Do You Make these 7 Common Mistakes in Public Speaking?

by | August 8, 2014

I have been in multiple Insurance gatherings lately observing the art of public speaking. This is a pseudo-hobby of mine and a strategic way for me to grow my professional skill in this area. Most of you are undoubtedly aware that Public Speaking, when it is a strength can make all the difference for an Agent in Leadership and Sales.

In my desire to grow as a public speaker I have:

  • Read widely on the subject
  • Undergone Formal training (Masters-level instruction and video-taped speeches w/ an instructor giving voice-over feedback from a sound-proof booth)
  • Watched myself on video to observe areas for improvement
  • Listened to myself on audio for personal feedback
  • Hired a Public Speaking Coach for eight sessions. She was a Polish woman with a background in Theatre and everything was about Energy and Authenticity. She was good.

I also have coaching relationships with communicators on a monthly basis where I give them feedback in preparation stage and feedback on after their delivery. Like I said, this is of personal interest to me bordering on a obsession.

So I bring these experiences with me when I attend Insurance meetings and I observe other public speakers through a particular grid.

The honest truth is, many of the Insurance Professionals that I observe are lack-luster at best.

We need to put in some work. We are not collectively crushing it in this arena.

But why should an Insurance Professional care about growing as a public speaking?

  • Webinars are on the Rise (The medium gives savvy agents the ability to transcend geography to offer great free content to qualify them as an expert and generates leads)
  • YouTube videos are becoming an essential tool for agents (Ryan Hanley’s “100 Ins. Questions in 100 Days” initiative catapulted his Content Marketing platform at The Murray Group)
  • If you engage with clients at all, you will only benefit by becoming a better communicator
  • Seeking out speaking opportunities locally or with Insurance Associations (IIA, PIA, etc.) can be leveraged to grow your personal brand and your business.  (Thought Leaders like Steve Anderson, Brent Kelly and Chris Paradiso are regularly asked to speak to increasingly large audiences)

But here is what I have been seeing. Consider this my veritable State-of-Public-Speaking-Address for the Insurance Space.

I recently had the opportunity to observe a unique scenario. Here’s what happened:

  • 16 Speakers were each given 1 minute to pitch their peripheral insurance service to a large group of Insurance Professionals
  • These were paying sponsors who forked over cash to get opportunities just like this one
  • They were each briefly introduced and then given the mic
  • There were closely timed to ensure they kept their talk to one minute. This was unique because even when speakers are given time constraints, they rarely adhere to them. But here, there was a woman in the front of the room with an iPad showing them a digital time reading and calling out when their minute was up. No overage time allowed. 60 short seconds. That’s it. That’s all. No excuses.

How often does one have the opportunity to observe 16 thinly-sliced 1 minute pitches in close succession? Almost never. It was a brilliant opportunity and I learned a lot. You can too.

What I Learned

1) Most public speakers are ineffective, but for a myriad of reasons. This unique scenario provided a profound look into what makes a pitch effective. But mostly I observed a thousand ways to fail. It’s a sad state of affairs when 14 of 16 Speakers blow it. But that’s what happened. 88% failed. They were unclear or unprepared or plastic or just entirely forgettable.

2) The Vast Majority of Speakers Never Clarify their Value Proposition. Most are too vague about what they can do better than anyone else. One speaker, who was quite articulate as the keynote speaker, lost his ball in the weeds when trying to differentiate his company. “We are really, really different…we really are. We’re not like your typical __<service provider>__. We’re different.”

That was a direct quote.

And now were confused, we’re really, really confused. We’re not like those other mind-readers who know what a speaker is saying even when he’s not saying it. We really aren’t.

Everyone has been told to craft their “30-second elevator pitch” and almost no one does. Or if they have done this work, they neglect it at the most opportune times. What you can learn from this: Stick to your guns. Know your 30-second pitch and say if often in new and creative ways. Stay on message. You may be bored with saying the same thing a thousand different ways, by your potential customers aren’t. They rarely hear it.

3) Nerves Make People Narcissistic. Perhaps this is self-evident, but a nervous person is a self-absorbed person. Great speakers are self-forgetful and audience-focused. Several of the speakers that failed talked about themselves for the first twenty seconds saying things like, “This is my first time here”…and “My name is” (re-introducing themselves right after they had been introduced).

They wasted precious time and we learned nothing. I am convinced that pre-speaking “nerves” lead people to spend their prep-time thinking about how nervous they are going to be rather than thinking through what they were actually going to share. So they think to themselves “I have spent a lot of time on this speech” when in reality they have just spent a lot of time obsessing about this speech.

There’s a difference. They have a half-bake manuscript and are certain it’s going to be nerve-racking. And it is, but mostly for the audience. What you can learn from this: Focus on the audience, forget about you and how you feel.

4) Some Speakers are Robotic and Inauthentic. One presenter actually shared “My boss wanted me to tell you…” and then proceeded to mechanically read a few talking points from a sheet of paper that wasn’t even out of her pocket yet. This kind of inauthenticity kills.

Exactly no one cares to hear more about this company, no matter how amazing it is. It doesn’t matter. The messenger wasted our time by effectively communicating “I don’t know enough about our business to look you in the eye and tell you about it.” One minute of this feels like eternity.

What you can learn from this: Have few key words that jog your memory on what you will share then make eye-contact with real people and share your value passionately. (More on the mechanics in a moment from a book that you will want to buy)

5) Many Talk One-Size-Fits-All. Anyone who has spent anything about public speaking has learned the timeless principle “Know Your Audience.”

At one point the company or person did the work to determine who their audience is or their target persona. But they haven’t revisited that in a while and they fail to nuance their approaches for the various uniqueness of subsets of their persona or the setting and time constraints of a given speaking opportunity.

Generic assumptions about your audience don’t connect. You need to think through your value proposition every single time you present.

What you can learn from this: Ask yourself the following questions in preparation; Will I be talking to CSR’s, Principals, Tech people, or Producers? What are their primary pain points? How can I demonstrate that I understand their world? What can you do for them that no one else can do? And then say that.

6) The 2 Communicators Who Succeeded Started Fast and Finished Strong

Only 2 out of 16 succeeded (that’s means only 12% were effective). I would wager that these statistics hold up across the general populous. The sad fact is, most people simply don’t communicate well in front of a crowd.

The first effective speaker was new to the audience. He opened with a compelling question to build “The Need.” It was confirmed that he was on the right track when the audience let out audible affirmation and offered nodding heads.

He then shared how his company goes about solving the problem that he laid out. He used strategic terms and gave the audience the feeling that his service contracts are not risky and can be discontinued if the service proves unhelpful. His audience now knows exactly what his company does and how it relates to their agency. He started a conversation that he will be able to continue with prospects. That’s as good as you can do in one minute.

What you can learn from this: If you only do one thing, start you speech with a bang. Don’t whimper about your travel getting there, or waste time talking about this being your first time attending, or any other mindless gibberish that accomplishes nothing but helping you work through your nervous energy. Start with a punchy question or story. Don’t build up to it. Go right for the heart, right now! Start Fast.

The 2nd dynamic communicator was a known entity amongst the audience. Rather than reviewing information; she cut right to the chase announcing two new employees that she had brought on and exactly how they would be available to meet tangible pain points in the audience.

There were audible gasps of delight with each new name and the thought of what that would mean for their respective businesses. Then she sat down. She went right for the jugular. She was an Assassin. With surgical precision she pinpointed the exact issues they were facing and provided a compelling solution.

This was brilliant to watch. It was no surprise that several people immediately engaged her after the session to discuss the new developments in her business. She no doubt will make money because of how she utilized her one minute. Chances are she uses opportunities like this one all the time to grow her business. The others? Not so much.

Many wasted the price of a plane ticket and whatever other expenses they incurred. These bad communicators are now in the red. We missed their point and they only thing we gained was an example of what not to do with a 1 minute pitch for your business.

What you can learn from this: Leave your audience wanting to learn more. Leave them leaning in. Give them a reason to follow-up with you afterwards. Finish Strong.

7) Honest Emotion is Rocket Fuel. When it comes to Television Broadcasting, Hall-of-Fame Football coach Bill Walsh failed and John Madden succeeded on this fact alone.

Walsh was brilliant, much smarter than Madden. Heck, he invented the West Coast Offense. But he was dry and unemotional on camera. People get bored with that, fast. Madden, like Dick Vitale and others who have succeeded in Broadcasting, get excited. We care more because they care more.

We don’t want to listen to the soft-spoken stoic, even if they’re Bill-Walsh-Brilliant.

What you can learn from this: When you are about to get in front of a crowd, go into a back room, slap yourself in the face a few times, jump up in down and then *metaphorically* SET YOURSELF ON FIRE! We want to see you give a rip. If you don’t, we won’t.

What to do if you have no clue

Most won’t enroll in the local Toastmasters chapter. Although that will do the trick (Basic instruction followed by reps in front of a live audience with feedback is the bedrock of any effective public speaking program).

Many avoid the very experiences that would help them to grow as a public speaker. Avoidance creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’re nervous and ineffective so when you finally do speak publically, it doesn’t go well so you lose confidence are more nervous next time.

Meanwhile those that put in the work have a growing confidence that opens more and more doors for them and their business. You decide which track you’re on.

I’ll assume you all want to grow to become a Compelling Public Speaker and therefore offer a review of 3 timeless principles that will serve you on your journey…

1)      You need a Simple System for Preparation. Preparation is foundational whether it’s a 1 hour or one-minute speech. Perhaps the 14 people who failed thought “It’s only a minute, I’ll just get up and talk about our business and it’ll be awesome.” Wrong. It’s not awesome to listen to half-baked content delivered by self-focused speakers.

I recommend you buy one book on public speaking and do exactly what it says.

Which book? “You Have to be Believed to be Heard” by Bert Decker.

Bert Decker book

Decker has coached people like Nancy Pelosi and Charles Schwab. He’s kind of a big deal. Go all in. Trust the expert. Use the manila folders. Use the upside-down post-it notes. Work through the Decker’s sections. Make sure you have answered all the questions. If you simply execute here it is impossible for you not to have a solid speech, on paper. Now on to delivery…


2)      You need to practice. Out loud. Multiple times. And In front of a small trusted pre-audience whenever possible. I believe that the 88% that failed got up and delivered their unrehearsed rough drafts. I don’t believe they practiced out loud.

They likely spent the majority of their time stressing about having to speak publically, and virtually none of their time actually practicing…public speaking. Good communicators practice. I know a dynamic communicator who gathers a group of 5-10 colleagues before any speech.

This accomplished speaker runs through his entire speech with enthusiasm and emotion as if he were presenting it to his intended audience. He then solicits feedback from his colleagues. Then he takes everyone to lunch to say thank you. He is better than 99% of the communicators I have heard because he does the things that 99% of communicators don’t.

He doubles his reps with the practice. He gets honest feedback and always ends up with peer-reviewed speech. His notes get clearer. His stories come out crisper. He gains immense confidence knowing that he is stepping up to the mic with tested content. Then he succeeds and gains even more confidence.

Remember public speaking is a self-fulfilling prophesy where you become more of what you think you are. Nervous people fail and become more nervous. Those who; 1) create great content, 2) practice it aloud (with a small group), 3) refine it then go on to succeed and grow in confidence with every rep.

3)      You need to focus authentic energy towards your audience. Here is where utilizing the key word approach that Decker outlines is essential. Your focus needs to be on concepts not reading. On people, not your notes. By focusing on your audience you’re able to bring more movement and emotion to your delivery.

Remember emotion communicates “this guy/gal really seems to believe this stuff” and now your audience is starting to believe as well. Using keywords and minimal notes is scary at first but well worth the risk. The first speech I gave after moving away from primarily reading a manuscript to looking at keywords on post-it notes rendered immediate positive feedback.

The audience didn’t know what I had changed, but I did and I would never go back to reading a manuscript. I try to pick out one person at a time in the audience and talk directly to them. In doing this, everyone else in the audience feels like you are talking to them directly. The best salesmen in the world have one thing in common: authentic enthusiasm about what they teaching and selling. You won’t be successful until you join them.


So the bad news is we as Insurance Professional aren’t exactly killing it as public speakers.. The good news is that many of us are lack-luster because we are not doing the hard work to develop as communicators. The good news is this entirely correctable.

Let’s put in work.

Let’s make the commitment today to develop as a public speakers.

Let’s promise right now to decide on a proven, compelling note system. The Decker System or something else that works.

Let’s commit to practice out loud with a pre-audience and keep inviting feedback. Reviewing our speeches whenever video/audio are available.

Let’s agree to single out one thing we need to improve each time and do so.

Let’s forget about ourselves and focus on our audience.

Let’s seek out strategic opportunities to speak. Let’s qualify ourselves as experts, grow our networks, and generate new leads.

Let’sStand and Deliver.

Our Agency’s future is counting on it.

How have you seen Public Speaking Skill (or the lack thereof) Help or Hurt an Insurance Professional? 



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