find valueable, we might actually want you to talk about this. But not at the beginning, when we don’t know you.

Why this happens

There are more examples, but I’m sure you get my point. What is more interesting is trying to figure out why these speakers are doing this. I’ve identified three reasons:

1. They’re so full of themselves that they can’t for a moment imagine that the audience isn’t just as interested in learning how they feel, what they’re thinking about and so on. The speakers in this group is difficult to do something about. Except never invite them to an event again, of course.

2. They’re trying to quickly create a bond between themselves and the audience, and this is the first thing that comes to mind. Sharing how they feel, or that they don’t know what’s on their slides. The intention is great, but it’s not working out. And the reason for that is that the only thing the audience is thinking about there and then is “Is there something in this for me?”. Unless you quickly establish that “yes, what I’m about to say is very relevant for you”, they will loose interest and begin to do something else. Check e-mails, surf, decide what to have for dinner, solve problems at work, or whatever is uppermost in their mind then and there. And once you’ve lost them, they’re very difficult to get back.

3. They’ve misinterpreted what establishing credibility means. Classical rhetoric stressed that a speaker must include logos (facts), pathos (emotions) and ethos (credibility, being trustworthy) in order to be successful. And it is important to show that you know what you’re talking about, and that the audience can trust what you’re saying. But you don’t do that by rattling off your CV in the beginning. Expertise and credibility is something you earn throughout your presentation,by proving in several ways that you know what you’re talking about.

What to do

The people in your audience are waiting to find out if you have something relevant to tell them. Your first job is to convince them that this is the case. There are several ways of doing this. You can tell them a story (and yes, it can be about yourself). You can describe a problem you suspect they might be having. You can challenge their perspective on something or you can simply start by asking them a question. But notice that none of these options include that you should begin by talking about yourself.

At a later stage of your presentation it might be perfectly relevant for you to share information about what your company, or about the road that led you to where you are today. Like I said earlier, by then you’ve managed to convince the audience that you know what you’re talking about, or given them insights they find valuable. It’s a very different scenario from the one at the beginning.

Those of us that have the privilege of giving presentations have one job the first couple of minutes. And that is to convince the audience that we are worth them giving us of their time. Be it half an hour, one hour, or whatever our time slot is we need to provide them with something valuable. The audience is giving us of its time and attention, and that is a trust we need to take very seriously.

Over to you

Do you agree, or do you think it’s fine if a speaker starts out talking about him- or herself? Let me know in the comments.



Image credit: Justin S Campbell, Audience HDR, Flickr

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