The presenter gets up to speak. Everyone wants to hear what she has to say, but within ten minutes, they are either hopelessly confused or falling asleep. What is she doing wrong?

As a speaker, whether your audience is one person or one thousand, you want to get a specific message across. Maybe you want your opinions heard at meetings, or perhaps you are giving a business presentation. Possibly your team members need to improve their presentation skills and you’re in a position to help by giving a few pointers.

Here are ten major pitfalls you can learn to avoid or help others avoid:

1. Unclear Thinking. If you can’t describe what you are talking about in one sentence, you may be guilty of fuzzy focus or trying to cover too many topics. Your listeners will probably be confused, too, and their attention will soon wander. Whether you are improving your own skills or helping someone else to create a presentation, the biggest (and most difficult) challenge is to start with a one-sentence premise or objective.

2. No Clear Structure. Make it easy for people to follow what you are saying. They’ll remember it better—and you will, too, as you deliver your information and ideas. If you waffle, ramble, or never get to the point, your listeners will tune out. Start with a strong opening related to your premise; state your premise; list the rationales that support your premise, illustrating each with stories, statistics, metaphors or case histories. Review what you’ve covered, take questions if appropriate, then use a strong close.

3. No Memorable Stories. People rarely remember your exact words. Instead, they remember the mental images your words inspired. Support your key points with vivid, relevant stories. Help your listeners “create the movie” in their heads by using memorable characters, engaging situations, dialogue, suspense, drama and humor. If you can open with a highly visual, dramatic or amusing image (but not a joke!) that supports your premise, your audience will be hooked. Then tie your closing back to your opening scene.

4. No Emotional Connection. The most powerful communication combines both intellectual and emotional elements. Intellectual means appealing to educated self-interest with data and reasoned arguments. Emotional comes from engaging the listeners’ imaginations, involving them in your illustrative stories by frequently using the word “you” and by answering their unspoken question, “What’s in this for me?” Use a low I/You ratio. For example, instead of “I’m going to talk to you about nutrition,” say, “You’re going to learn the latest research in nutrition.” Not, “I want to tell you about Bobby Lewis,” but, “Come with me to Oklahoma City. Let me introduce you to my friend, proud father Bobby Lewis.” You’ve pulled the listener into the story.

5. Wrong Level of Abstraction. Are you providing the big picture and generalities, a sort of pep talk, when your listeners are hungry for details, facts and specific how-to’s? Or are you drowning them in data when they need to position themselves with an overview and find out why they should care? Get on the same wavelength with your listeners. Some speeches require you to describe the big picture, goals, ideals and outcomes. Others require minute details and specific who, what, when and how. Know what your audience expects and feed everyone according to their appetite.

6. No Pauses. Good music and good communication both contain changes of pace, pauses and full rests. This is when listeners think about what has just been said. If you rush on at full speed to crowd in as much information as possible, chances are you’ll leave your listeners back at the station. It’s okay to talk quickly, but pause whenever you say something profound or proactive or when you ask a rhetorical question. This gives the audience a chance to think about and internalize your message.

7. Irritating Non-Words. Hmm, ah, eh, you know what I mean. One speaker I heard began each new thought with “Now,” as he scanned his notes to figure out what came next. This might be okay occasionally, but not every thirty seconds. Record yourself to check for similar bad verbal habits. Then keep practicing the same material until such audience-aggravators have vanished.

8. Stepping on Your Punch Words. The most important word in a sentence is the punch-word. Usually, it’s the final word: “Take my wife.” But if you drop your voice and then add, “Right?” or “See?” you’ve killed the impact of your message. (To discover if you do this, record yourself.) Don’t sabotage your best shots.

9. Misusing Technology. Without a doubt, audio/visual has added showbiz impact to business presentations. However, just because it is available doesn’t mean we have to use it. Timid speakers who simply narrate flip chart images, slides, videos or overheads can rarely be passionate and effective. Any visual aid takes the attention away from you. Even the best PowerPoint® will not connect you emotionally. Use strong stories instead, if at all possible. Never repeat what is on the visuals; if you do, one of you is redundant. Make technology a support to your message, not a crutch.

10. No Strong Opening or Close.
Engage your audience immediately with a powerful, relevant opening that has a low I/You ratio. It can be dramatic, thought provoking, or even amusing, but never, ever open with a joke (unless you are a humorist with original material). Get your listeners hooked immediately with a taste of what is to follow. And never close by asking for questions. Yes, take questions if appropriate, but then go on to deliver your dynamic close, preferably one that ties back into your opening theme. Last words linger. As with a great musical, you want your audience walking out humming the tunes.

When you avoid these ten common pitfalls, you’re free to focus on your message and your audience, making you a more dynamic, powerful and persuasive communicator.

PATRICA FRIPP is a speech coach, sales trainer and
keynote speaker who works with companies large and small.
She is the author of many programs and books on public
speaking, including
Speaker’s Edge: Secrets and
Strategies for Connecting with Any Audience.