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Let content fill the stage – not ego

Tips to ensure your next speaking engagement is your best yet

Never take your audience for granted while public speaking, writes Evert Akkerman. (Ridofranz/Getty Images)

Public speaking isn’t easy — I’ll admit that. People who are great at it often honed their skill over many years, and they make it look easy.

However, the effort is there. Even in the best of circumstances, doing it well requires intense focus. You want to get your message across and, ideally, be recognized for a job well done.

Over the past several years, I attended countless presentations, seminars, ceremonies, workshops, and training sessions. There are multiple examples of how the speaker could have done better.

Stick to your strengths

Not everyone is a stand-up comedian, but some people insist on trying. It can be painful to watch.


I once attended an event hosted by one of Canada’s Big Three communications firms and witnessed a bewildering icebreaker. One of the speakers was tasked with recognizing a colleague for having hung on to his job for 10 years.

His name was Bob and, apparently, Bob had built a reputation for being late. The speaker opened as follows: “Bob, it’s too bad your first name isn’t John, or we could have called you Johnny-come-lately.”

Dead silence from the audience. People stared at each other. Dude, you’re not funny. Someone should have told you years ago.

The next no-no, in my opinion, is speakers who attempt to pre-empt criticism with disclaimers and caveats.

I can’t tell you how many times I attended early-morning presentations where the speaker started with some lame line like “I just threw this together last night.” If it’s true, it’s an insult to your audience (minimal prep = lack of respect), and if it’s faux humility, save it for LinkedIn.

You have credit until you shred it

Know your presentation, audience

A few years ago, I attended a seminar where the speaker stumbled through a PowerPoint presentation for several minutes, reading slides as if she’d never seen these before, and saying things that had nothing to do with what was on the screen.

Halfway through, she apologized and threw her co-workers under the bus: “Marketing must have sent me the wrong slide deck.”

To begin with, it looked bad that she needed a slide deck as a reminder of core values and key projects. What made her look even worse was that she hadn’t bothered to check the attachment when it came in the day before.

The worst speaker performance I ever witnessed was at an event hosted by an HR association that prided itself on diversity, inclusivity, and respect, and on offering a welcoming environment for everyone.

The theme of her presentation was the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, and this was the second reason I’d signed up — bacon and eggs being the first.

As the crowd settled in, this lady managed to insult two groups in the first five minutes, with possibly some overlap between the two. After the customary tap on the mic and “Can you hear me back there?” her opening line was, “As you know, today’s topic is AODA, and you’ll be surprised to hear that this act was drafted by a conservative government (heheh).”

I decided to let that one go, chalking it up as an icebreaker that fell flat. At least with me.

But it got worse: on her second or third slide, she listed examples of disabilities and elaborated on the difference between being deaf versus hard of hearing. She smiled broadly at the audience and said, “Hard of hearing, that’s what your husbands are (heheh).”

With that, I gathered my stuff and walked out. After cooling off for a day or two, I sent the association an email in which I explained why I hadn’t felt included, respected, or welcome. Kthanksbye.

Moral of the story: never take your audience for granted. There’s a wise quote making the rounds about being the smartest person in the room.

Evert Akkerman is an HR professional based out of Newmarket, Ont., and founder of XNL HR. He can be reached at info@xnlhr.com.

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2 Comments » for Let content fill the stage – not ego
  1. Great article. As someone who has spoken countless times from groups of a few to at times 1,000+, I treat them all the same. I do a standup, out loud rehearsal at least 3-5 times. It’s about the respecting time the audience has given me, and sharing in a way that will work for the audience. Thanks for sharing this Evert.

  2. Evert Akkerman says:

    Hi Doug, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I agree that it’s about respecting the audience’s time, and giving something of value in return for the effort they make by attending. They’ve come to listen and learn – not to be lectured or taken for granted. I especially enjoy the interactivity of Q&A.

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