How to avoid falling flat in front of a big audience

(As originally published in the National Law Journal, April 14, 2011)

In the world of social media, you realize very quickly that if you don’t share good content, you are quickly ignored. I wish this message could get through to speakers at conferences. I attend a lot of conferences. Sometimes I’m a speaker, some I attend just for my own education. I notice one disturbing trend: panelists and speakers who fall flat. I’m not trying to be callous or mean, but when you are preparing to speak before a large group of 50, 100 or even 250 people, you better come ready to play. There’s nothing that bugs me more than a speaker who wastes the time of the audience; it’s disrespectful and bad form. So now that I’ve had my rant, how can you avoid falling flat?

To answer this question, I interviewed Lou Hampton, a professional with more than 30 years’ experience as a message consultant. He has done everything from working with presidential candidates and leaders of the U.S. Senate to helping Fortune 500 companies and handling fallout during what at the time was the largest fraud case in United States history (protecting a third party). He even worked at one time with the ABA’s Board of Governors on an initiative to improve the public’s perception of lawyers. (They are still working on that one.) Lou Hampton

I asked Hampton, what are the most common problems you see from presenters? He provided six common mistakes that destroy a speaker’s credibility and impact.

* Failure to decide what result you want out of the speech.

Every speaker should be looking for measurable results in terms of outcome. Do you want business cards? Meetings? Or some way to capture interest, build relationships and follow-up? What do you want the listener to be able to do as a result of the program? What concepts do you want them to walk away with?

* Failure to pay attention to the audience.

Put yourself in the shoes of your audience and ask What Here Applies to Me? Hampton calls this the WHAM!factor. You need to move past the golden rule of “what would I want” to “what would they want?”

* Failure to select a dominant image for people to take away.

What is the image people are going to take away with them? What is going to be at the top of their minds that will immediately remind them of your key message? If you have the right image that people remember, you have a good chance of success, even if they don’t remember much else.

* Failure to have a good opening.

Your hook shouldn’t be, “Prepare for something boring,” or, “I didn’t have time to prepare for this.” Use a personal experience, story or some other narrative to grab the attention of your audience. Something that will pull their attention away from whatever else is on their minds to what you are saying. Caution: Make sure your opener relates to your message; no jokes just for the sake of being funny.

* Use of bullet points.

Bullet points are not visuals. Visuals mean that there is something to see. Bullet points in slides actually reduce retention. If you presentation is laden with bullet points, time to go back to the drawing board, literally, and come up with photos or diagrams to represent your content.

* Using sentences that go on forever and start slow.

Attorneys are especially prone to this mistake. Keep your sentences short. And get to the point; don’t make your audience have to listen to lengthy qualifiers before they even know what you’re talking about.

Avoiding these six mistakes is just the beginning. Doing so won’t make you great speaker by itself, but it will aid you in giving a speech the audience will remember and that helps you get the result you want.

Please review these steps before you speak next time; I’m not sure I can handle another hour-long presentation of long slides covered with bullet points. For additional speaking tips from Hampton, visit his blog, .

Adrian Dayton is a lawyer, author and speaker working with large firms and organizations to more effectively use social media. You can learn more at


5 Responses to “How to avoid falling flat in front of a big audience”

  1. Faith Pincus says:

    Hi Adrian,

    Great tips. Especially the one about kicking off with an attention getter! Very important. “Hi my name is…” and “thank you for inviting me” aren’t attention getters.

    I don’t know that his tips were in any particular order, so I’d like to add on to Hampton’s comments.

    A) At a CLE program it is more important to figure out who your audience is and what they want, than what you want. At least, it is if you want to give a good presentation. Too many speakers are focused on what they want to get out of it, instead of looking at who their audience is and how the speaker can help his or her audience. Try hard to find this information out in advance.

    I always send a list of our attendees to our CLE speakers. Good speakers will have their assistants provide bio sheets on the attendees, or at least a sample of them if it is a large audience, so the speaker knows what she or he is getting into.

    When I teach my public speaking for attorneys program my staff looks up all attendees (google, law firm website, bar website, etc.) and gives me a pack of bios to review, so I have a good idea of their background and potential interests.

    B) Skip the Power Point altogether, unless you have some great visuals. There is nothing worse than listening to a speaker read off their bullet points or use complicated graphics that they have to explain. Read the books, Presentation Zen or Slide:ology for ideas if you, or your conference organizer, insists on Power Point.

    C) Arrive 30 minutes early, minimum, and begin networking with the audience. Introduce yourself one-on-one to as many people as possible. Ask the attendees why they are there; what they need to know about. This accomplishes several things:
    (1) you can adjust your speech on the fly if you missed the boat;
    (2) you will endear yourself to your audience right away and they will be more receptive to you and your message, especially since most speakers keep distance between themselves and their audience by just sitting at a table and looking at their notes before speaking;
    (3) with that one-on-one contact you are more likely to get a referral from those audience members you spoke too (if that is what you want); and,
    (4) with that one-on-one contact, you are more likely to get questions and participation from your audience

    I both own a CLE business (60 seminars a year in 3 states) and I have been training speakers, including attorneys, for 20+ years. So I’ve seen it all – good and bad. The best CLE speakers are very organized, attentive to their audience’s needs, are friendly, and are excited to be able to teach their audience something of value. They don’t just “phone it in.”

    For more tips along these lines, see my blog on speaking and CLE programs and click on the CLE category.

    • Thanks Faith, these are great additions. CLE’s can be so good, or so bad- it all depends on the speaker and the preparation.

      So many of these tips seem obvious, but clearly they aren’t because we still have to sit through so many awful talks. I appreciate your comments and ideas Faith, I appreciate you sharing.

      • Ted Brooks says:

        Great info, thanks for sharing. While I don’t make a living by giving presentations or doing CLE’s, they are an important part of my business development. It’s always nice to get a few tips from the pros.

  2. Ray says:

    Great advice. I must admit, I have been guilty of this before… earlier in my career I gave a speech where the whole time in my head I was screaming that I was boring the people. It was purely poor planning on my part. Now i know better.


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