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What not to do when giving a speech

|November 19, 2018

Two missing pages, a bungled presentation and a reindeer sweater.

It was March 2005 and Michael Ignatieff, author, Harvard professor, intellectual and prominent Canadian, approached the lectern at the federal Liberal Party’s policy convention in Ottawa to make what was to be the biggest speech of his career—his re-entry to Canada and his introduction to federal politics.

There was great excitement around Mr. Ignatieff as Liberals were searching for new faces and new ideas to re-energize their struggling party. Mr. Ignatieff’s speech did not go well.

Part-way through his presentation, his papers flew off of the lectern. He fumbled around for them, he lost his way, he stopped, there was an awkward pause and then he made a joke about missing the next part of his speech.

He tried to reconstruct it.

It was a human moment but not one that he would have chosen, and not a great start to his political career. In hindsight, it foreshadowed the missteps and pratfalls that were to come.

A presentation is a performance

Every presentation or speech coach will tell you: “You don’t deliver a presentation, you perform it.” Mr. Ignatieff needed some work on his performance because simply being a good speaker or having great ideas is not enough to successfully navigate a speech or presentation. Many other factors are involved—factors that you can control and ones that will take away distractions so that your audience is focused on you and your message.

Here are several factors you can control:

  • The structure of your speech/presentation
  • The flow of the piece
  • The images or visual aids that you bring to the presentation
  • Your tone
  • Your energy
  • The environment (a visit and rehearsal in advance of your speech takes away a lot of the unknowns of where you will be situated and how the room is organized.)

In addition, there are other components that are in your power to influence, such as what you wear.

If you’re making a speech just before the holiday season, do not, for example, wear a festive sweater.

That goofy reindeer on your chest can be a distraction. I once interviewed the late NDP leader Jack Layton as he and the other federal opposition leaders were contemplating defeating Stephen Harper’s minority government.

It was just before the holidays and Mr. Layton showed up wearing a holiday sweater for the television interview. Talk about a distraction. I always wondered what the audience really focused on: his sweater or his message?

Preparation is key

You can’t control who is in the audience but you can do some research on who is in the room and then ask yourself, as you are preparing your presentation: “What will they think? What do I want them to think?”

You can control the environment so that you know what the stage set up looks like, where the lectern is located and whether it’s adequate to rest a prop— or even your written remarks—safely.

You can also rehearse and refine your presentation well in advance of the delivery day.

For example, build a calendar for preparation, including the deadlines needed to meet to prepare effectively for your speech. Give yourself at least a month to devise, perfect and deliver the speech.

Put aside the first few days for strategy, another few days to figure out the structure and then to write the content. You’ll probably need to bring in a creative component—and so the time for that must be accounted for in your plan. Also, you must factor in approvals, edits and rehearsals.

All of this is about preparation. The key to a winning presentation is preparation. The work that is done in advance is what sets you up for success. Little is left to chance.

As for Mr. Ignatieff’s presentation?

One of his aides erred in leaving out two pages from his speech when the final copy was being run off.

It was not discovered until Mr. Ignatieff was up on stage and well into his speech. The result? Some flying papers, a stumble, fumble and a little joke for recovery.

Mr. Ignatieff’s speech was a lesson in “what not to do” for speech preparation.

The key learning is obvious—control what you can control and recheck your materials before taking the stage.

One of the best ways to avoid these issues is to consider asking the experts. Our presentation coaches and trainers have spent their lives on the front lines of the media, in business and government. We will coach you to communicate with strength and power.