Forward thinking: Why speakers flop

Loren Simmonds

I remember her well . . .

Her name was Mrs. Burke. She was my first speech teacher when I was a freshman in high school. Our first day in class, she made a point of stressing if we ever hoped to be successful as a public speakers, there were several cardinal rules that we must master and that would be focus of our class work over the next school year.

Some four years later, as a freshman at the University of New Mexico, I had enrolled in a class entitled Introduction to Speech Making. In our very first class session, the professor offered up a lecture on “Why Speakers Flop.” In a matter of a few short minutes, I quickly discerned that he and Mrs. Burke had been reading out of the same book.

Since 1961, I have listened to thousands of speeches in person; listened to others on the radio and watched them being given on TV. The speakers included the CEO of large corporations, pastors of all size churches, presidents of universities and colleges and not a few elected officials plus many other leaders in our society.

And candidly, every time I hear a speech given by whomever, I watch and listen for things that would cause that speaker’s comments to be a flop — please forgive me. I’m sure that sounds harsh and super critical; however, public speaking is a critical form of communication in our society.

With the above serving as prologue . . . allow me to share the cardinal rules I believe will serve us all well when it comes time for us to step up to the podium and address the audience before us – regardless of the subject matter.

Allow me to begin by stating the obvious: Public speaking, like any skill, must be developed. The more often you speak, the better you become — IF you learn from your mistakes. While I’ve observed great creativity in flopping a speech, there are seven common reasons why speakers fail.

1) A disregard for time

Long-windedness, speaking beyond the allotted time, may be the easiest way to alienate an audience. Strangely enough, I have observed business leaders are among the worst. Speaking overly long is rude and smacks of arrogance and self-importance. It suggests to the audience the speaker values his presentation greater than the time of his listeners or anything else on the program.

The length of a speech should be a function of how long a person has agreed to talk. Start on time and stop on time. Not only will your audience respect you for it, but you will demonstrate respect for your audience.

2) Unclear purpose

Here is the million-dollar question of any presentation: What’s the point?

I’m puzzled by the number of speakers who ramble through a speech without saying anything of substance. I’m equally dismayed by the number of speakers who cram 21 bullet points into a 30-minute presentation. Communicators frustrate their audience when they rattle off reams of information without pointing the way to practical application. If you cannot identify a concise, worthwhile purpose for the presentation, you probably shouldn’t be making it.

Design your speech the way the pros do. Begin by asking, “At the end of this presentation, what do I want my listeners to think, feel and do?” Good presenters speak to the head, heart and the hands.

3) Inadequate preparation

There is no excuse for “winging it.” The best speakers are borderline neurotic in their preparation — even if their demeanor suggests otherwise. Presenters who come across brilliantly unscripted probably spent hours practicing in order to appear “off the cuff.”

If you paid for a ticket to a Broadway show where none of the actors had practiced in advance, you would demand your money back. Too bad the audiences of executives don’t get the same privilege. Each speech is a transaction. Your listeners are paying attention, and you owe them a worthwhile presentation in return.

4) Failure to capture attention

The scariest resource in the world used to be time. Today it is attention. Every one of us is bombarded with messages from many different sources. From email to radio to cell phones to Facebook. Everybody is trying to tell us something, and your attempt to give a speech is just one more bombardment.

Your content and delivery had better grab the audience’s attention right out of the shoot. You don’t have the luxury of “warming up” your audience. Hit them square between the eyes with something that will break their preoccupation with the thousands of other stimuli clamoring for their attention.

Most importantly, make your remarks relevant. Post moderns are less interested with the question “Is it true?” and more interested in the question “How does it affect me?” Yes, you need to be intellectually honest to prove your points; however, never forget to demonstrate that your message matters to the listener.

5) Pomposity

Ego-driven speakers are more concerned with what followers think about them than with what followers do because of them. Rather than influencing their listeners, pompous speakers attempt to impress the audience. In doing so, they manipulate rather than inspire.

A preoccupation with self is deadly to a communicator. Self-absorbed speakers do so in order to get their needs met rather than to meet the needs of the audience. Unfortunately for speakers, audiences are quick to pick up the scent of a pompous communicator and they will quickly tune out any presenter perceived as arrogant.

6) Boredom

Today’s audiences are filled with people who were raised on MTV. This generation spent its formative years watching music videos that contained 150-plus images in the course of a minute. For them, watching a talking head is about as stimulating as staring at a blank computer screen.

A speaker who “entertains” never fully flops. Don’t get me wrong: Entertainment by itself is not a worthwhile goal for a presenter, but it sure beats the alternative, which is to be boring. For a speaker, the value of entertainment comes from its ability to mentally engage listeners. I’ve learned that the best way to educate is to slip good ideas in on the wings of entertainment.

Great restaurants know that the presentation of cuisine is as important as its preparation. Speakers would be wise to take note; presentation and perception go hand–in-hand. The best communicators use the sizzle to sell the steak.

7) False ending

I feel safe in saying I have seen the following scenario play out hundreds of times. A speaker starts to conclude, even tells the audience of his/her intent, and then tells a pithy, witty story. The audience responds favorably. The speaker gets a rush. “Wow, they liked that. I’ve got an even better story.” Then the speaker ends again with another story, quote or challenge. Like a junkie in search of another fix, the speaker keeps ending until there is no positive response, but rather visible signs of disgust. By then it is too late to recover.

Bottom line . . . conclude concisely. Each false ending weakens the message in front of it. A simple rule to remember: good endings only happen once.


A mentor once reminded me that the beginning of excellence is the elimination of foolishness. You can ramp up your speaking performance by analyzing your last presentation with these seven questions:
• Did I stick to my allotted time?
• Did I develop and present purposefully?
• Was I thoroughly prepared?
• Did I capture attention at the very beginning?
• Did I positively influence listeners?
• Was I appropriately entertaining or at least not boring?
• Did I end only once?

An affirmative answer to each question virtually guarantees that your next presentation won’t be a failure. Not only will your communication be failure proof, you will very likely be perceived as an articulate and effective speaker. I can assure you that will serve you well in the long run.

Until next time . . .

— By Loren Simmonds

Loren Simmonds has been a resident of Lynnwood for 37 years. He served on the Lynnwood City Council for 16 years, including eight as Council President. He remains active in the community by serving on the Parks and Recreation Foundation Board, Civil Service Commission and the Snohomish County Planning Commission. He believes that volunteerism sows the seeds of community. Loren is semi-retired and works as a writer, speaker and leadership coach.

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