Every speech is unique, as is every speaker. But the problems that cause speeches to crash are amazingly consistent. I have listened to over 24,000 speeches in my life. Probably 80 percent of the “bad” speeches resulted from one of the following problems.

  1. Reading the speech. Some people are really good at this (such as Neil Gaiman, who is after all a brilliant writer), but most of us are not. Why did people read to you when you were three years old? If you said “to teach me to read,” you have never been the parent of a three-year-old. Reading out loud generally puts people to sleep, whether children or adults. As I said, there are exceptions. Chance are, you are not one.
  2. Winging the speech. If reading to an audience stupefies them, rambling at them confuses them and wastes their time. Just as there are exceptional people who can effectively read the speech out loud (most of whom are actors, though most actors are really bad at this without a director), there are exceptional people who can deliver well-organized keynote-length impromptu speeches. Bill Clinton is reportedly one such speaker. But I know someone who knows someone who knows Bill Clinton, and you, sir (or madam), are not Bill Clinton.
  3. Looking somewhere other than the audience. Reading will do this, of course, but too many people buy into the bad old advice about picking out a spot on the back wall. There are a lot of reasons this is a bad idea, but here are two: a) They can tell. b) You fail to connect. Speaking is not about getting the words right; it’s about giving the words impact. OK, here’s another reason: c) It will actually make you more nervous, because you won’t know how they are responding since you can’t bring yourself to look at the audience.
  4. Shoehorning too much. “I only have 20 minutes, so you will need to listen fast as I recount World War II.” If you try to cover too much, none of it will stick. Again: speaking isn’t about getting the words right; it’s about giving the words impact. Cramming too much in guarantees you will talk too fast, and it has as much impact as the legalese they speed through in car commercials.
  5. Generalizing. Get specific, get concrete, narrow your focus, go deep. When you string together general statements, it makes you look lazy, as if you couldn’t be bothered to look up specific information or to think deeply about your topic.

There are actually lots of ways to crash a speech, but if these are not the most common, they are at least among the most common–and they’re the easiest to fix.

What have been your biggest crash causes?

Share this, please!