The 3 Biggest Mistakes First-Time Speakers Make

If you’re breaking into a cold sweat thinking about getting in front of a crowd for the first time – you’re in excellent company.

Richard Branson, in an article for Entrepreneur, admitted that when his coach urged him to make himself the public face of Virgin Air, he thought, “Easy for you to say,” because he was utterly terrified.

There really is only one way to get past the fear. And that is practice.   Not practice making perfect, necessarily — but creating real experiences to replace the anxious imagined ones.

As an entrepreneur, public speaking is one of the best ways to get your message, your why, across to the people you serve. Right up there with video.

Knowing and avoiding the three top mistakes first-time speakers make can help quiet the fear…

That way, you won’t make the single worst mistake: not speaking at all.

1 – Using filler words

Um, er… uh, like… mm… yeah. You get the idea.

We are a casual nation. Jeans, sweats, pajamas… You only need catch a part of “People of Walmart” videos (and really, a snippet of one is enough… like, ever) to see how informality is practically considered a birthright around here.

Most people’s everyday speech is peppered with these fillers… In fact, you’ll sometimes see them in my posts, because it’s less like I’m writing to you and more like, you know, we’re having a conversation. 🙂

But in a public speaking scenario, these words stick out like a sore thumb.

Filler words emerge out of a fear that allowing a pause will lose the listener’s attention. Meaning, we’re more afraid of silence than of making nonsensical sound.

But the truth is the opposite: too many “ums” distract, or worse, irritate. A pause between phrases, however, actually gives your words more impact.

So, what to do? Practice getting comfortable with space when you have conversations. And when you speak, practice pausing for a breath before you begin, and before you begin the next sentence…

Gather yourself, bring awareness in. When in doubt, pause.

No listeners will be harmed in the process, I promise. In fact, they may just thank you for it.

2 – Losing vocal presence

What do I mean by that? Pacing, volume, tone…

When we’re doing something that makes us nervous, say like speaking in front of our local networking group, we sometimes check out, mentally.

Our mouth is moving, but our mind is racing: Are my hands shaking? How much longer? Is there lipstick on my teeth?

Signs that you’re not present in your speech… and what you can do about it:

  • Rushing. Some of us are just fast talkers, anyway. But what works in everyday conversation doesn’t always at the front of the room, so slow it down. Take your time. Breathe.
  • Trailing off. Your volume drops down at the end of the sentence and it sounds like you’re mumbling or swallowing words. The best antidote: breathe before you speak. Be present all the way through to the end.
  • Slipping into monotone, especially if you’re reading notecards or slides, or memorized your speech, word for word. My suggestion? Don’t read… A speech coach I know doesn’t even let her clients write their talks. Jotted notes, an outline – fine. But leave yourself room to speak from the heart – the easiest way to nix the monotone.
  • Uptalk, or making statements sound like questions…? A common habit among women, it makes whatever you’re saying less credible. Breath support is key; slow it down and pay attention all the way through to the end of your thought.

3 – Showing up unprepared

I once sat through a presentation by a man who had overcome a huge health challenge to travel the world and live his dreams. He leveraged social media to bring his story to a wider audience – and now, via speaking.

The guy’s story was amazing – transformational, even – as his solo quest became a mission.

His presentation, however… had no impact.

There were long awkward mumblings and fumblings, lots of filler words, and no apparent structure to his talk… It became clear that he hadn’t prepared or practiced. At all.

So, it doesn’t matter how good your message is if you haven’t considered how to deliver it with impact. Without preparation and practice, especially if speaking is not your forte, your talk can fall flat. Which is tragic when your content can truly impact people.

So: do have a structure – how you’ll begin, how you’ll end, and the main points in between (I limit it to three).

And practice. Practice, practice, practice! Record yourself, audio or video. Review it for the most common gaffs (see above).

Speak in front of friends you trust. Start with smaller groups before graduating to bigger ones, if your goal is to get in front of a big audience.

You can do this! It only takes once for you to no longer be a “first-time” speaker.

Let me hear from you in the comments below… Which of these mistakes have you made? Any you’d add to the list?

  • Amy

    This is so helpful to read. I am a new Life Coach and part of my goal is to do motivational speaking. The three main points was helpful as it formulates structure, so thank you for that tip. I used to do stand up comedy and there needs to be a flow to your routine and you need to believe in your material otherwise I noticed the crowd picks up on your insecurities like you mentioned when you check out. This was a very helpful read!

  • Karen Lynn

    Great advice! The sounds-like-a-question thing always bugs me, especially because it seems to invalidate the speaker’s (almost always a woman’s) authority.

    I’ve done a lot of public speaking, and I’m a teacher, so I’ve gotten more comfortable being before audiences, and love the feeling when they’re with me.

    I noticed when I videotaped myself, though, that I needed to bring it down a notch, just the way actors need to make the transition from stage to film by getting more subtle. My voice, movement, and facial and vocal expressions, which work well live, were too much for video — it needs a quieter, more conversational tone. That was an interesting bit of learning.

  • Wendy Pitts Reeves

    Christine – I’ve done a lot of public speaking, for a long time, and have experimented with different structures, preparation techniques, etc., of course. Had two things to add that might be helpful.

    1) One of my favorite ways to practice is when I’m alone, driving my car. I have to be able to really speak OUT LOUD, in the strong voice I would use in front of an audience, and that’s hard to do at home (or the office) if there’s anyone around. Alone in my car, though, I can speak freely to all the drivers in front of me, and it’s easy to explore and play with the wording, the stories, and the rhythm, as I go.

    2) I’m always (a little) nervous before a talk. However, once I get started, I think much more about my audience, and how important it is that they GET what I want them to know, than the fact that I’m the one sharing it. Focusing on your audience and their needs means you’re speaking from a place of service, not ego – and that automatically will help you connect. It also helps keep the nerves at bay.

    You, by the way, are a terrific speaker. Just sayin’. :))

  • Cathy

    Divine timing: I read this article about an hour before I sat down to listen to the recording of a podcast interview I gave earlier this week. I was (at first) mortified by the number of umms in my answers. I also sped through or trailed off at key points, and at times struggled to find my words, making me seem unprepared when I was in fact very well prepared. Thankfully, other times I was vibrant and articulate.

    Thinking about it later, I realize that the places where I hesitated the most were the places where I was coming out with pieces of my messages that I’d never let out beyond the confines of my mind or my ideas journal Here I was saying them, not only out loud, but on the internet for the whole world to hear. Completely unconscious, the umm was an expression, not of “What do I want to say?” but of “Do I really want to say this, say it straight or curb it a bit?”

  • Cindi B. Ruiz

    Hello Christine, Cindi, here (One of your ‘Becoming 360er’s) All your info, has helped me. But, this one, is one area, i require practice, on. I just realized, i have already done, “The first speech”. I did a presentation for my church, about 25 people. Huhu, i am already on my way, down this path. I am laughing, because, i did all three of these mark-missings. Thank you for this info. Wil, start practicing. (The speech was just a mess, no structure and so many, ‘um’s”) Blessings to you.

    • Christine Kane

      Cindi – The BIG celebration here is that you’ve already presented. You took the imperfect action route – and THAT is huge. Go Cindy! And now you know better – so next time you’ll DO better! (when I think of some of my first speeches, talks and even shows – i just cringe. And guess what? No one ever comes up to me and says, “Hey i remember your first talk. It sucked!” 🙂 )

  • Nita

    Also, apologizing in your speech. Something like, “I meant to bring…,” or, “I’m sorry, my voice is a little scratchy today.” If you didn’t bring it, why mention it, and if your voice is scratchy, and canceling the talk isn’t an option, eat a piece of hard candy, and have water to sip on during your talk. The audience doesn’t want to hear excuses and apologies. Learned that in Toastmasters, as other tips and speaking encouragement. Highly recommend it for speakers.

    • Christine Kane

      Nita – Oh so totally TRUE about the apologizing thing. I used to watch performers do this all the time. the key is to remember that YOU are the leader of the situation. If you don’t have some handout or something, then you MEANT to not have it! Position it that way! 🙂

  • Colene

    I LOVE this! I competed in speech and debate for several years growing up, and I was terrible, but the more you do it, the better you get. I finally went on to compete at national and international levels. The anticipation of speaking is always FAR worse than the actual speaking. The key for me to relax is to develop a ritual before that I do before every speaking, tv, workshop event I have. It puts me in the right frame of mind. I also have developed an alter ego that helps with big crowds. I figure if Beyonce has an alter ego (Sasha Fierce), so can I. 🙂

  • Barrie Barton

    The timing of your “speakers” message is perfect. I’m launching a new business called Stand & Deliver in Asheville, NC. I come from a dance,theater & business background and improvisation is one of the essential training tools. Thank you for sharing your personal nervousness about engaging in improv. My work also includes an awareness of one’s body…another essential component.