Talk may be cheap, but good speakers are expensive. Unfortunately, so are bad ones. A bad speaker costs just as much in fees and time as a brilliant one. So, for anyone about to hire, listen to, or become a speaker, learning to spot the duds is all-important. Whether for a conference, or for a meeting in the office, here are 5 types of bad speakers to avoid. And how to deal with them.
1) The Bore
This person’s content may be fantastic, but their delivery sure isn’t. Maybe the language they use is unnecessarily difficult. Maybe the whole talk is given in a monotone. Maybe the resources are overly technical. For whatever reason, listening to this person talk is a certain cure for insomnia.
The problem with this type of speaker is obvious. The average listener has an attention span of about 15-20 minutes. This is the amount of time a speaker has to convey all the information necessary before minds start to wander. If the audience is asleep, or daydreaming about being anywhere but there, all this time is wasted. Note-taking and interactive activities can increase attention span. But for passive listening, things should be kept under 20 minutes. This is a philosophy enthusiastically embraced by the organisers of the world famous TED talks. They insist on nothing more than 18 minutes per talk.
So, how do you spot a Bore? One way is by looking at written samples of their work. The way a person writes tells a lot about how they like to express themselves. If the written work is easy to read, yet informative, this is a good sign. If the text is hard-going and bogged down by technical terms or difficult language, this is a bad sign. To be fair, you should ask for 2 or 3 samples. These should span academic or industry pieces, and pieces written for a lay audience. What you want to gauge is the person’s style of communication. You’re looking for clear, concise language. If you find the text good to read, it’s far more likely you’ll find the speaker enjoyable to listen to.
2) The Bag of Nerves
Is there anything more cringe-worthy than listening to a nervous speaker? The faltering voice…the downward gaze…the uncomfortable two-step. The audience is first sympathetic, then annoyed.
This type of speaker is the most memorable for all the wrong reasons. Long after the conference has ended, the audience will remember the sheer awkwardness of the talk. Which means no matter how much of an expert the person is, their presentation will lack authority. And the audience will subconsciously penalise the person for it. Human beings intuitively follow strong leaders. Strength is demonstrated by self-confidence and decisiveness. A nervous speaker demonstrates ‘weakness’. And the audience is likely to discount the content, because the delivery was poor.
The only way to spot a nervous speaker is to see them in action. So, before you hire someone, ask for clips from their previous talks. Seasoned speakers will have no trouble directing you to multiple YouTube links. These may be from interviews or presentations, or solo videos of them discussing various topics. The thing to look for here is confidence. The person is at ease speaking to an audience, or to camera.
If you’re taking a chance on hiring an unknown speaker, you should prepare them with plenty of rehearsals. Ideally, they should run through their presentation at the actual venue. An actual audience (even a small one) is also helpful. The more practice you give them, the less they’ll freeze on stage.
3) The Scatterbrain
The eccentric professor in their lair with papers and coffee cups scattered everywhere is a reassuringly academic image. But for the audience, a speaker without structure is a nightmare. A talk is not a conversation. The audience can’t stop the speaker at any time to ask for clarification. Instead, the speaker must tell an engaging story that the audience can follow from beginning to end. A speaker that keeps wandering off on tangents, or never finishes a point is impossible to follow.
Unfortunately, for an audience member, there’s no good way to spot the Scatterbrain. So, the talk organiser must do their due diligence.
What the Scatterbrain lacks is structure. They have so much brilliance to impart that they don’t know how to organise it all. And they spontaneously think of other brilliant things they want to share. So, the more structure you impose on them, the better. Ask for a full transcript of their talk, and insist they stick closely to it. Ask for this transcript well in advance, and warn them that no last minute changes will be accepted. This way, the speaker is forced to organise their thoughts beforehand. They may see this as a terrible restriction, but the audience will appreciate your efforts.
4) The Bored
Speakers are usually more than happy to share their thoughts. But occasionally, an audience is subjected to one who’s too jaded to care. These are usually instructional speakers e.g. the person who explains how to fill out traffic forms. These speakers give the same speech day in and day out, and don’t much care about making a good impression.
The person organising a corporate meeting or conference is less likely to meet this type of speaker. But what of the organisation that needs routine talks done? A bored employee can only be chastised so many times. And being a disengaged speaker is no reason for a dismissal. In this case, you should introduce a feedback mechanism. Have the audience give feedback on the speaker, and make the results known to the speaker. Even if it’s just a short satisfaction questionnaire. Both positive and negative feedback can have significant impact on someone’s performance.
Positive feedback boosts self esteem. The speaker is flattered to receive compliments, and works harder to get more. Negative feedback, when used judiciously, can be equally effective. Constructive negative feedback gives the person concrete advice on what needs improving. So, negative feedback can motivate someone to try harder. Combining a feedback mechanism with some small performance reward like ‘Speaker of the Week’ can turn a previously apathetic speaker into an engaged one.
5) The Self-promoter
A speaker is entitled to refer to their own work during their talk. In fact, the work is presumably the reason they were invited in the first place. But there is a vast difference between sharing important findings, and shameless self-promotion.
There are two ways to counter the narcissist. Combining the two methods would be optimal. First, you must steal their thunder. Have someone introduce the speaker with a complete rundown of their achievements. List all their achievements in the speaker’s profile in the brochure. The Self-promoter is terribly afraid that people don’t know who they are. So, make sure everyone knows. This way, the speaker won’t be compelled to tell everyone again. And will be gratified that someone is talking about them.
Secondly, you must do the same thing you would for other unreliable speakers – control their content. Ask for the transcript of their talk beforehand. Remove unnecessary narcissism. Then insist they stick with the new script. Because while the Self-promoter may be a confident and engaging speaker, there is only so long an audience can listen to someone blowing their own horn.
As any person who’s ever sat in a bad presentation can attest, public speaking is a skill. And it’s no longer a soft skill, but one crucial to success. So, whether you’re the person giving the talk, the one organising it, or the one attending, remember these strategies for avoiding bad speakers.