5 public speaking mistakes to eschew

Even communicators can get nervous in pitch meetings or when presenting in front of a crowd. Avoid these missteps and endear yourself to your audience. 


Public speaking is a fear coursing through the veins of most people, even PR wunderkinds. You would think, at least in the PR industry, those fears are left at the door–but that’s not the case.

How can some PR pros excel at their jobs without conquering public speaking? They can be great relationship builders, phone pitchers and even masterful email writers—where they don’t have to speak much at all.

For business development, though, public speaking is critical. I’ve seen stage fright take hold in pitch meetings, and it’s not good for business or a PR pro’s reputation.

If you are among those whose knees are knocking, palms are sweating and throats are cracking as you read this post—don’t fret. There are ways to help PR pros overcome the fear of public speaking, be it in a business pitch to five potential clients, or at a conference before an audience of 500.

Here are five common missteps to avoid when speaking to a group:

1. Reading word-for-word. You lose eye contact when reading from a page. That alone is bad enough, but consider when you are nervous: You read slower than usual and don’t sound like an expert. Be prepared and don’t rely solely on improvisation, but please do not read. You become a complete bore and sound unprofessional. Learn to thrive in an organic setting. Roll with it, listen to the audience and be yourself. You would be shocked how much that helps when you pitch, or speak to groups in general.

2. Stepping over other people in the room. We have all sat through a meeting or a panel presentation when a person is talking and someone else is intent on getting in that “one brilliant point.” An interruption here, an interjection there, and when they can’t get a word in edgewise, the tap dance begins. It’s uncomfortable, improper and unkind to the ear. I have always believed that if you cannot wait to make your point, and must interrupt someone to do so, your point is probably not worth making. Besides, people listen better when there is silence just before you drop your knowledge bomb.

3. Speaking too loudly or quietly. We all know that special someone who gets his or her coffee in the morning and ends up sounding like Chopper Dave stuck in the skies. Then there are PR pros who simply can’t project, regardless of the setting or stakes. The right tone is everything. Those are not the people you typically want to be in the foxhole with because–though they may be pleasant enough quietly sitting across from you at the lunch table, or loud enough to be heard in a crowded bar–they’re ineffective when it counts. Don’t be them.

4. Using jargon. It sometimes feels as if we have secret sheets of “Buzzword Bingo” hidden in our desks in the hope that using buzzwords and corporate jargon makes us sound like experts. As much as “moving the needle” and plucking that “low-hanging fruit” makes you feel like the superhero of the PR galaxy, it can sound amateurish on stage or in a boardroom. You are better than that. Abstain from the clichés and build your argument on a foundation of insight and clarity. You’ll be a better person for it.

5. Forgetting to have fun. It’s amazing how a little levity tends to make things easier. Ever hear of an icebreaker? Use one! Humor is more than that, though. It connects you with your audience. You are not hosting a late night talk show, but a little smile won’t kill you. Those “why so serious” people give the rest of us a bad name. Make your own name and have a little fun.

What public speaking missteps would you add to this list? Shawn Paul Wood is the managing account supervisor of digital strategy at Ketchum. A version of this post originally appeared on the Ketchum Blog.

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