What makes a BAD Speaker – One Question, Three Voices

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One Question, Three Voices

We (Nancy, Brandy and Samantha) form a generational string of women in one family.  We are three women, each with views and opinions formed by our environment and the times in which we grew up.  Therefore, we thought it would be fun for each of us to answer the same question from our own unique paradigms and combine them into a single article.  This is how 1 Question, 3 Voices was born.  Each month we will tackle a single question and answer without first reading the others’ answers.  These are combined for you here.  This month we feature the question: What Makes a BAD Speaker If you have suggestions on questions for future editions of 1 Question, 3 Voices we welcome you to comment below.

Why should we study the classics?


Nancy Holt

There are many ways for a speaker to be good. I could list dozens of traits and habits that when combined together make a great speaker. No one thing does the trick, but in-group they blend together to create a master of the podium.   Likewise, no one thing by itself can make a bad speaker. That, too, depends on blend of the speaker’s skills and habits. Volume, pitch, gestures, use of notes, eye contact all work together to improve or detract from the presentation. The good speaker knows how to use her strengths to compensate for her weaker skills.

But there is one thing that I believe will kill a speaker before she opens her mouth: being unprepared. And in my estimation, preparedness is a go/no-go switch. Being prepared so that everything goes right will normally go unnoticed. It won’t make you a better speaker because it’s what is expected. But unexpected is noticed by all. Walking up in front of an audience without being prepared, without doing what is necessary to ensure your success, is like playing Russian roulette. Without ever opening his mouth, an unprepared speaker sets himself up for disaster.

For example, I’ve been to presentations where the speaker turns on her computer or projection system just to find out it doesn’t work. That immediately throws her completely off balance. Either the audience has to wait for someone to tinker with the system to get it working, or the speaker has to try to stumble through a presentation that was developed around those visuals aides. As a member of the audience, my first question is “Why are you just finding out now, in front of us all, that your equipment doesn’t work? Didn’t someone take the time to check it before the event started?”

As a presenter, you are expected to be prepared for the unexpected. You can’t trust that the equipment will work. Instead you should make sure that someone does a last minute check of the sound system and audio/visual aids. Do that last minute check yourself if possible, so you know how to work it when it counts. You can’t use excuses for being late to your own speech. Leave early enough that a traffic jam won’t keep you from getting there on time. Don’t wait until you are ready to walk up to the podium to find out you put the wrong set of handouts into your briefcase.

A lot of things that can go wrong really aren’t your fault. What IS your fault is that you aren’t prepared for them. You can’t help if your plane was late, but did you book your flight to leave yourself a little flex time? You often can’t predict last minute equipment failure, but do you know what to do if it does fail? Even if circumstances are not your fault, they still undermine your presentation. The audience’s mood changes, your confidence changes, and the possibility of being perceived as a great speaker plummets.

I chuckle to myself when a speaker is so nervous that he rattles the change in his pocket. I totally empathize with the speaker who doesn’t know what to do with her hands.  If a lecturer forgets a main point or he clings to the podium like it’s his last lifeline, I can overlook it . But preparedness is matter of respect for both yourself and the audience. If you don’t make the effort to ensure you are ready, you’ve lost your credibility and I’ve lost any reason to listen objectively.



Brandy Champeau

Having been a member of Toastmasters, I am a little more sensitive these days than I used to be. I tend to pay more attention to not just what a speaker is saying, but also how they are saying it. I look more closely at movement, word choice and body language than I used to after a year f critiquing and being critiqued in the area of public speaking. That said, here are my top three signs of a bad public speaker

  • Reading verbatim off of a paper. If you are reading straight off of your notes and not looking up, this tells me a few things. First, it tells me that you have not practiced. It also tells me that you are either not comfortable with your topic or not comfortable in front of your audience
  • Overuse of “um” and “ah” and other words. In Toastmasters there is a position called the grammarian. The job of the grammarian is to count the number of times that you use filler words as well as count any other grammatical errors. Its amazing how many times people can use filler words when they haven’t practiced a presentation enough.
  • Use of the word “obvious”, “as anyone can see” or a similar phrase. This happens to be a personal pet peeve. To me, it’s like having a joke fall flat. As a speaker, you should never assume that something is obvious to your audience.   There are much better transition words and phrases that are available to use that won’t run the risk of alienating a portion of your audience.

All of my signs of a bad speaker have one thing in common. The biggest sign of a poor public speaker is a lack of preparation. Planning your speech and then practicing it can mitigate many of the mistakes that a speaker makes. With preparation, a speaker can identify phrases that may not work and replace them. With practice a speaker can become comfortable enough with his speech that he or she doesn’t need to stare at their notes the whole time. They know what word is supposed to come next and the instances of “filler” words decrease greatly. In short, a little bit of preparation can turn a poor speaker into a good one.


Samantha picture

There are many things, very clear and well-known things that make a good speaker. However, there are very specific things that make a bad speaker. A bad speaker uses very little to no rhetoric. Certain rhetorical devices like allusion, metaphors, repetition, and parallelism make a speech flow and grab the attention of the intended audience. Without the ability to use these devices in your speech and use them well makes the speech flat and boring. Rhetoric brings more dimensions to a speech and gives the speaker a sense of elegance. Without Rhetoric you have a flat speaker and an even flatter speech.

Another thing that makes a bad speaker is visible nerves. Now, being nervous is natural and everyone gets nervous, however a bad speaker lets those nerves get in the way of his speaking and in turn forgets lines, smiles during a serious portion of his message, or says the same sentence over and over which ruins his message.

The speaker’s attitude toward his audience and whoever or whatever he’s opposing also decides whether or not the speaker is good or bad. A bad speaker usually, and noticeably insults, talks down to, or makes anyone feel bad. This person gives his opinion about people, not his ideas. A bad speaker doesn’t make you think about your morals; he just tells you that you’re wrong. In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, and small minds discuss people.”

No matter the amount of preparation you put into your speech, if your presentation does not also convey your message, you will be seen as a bad speaker.


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