Common Mistakes in Public Speaking - Executips


Thursday, September 22, 2022

Common Mistakes in Public Speaking

 The human brain is not a device that copies with precision. So, George Bernard Shaw famously reminded us, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

Here are some common mistakes committed by people giving a talk:

1. Information overload. Learned persons are eager to share everything they know. However, studies have shown that the human brain has limitations in storage capacity. The processing of new information also requires attention which, sadly, is not always long-lasting. 

Although there is no universal agreement among scientists as to the time limit, they agree that audience attention wanes at some point. Some observers assert it’s 15 minutes. The famous TED talks set the sweet spot at 18 minutes.

2. Digressing too much. Many speakers take a diversion road when they suddenly remember an anecdote or any information related to the point just brought up. Sometimes they get carried away and dwell on the side story. These impromptu breakaways tend to stretch the length of the talk and also introduce more information to be absorbed by the limited brain.

3. Too entertaining. We like funny speakers. Humor is great for talks. But there are times when the entertainment overshadows the message of the talk. We remember the jokes but we miss the point. Entertainment must be limited and carefully chosen to support the message that needs to be imparted.

Many experts have written about how the human mind is so overwhelmed and distracted at this time of the information explosion. Back in 2002, the book The Attention Economy said that the scarcest resource was people’s attention.

In my opinion, Powerpoint can even add to the information overload. It is a great tool but the side effect can be speakers dumping everything they can fit in a deck. I have seen so many speakers use up to 100 slides with so many words, numbers, and graphs.

My personal approach is to have an outline of about 3 headlines, have a few jokes, share a story, and recap before reaching 20 minutes. I think I haven’t seen an audience complain about a short speech.

You may read: 

Attention Span During Lectures: Seconds, 10 Minutes or More? by Neil A. Bradbury on

The Attention Economy: Understanding the New Currency of Business by Thomas H. Devenport and John. C. Beck

The Storyteller’s Secret: From TED Speakers to Business Legends, Why Some Ideas Catch On and Others Don't by Carmine Gallo 

The Science of Attention: How to Capture and Hold the Attention of Easily Distracted Students by Saga Briggs on the informED website

What Are the Differences Between Long-Term, Short-Term, and Working Memory by Nelson Cowan on the National Library of Medicine website

Working Memory: 20 Facts You Must Know by Connie Malamed on The eLearning Coach website

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