Colin D Ellis
Leadership | Culture | Success
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10 Things Not To Say On Stage

This year will be my fourth year of doing public speaking as a day job. I can’t believe how quickly it’s gone and also, that I’m doing it as my job!

Despite being the confident type, I never thought at all about doing lots of public speaking. I was asked to do one or two talks at conferences based on the seniority of the role that I’d held in organisations in the UK and New Zealand, but looking back I spoke mainly from the heart about some of the things that we just happened to be doing at the time.

My opportunity arose quite by chance. Having finished a contract in mid-2015, I went to a consulting company for an interview after a friend had introduced me to them. They had an opening for a breakfast speaker and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to throw my hat in the ring. I’ll be forever indebted to Dave Webley of Granite Consulting for providing me with an opportunity to share some things that I was passionate about.

The talk was recorded and can still be seen here.

Looking back, I was trying to mix elements of all of the good speakers that I’d seen in my 20 years of conference attending, whilst avoiding some of the bad stuff. Indeed the last conference I paid to attend as a permanent employee in Australia provided the impetus for my desire to speak, as the keynote speech incorporated at least three of the things in the list below.

I’m still a relative speaking novice (in terms of years), but I work bloody hard on it. Every speech that I do is tailored to the audience I’m standing in front of regardless of whether they’re in retail, real estate, finance or sports and are based in Brussels, Vegas, Melbourne or Singapore.

That includes thinking about and writing the jokes too! I could never understand why speakers weren’t more entertaining as the ones that make me laugh (and of course, this is just me!) are always the ones I remembered. There were four...

But I also learned from one of the best, by attending Matt Church’s excellent 3-day Speakership program. This gave me all the technical information I needed to go with the subject matter that I’m passionate about.

Often people want to know how to do it well and assume that because I’m an extrovert I find it easy. It’s true to say that I don’t get nervous, so my personality can take the credit for that but everything else requires a significant amount of preparation, thought and then energy to deliver it.

From the research on the subject matter and reading the room, to delivering it in a way that the audience will appreciate and giving them practical things they can do themselves, there’s a lot to be aware of. It’s also important to remember to not do things like:

  • Talking with my back to the room

  • Mumbling

  • Speaking too quickly - especially for international audiences

  • Reading through the detail that I have on a slide

  • Reading a script (or rehearsing one)

  • Shout; and my biggest challenge

  • Ad-libbing for more than 5 minutes!

These are uppermost in my mind when people ask for things that might help them to public speak more confidently, as are the following 10 things not to say.

There are lots of great resources and blogs out there that articulate the things to do when public speaking, but not so many on what not to say. So here are some simple things that I’ve learned in the last four years and if you have a speech to do this year, then they’re worth bearing in mind.

  1. ‘My kids/partner thinks I’m irrelevant/behind the times’ – a keynote speaker actually opened with this line once, leaving the audience thinking ‘well why should we listen to you?’

  2. ‘I’ve got the graveyard shift’ – makes people think of zombies or worse Pet Cemetery

  3. ‘Is this mic on?’ – frantically tapping the mic with the end of the finger is very annoying

  4. ‘I’m the only thing between you and lunch/drinks/home’ – makes people think of lunch/drinks/home

  5. ‘Bullet point number seven refers to…’ – three bullets maximum; after that people start to wonder whether you’re going to finish on an odd or even number and don’t care about the content

  6. ‘It’s hard to read, I know, but…’ – so write less, or make it bigger if it needs to be on the screen

  7. ‘It’s great to be here in [insert name of city]’ – as opposed to what?

  8. Anything inappropriate – racist, sexist, disrespectful or simply not for that audience - frankly if you have to be told that then you shouldn’t have been invited to speak (or be President) in the first place

  9. Anything that draws attention to the fact that you haven’t spoken much – because people will start to focus on that rather than the confidence with which you’re delivering your speech (although, a little vulnerability if you’re nervous or when things go wrong is a good thing to do)

  10. Anything boring or repetitive – because, well, it’s boring and repetitive

Don’t expect to master it first time. Stick around to listen and support others and make notes of what other speakers do or don’t do. Like everything, public speaking is a skill anyone can learn, so work hard at it and make yourself memorable for the things that you said, not the things you shouldn’t have.

What would you add to this list?

If you’d like to find out more about my speaking, you can find it here, which also includes a link to download my speaker kit for 2019.