Mistakes to Avoid When Making a Speech

Joan Detz, author of How to Write & Give a Speech, has some savvy tips on the mistakes you should avoid when giving your next speech. Hint: Brevity is the soul of wit.

QDT Editor
April 2, 2014

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"The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do."

—Thomas Jefferson

Speeches are meant to be heard, not read. That means you have to keep your language simple and easily understood. Write for the ear, not the eye.

Remember: Your audience will have only one shot to get your message. They can't go back and reread a section that's fuzzy, as they can with a book or a newspaper article. Get rid of any fuzzy parts before you give the speech.

Here are some pitfalls to avoid at your next speech or presentation:

Avoid Vague Modifiers

Words such as "very," "slightly," and "extremely" are too vague to be useful. Use words or phrases that say precisely what you mean.

Vague: The personnel department is rather understaffed, but the situation will be corrected in the very near future. 

Specific: The personnel department has 3 vacancies. We will fill these jobs within the next month.

Don't Speak in Abbreviations

You may know what HEW, SEC, and FCC stand for, but don't assume that everyone else does.

You have to explain every abbreviation you use—not every time you use it, but at least the first time.

The same goes with acronyms, such as NOW for the National Organization for Women and PAC for Political Action Committee. Unlike those abbreviations that are pronounced letter by letter (HEW, SEC, FCC, for example), acronyms are pronounced like words. You can use them in a speech, but be sure to identify them the first time.

This is a particular problem in the military, where abbreviations and acronyms are regularly sprinkled throughout written communications—and often creep into oral presentations, as well. While other military folks might understand your abbreviations, the public at large finds them peculiar—even off-putting.

Root them out of your public presentations. You'll reach a lot more minds, persuade a lot more people, and make a lot more friends. Isn't that why you're speaking in the first place?

Avoid the Fluff

If your speech is filled with statements such as, "This has been a most challenging year," or, "We all face a golden opportunity," or, "We will meet our challenges with optimism and view our future with confidence," it is probably high on fluff and low on content. Unfortunately, too many business speeches fall into this category.

Try this experiment. Listen to 10 ordinary business speeches and count the number of times words such as "challenge" and "opportunity" are used. Pay careful attention to the opening and closing sections of the speeches, because that's where inexperienced  speakers tend to use the most generalities.

Then, listen to 10 speeches that you can assume to be ghostwritten—speeches, for example, that are given by a top CEO or by the U.S. president. These speeches will have fewer "challenges" and "opportunities" in their texts. Why? Because professional speechwriters know better. Professional speechwriters know audiences just block this airy stuff out.

Follow the professionals. Review your speech and get rid of any glib expressions. If you want your message to stand out, put content—not fluff—into your speech.


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