Public Speaking: How Not to Engage an Audience

CanStockPhoto by Stevan Ovicigor

“Stand up so we can embarrass you,” the keynote speaker said with a booming laugh as he approached a table of business owners. I shook my head and thought: “Did he really say that?” This took place at a networking breakfast sponsored by a large company with which CorporateHistory.net does business.

Obviously the guest speaker was trying hard to engage a fairly sleepy audience, something his wordy PowerPoint slides hadn’t done. He did get a few people to stand up and talk. I found him heavy-handed, but then I always prefer an appeal to the brain rather than an elbow in the ribs; give me Monty Python over Mel Brooks any day. Seeking a reality check, I turned to public speaking expert and speechwriting teacher Joan Detz. Here’s her reply: “’Stand up so we can embarrass you!’ Well, Marian, if I had been there to hear it, I’d have slunk to the back door and disappeared! My guess is: Even though a few people stood up and participated, many more were sitting there uncomfortable – feeling ‘relieved’ only when that portion of the presentation was over with.” Thank you, Joan!

P.S. A few days after the breakfast, a participant emailed the rest of us who had exchanged business cards. He wished that the speaker hadn’t spoken, believing that the keynote time would have been better spent meeting other participants. In short, a subpar speaker dragged down an otherwise useful event and tarnished the sponsor’s brand. I prefer to offer positive examples as “lessons learned,” but this one was a doozy that bears remembering.