8 Public Speaking Myths…BUSTED!

Mythbuster Adam Savage, Courtesy Geekgirl ~ Stacey from Flickr

Over the years, it is likely that you’ve been fed a whole load of nonsense about speaking in public. Things like: “Oh, if you’re nervous, just focus on a point just above your audience’s head. That’ll make it a little easier,” or “bow your head and take a moment to compose yourself before you begin.”

That sort of poison often gets dripped into the ears of public speaking newbies, and those myths persist despite being the sorts of things that can outright sabotage a speaker with enormous potential.

Today at S&S labs, we’re going to bust some of these popular public speaking myths, and show you not just why they’re bad, but what you should do instead. Let’s get started:

Myth 1. Focus on a point above your audience’s heads.

Why People Say This: People are generally afraid of getting up in front of a crowd. It’s nerve-wracking to face down an audience. One of the strategies that gets passed around for dealing with stage fright is to focus on a point just above the audience’s heads. That way, you look like you’re looking at them, but you don’t have to look at them, and can distract yourself from the fact that their eyes are on you.

Myth: BUSTED! The problem with this myth is twofold. First, it creates a disconnect between you and your audience. Second, it is totally noticeable. Part of being a successful speaker means that you need to create an authentic connection with your audience. A key part of that connection is forged through strong eye contact. We trust people who are willing to look us in the eye, and we can tell when they’re not doing so.

Granted, when you’re in a particularly large room, on a brightly lit stage, it’s much harder to make eye contact with your audience, (because it’s much harder to see your audience) but it’s still obvious when you’re making that effort to connect, and when you’re just trying to ignore their existence.

Myth 2. Picture your audience naked/in their underwear

Why People Say This: Another instance of poor advice for dealing with stage fright. Perhaps if you imagine your audience being in a silly situation, you’re less likely to be frightened of them!

Myth: BUSTED! This is probably the worst advice ever given for dealing with stage fright. Picturing your audience naked will doubtless distract you from your content. Furthermore, wandering into a room full of naked people is not exactly the most comfortable situation. It’s not likely to leave you feeling at-ease. Finally, it ultimately disrespects the audience that you’re trying to win over.

Not only did they pick those clothes out, but visualizing them without those clothes is just another way of disconnecting from them as people. That disconnection doesn’t result in making you less afraid, just less engaged (and less engaging).

Myth 3. Bow your head before you begin, to compose yourself

Why People Say This: This one comes from a sort of over-dramatized picture of an actor, bowing his head to get into character before he begins to tread the boards. The idea is that if you take a moment before you begin, you’ll be able to compose your thoughts and get your ideas collected despite the nerves of taking the stage.

Myth: BUSTED! Nothing, and I mean nothing, looks quite so ridiculous as somebody standing in front of an audience with his head bowed before he begins to speak. If you’re planning to take the stage, and take people’s time, your thoughts should be more than gathered already. You should be collected, confident, and poised when you’re on the stage.

You should be in control of the room, and you should not allow the room to be in control of you.

Myth 4. Wait until you take the stage to take control

Why People Say This: Well, obviously, if you’re going to be speaking, you need to be in control of the room when you’re on the stage, right? So take control of the room the moment you take the stage!

Myth: BUSTED! This one has its heart in the right place, you should be in control of the room when you’re on the stage. But, you should also be in control of the room when you’re off the stage. Whenever you’re in the presence of your audience, you need to radiate presence and control.

A good speaker will own the room while she’s on stage. A great speaker will maintain that same aura of authority and charisma when she’s off the stage as well.

Myth 5. End with “Thank You.”

Why People Say This: This has almost become a standard convention in the speaking world. Thank your audience for listening when you finish. Makes sense, right? They gave up their time to listen to what you have to say. A little gratitude goes a long way, right?

Myth: BUSTED! Wrong. Inevitably that final “thank you” always comes off as being either brown-nosing, or insincere. It rarely communicates gratitude as much as it communicates “alright then, I’m done, you can applaud now.”

A much better measure of your gratitude for the time that your audience has given you, is to fill that time with quality content, and leave them with something memorable. Let the last words out of your mouth be something that they can take with them, and use. An empty “thank you” is never sufficient for that.

Myth 6. You need to fill the silence

Why People Say This:This is another of those myths that has become more a matter of convention. It dripped into public speaking from the Radio, where dead-air is a deadly sin.

Myth: BUSTED! While you don’t want too much dead air in your speeches (AZ Governor Jan Brewer’s debate performance is evidence of how bad that can be), the fear of silence is grounded in a fear that if you’re not making noise, people will stop listening to you. That is what causes us to use “filler” words like “um”, “uh”, and the rest.

A little silence isn’t going to kill anybody. In fact, sometimes a good long dramatic pause can help make a key point. Don’t leave your audience hanging in the lurch, fill your time with something valuable. But, don’t fear the silence and replace it with filler words and nonsense.

Myth 7. Your presentation is over when you’re done speaking

Why People Say This: Um…well…it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? When you’re done, you’re done, right?

Myth: BUSTED! Not in the slightest. When you’ve finished speaking, you need to continue to demonstrate that same charisma. You need to continue to show that you have some degree of authority and influence. Just like owning the room before you take the stage, you need to own the room when you’ve left the stage as well.

That doesn’t mean you need to draw undue attention to yourself. Part of being a charismatic, charming, and memorable speaker is being an equally good audience member, and giving attention and energy to the speakers who follow after you. That helps boost everybody’s image, and makes the entire message more memorable.

Myth 8. You have to have slides/visual aids/handouts

Why People Say This: So much ink is spilled on PowerPoint, on making good handouts, on engaging the audience through visual aids. We have come to see visual aids and handouts as something of a necessity for a presentation.

Myth: BUSTED! But, back before the days of PowerPoint, folks got along just fine. Not every presentation needs visual aids. Not every speech needs a stack of handouts to be passed around to the audience. All of that stuff has its place. There is definitely some utility in a great visual aid, or a highly functional handout.

However, those aren’t necessary to have a successful presentation. You should be engaging, your content should be clear and interesting. Your ideas should be illuminating and worthwhile. Visual aids are unnecessary if your language choices are sufficiently vivid. Many times, all that extra stuff is going to do is distract from your message. So spend time worrying about what is really important.

Many of the perpetuators of these myths have their heart in the right place. Many of these things are things that are on the right track. But knowing where to draw the line, knowing when to go further, or do things differently than conventional wisdom might hold is key to mastering a craft. And, after all, isn’t mastering a craft what we’re here to do?

Photo Courtesy of Geekgirl ~ Stacey on Flickr

  1. mari says:

    Richard, Someone once told me to imagine my audience naked. I was really young and new to television and didn’t know what on earth I was doing. Seriously; a colleague was sick and I got stuck doing the evening report. Anyway. I tried to picture naked people watching and you know what? I couldn’t stop giggling. It was nuts! All of your myths busted here are great but that’s the one that resonated with me the most. Naked audiences. Go figure.

    • Richard G. says:

      Ouch! That’s gotta be pretty rough on live TV!

      I think your story captures exactly the problem with picturing your audience naked: It’s kind of inappropriate, and definitely hilarious. It’s hard to keep your composure when you start imagining your audience in their birthday suits.