The Top 5 Public Speaking Myths

There is one key measure of success when it comes to making client presentations. Unfortunately, it’s lost in a haze of fallacies, misconceptions and old wives tales.

Your most important measure of success is — message transfer.

Below are the top five myths that need to be destroyed, so you can speak with twice the impact, using half the effort.

Myth 1: Bad First Impressions Can’t Be Overcome

Have you heard that audiences form their lasting impression in the first 30 seconds? Or the first 8 seconds?

This is very misleading. It implies that the lasting impression of your presentation won’t be your wisdom, the clarity of your message or the relevance of your information, but that it all rests on the first few seconds.

What pressure! Public speaking is not that hard – or mysterious.

So what’s the reality? No matter how you slice it, the first few seconds will only ever form a first impression – not a lasting impression. The audience’s impression of you is developed and reinforced throughout your entire presentation. I’ve known many speakers who’ve started awkwardly and wowed them by the end. You don’t need to sabotage yourself just because you have a challenge at the start. Let yourself off the hook. Laugh it off.

In fact, making ‘a save’ can help you form a greater connection with the audience. Smile and name the problem in front of the audience, so they get that you get what the problem is (got that?!). This point of recognition releases the tension and the problem dissolves.

In other words, making a ‘save’ after a setback on stage can be more impactful than a ‘flawless’ presentation. Don’t focus on the mistakes, focus on the next line. Engage your audience with subsequent impressions and they will be left with an overall positive impression — no matter what happened in the first 30 seconds.

Myth 2: You Must Eliminate Nerves To Be A Great Speaker

Many people have a niggling thought: ‘If I were a good speaker, I wouldn’t get nervous. But I do get nervous, so I’m not good enough’.

Some worry it’s a sign of weakness to admit they get nervous, and this idea embeds itself into their mind, creating more uncertainty every time they speak in public.

The reality is, it’s normal to feel speaking anxiety, no matter how experienced or polished you are.

Richard Branson admits he gets nervous in public speaking situations and has done since he was a teenager. But the nerves haven’t held him back; he’s one of the most sought-after speakers on the planet.

Nerves are normal; we just need to put them into perspective. Far from holding you back, anxiety can focus the mind and lead to a better result. Nerves don’t need to be eliminated – they just need to be understood.

Myth 3: Good Speakers Don’t Use Notes

Here’s something I’ve heard from speakers who worry they’re not good enough: “Oh! He’s such a good speaker; he didn’t look at his notes once!”

Who cares if you look at your notes?

Many people believe you can’t be an accomplished speaker unless you’re able to deliver a presentation without notes. In practice, there is nothing wrong with using notes if they help you speak with clarity and certainty. Steve Jobs read his ‘Stanford Graduation Speech’ from notes, yet it’s one of the most famous speeches in the world, more popular than any TED talk.

Notes can be used poorly, of course. Particularly if you read a speech in a way that implies you’re not familiar with the content. The same applies to the use of TelePrompTers or auto-cues; they can be used well, but when used poorly the speaker appears lifeless and robotic. Checking your slides and then talking to the audience is fine, but planting your feet with your back to the audience and reading every word on your slides is not!

So, notes aren’t a problem; it’s how we use them. Don’t feel guilty about using notes. Everybody needs to find the right balance of notes to suit the event and the subject.

Myth 4: Eliminate Errors And You’ll Be A Great Speaker

Another unproductive idea is that if you eliminate every mistake, you’ll be a great speaker. Training courses that follow this myth give you a list of mistakes to avoid. They might even record a video of you making these ‘mistakes’, show it to the rest of the class and get you to focus all your effort on eradicating them. The list often includes:

  • Never say ‘um’
  • Don’t put your hands in your pockets
  • Use ‘open’ gestures, never ‘closed’ gestures
  • Don’t move around the room too much (or too little!)
  • Maintain eye contact for the optimum time
  • Pause for three seconds

This myth wastes energy by overemphasizing minor distractions, and can create the kind of self-consciousness that leads people to give bad presentations.

So, damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead with clarity of message and natural style, rough edges and all. Being clear and genuine is far more compelling than being perfect.

Myth 5: You Need A Particular Kind Of Voice

Some people worry they can never be a successful speaker because their voice isn’t ‘right’ for it. It’s not true. Nor is the converse; having a beautiful ‘radio voice’ doesn’t make you a good speaker.

We’ve been exposed to historical speeches where the likes of Churchill and John F. Kennedy use stirring, theatrical voices. Martin Luther King Jr used dramatic tremors in his voice to build excitement in his ‘I have a dream’ speech. But isn’t the context a little different for your next business presentation? Do you think you’ll have more impact with dramatic tremors in your voice trumpeting, “I.. have.. a.. spreadsheet..!”

Any voice can be compelling and credible if it is used with certainty.