Article Category: Speaker Habits

The 7 Deadly Sins of Public Speaking


Some speaking sins, like the occasional “ah” or “um”, will not doom your presentation. With good content, you can earn forgiveness from the audience for those sins.

Other speaking sins are so grave that when you commit them, your speech or presentation is certain to fail. This article reveals the seven deadly sins of public speaking.

7 Deadly Sins of Public Speaking

Deadly Sin #1: Sloth

Sloth, or laziness, is committed by speakers who fail to prepare.

Speaking in public, whether formally or informally, is an essential activity that requires effort. Yet, the majority of people expend no effort to improve their effectiveness as a speaker. Tragically, they are content to drift from one frustrating presentation to the next.

Speaking in public, whether formally or informally, is an essential activity that requires effort.

You can avoid sloth in a number of ways:

  • Enroll in a public speaking course
  • Read public speaking books
  • Read public speaking blogs
  • Join Toastmasters or another local speaking club
  • Study great speakers
  • Hire a speaking coach

(By reading this article, you’re making the effort to improve. Sloth has no claim on you!)

Failing to prepare for life by improving your speaking skills leads to a chain of excuses, characterized by…

Deadly Sin #2: Envy

Envy is characterized by a false belief that great speakers are simply lucky to have been born with natural speaking skills.

You’ve heard the excuses from your colleagues, haven’t you?

  • “She’s so lucky! She’s a natural speaker!”
  • “Hmph! It’s so easy for him to speak in front of people.”
  • “No, I couldn’t deliver the proposal. I’m not a speaker.”

People who are envious of the “natural” skills of others are more likely to apply misguided solutions when confronted by an unavoidable speaking situation:

  • They steal stories and anecdotes from others rather than creating original ones
  • They copy PowerPoint slides from others even if they don’t quite apply
  • They mimic the oratorical style of others and lack authenticity

Because of bad habits like this, speakers suffer from lack of confidence. They know the stories, the slides, and the words are not their own. Nervousness results because they fear being exposed, and this nervousness leads to crazy behaviors like…

Deadly Sin #3: Lust

Please don’t picture the audience naked, especially if I am in your audience.

The lustful speaker attempts to calm their nerves by applying the common (yet terrible) advice to picture the audience naked!

Please don’t picture the audience naked, especially if I am in your audience.

In theory, picturing your audience naked makes them seem as vulnerable as you feel. It may provide a brief lighthearted moment to feed your teenaged appetite, but it won’t help you speak better.

More likely, it will cause an additional distraction and impede your efforts to connect with your audience. Consider this: how easy is it for you to communicate something meaningful to a room full of naked people? Can you inspire them? Impossible.

Nervous speakers who avoid this lustful deadly sin are, unfortunately, still prone to committing another deadly sin…

Deadly Sin #4: Gluttony

Gluttony is exhibited by speakers who believe that more is always better.

More slides, more bullets, more examples, more facts, more numbers, more details, more words — more of everything.

Packing all possible material into your presentation and then speeding through it is flawed, despite your best intentions to provide maximum value. More is (usually) not better. Cognitive research shows that people have a limited capacity to absorb information (see Kosslyn’s Clear and to the Point and Mayer’s Multimedia Learning). Overloading that capacity will reduce their ability to absorb anything at all! Quantity is no substitute for quality.

It is better to focus your presentation on your core message, select only the very best support material (facts, slides, anecdotes), and speak at a reasonable pace. Supplementary material, if necessary, belongs in a handout.

All of this gluttony — too many slides, too many stories, too many details — leads the speaker down a dark and dirty path towards…

Deadly Sin #5: Greed

Speaking for more than your allotted time violates the contract you have with your audience, and that’s never a good thing.

Greed is the deadly sin of excess, and is committed by a speaker who goes over time.

Does this sound familiar?

  • “Oh, is that clock correct? I’m only halfway through…”
  • “I haven’t gotten to the good part yet…”
  • “Are there any objections to cutting our lunch break in half so I can finish this?”

Speaking for more than your allotted time violates the contract you have with your audience, and that’s never good. People are busy and do not appreciate having their time wasted. Nobody will complain if you finish a few minutes early.

If you go over time, negative emotions begin to fill the room, making you more susceptible to experience…

Deadly Sin #6: Wrath

Wrath, or uncontrolled anger, is committed by a speaker who handles problems in the worst possible way.

As a speaker, you should always remain in control. No matter how bad your presentation is going, keep calm. Don’t let these frustrations provoke you:

  • When you make a mistake (even a big one), resist the urge to draw more attention to it by cursing yourself in an attempt to draw pity.
  • When an audience member is disrupting the room, resist the urge to “solve” it with sarcasm.
  • When the room or venue logistics fail, don’t start blaming the organizers or anyone else. Instead, roll with in and move on.
  • When an audience member is heckling you, do not take the bait.

Getting angry — whether at yourself, someone in the audience, or some other factor — is one of the worst things you can do. Your audience will feel uncomfortable and your credibility will be diminished considerably.

Finally, the first six speaker sins are all symptoms of the deadliest speaking sin of them all…

Deadly Sin #7: Pride

Pride is committed by a speaker who believes that public speaking is about them.

It’s not.

  • It’s never about you.
  • It’s never about your impressive accolades in your introduction.
  • It’s never about your dazzling delivery where you channel Churchill.
  • It’s never about your sumptuous slides which prominently feature your company logo beside dazzling 3-D pie charts.

Public speaking is always about the audience and the message you want to convey. Failing to put the audience first will kill any presentation. You need to perform audience analysis to discover how best to structure your presentation and deliver the message.

It’s never about you. Public speaking is always about the audience and the message you want to convey.

Avoid this sin by starting to analyze your presentation from the audience’s perspective. Amazingly, most of the other speaking sins will go away.

  • You’ll recognize that you need to prepare. (Sloth)
  • You will realize that you are uniquely capable of delivering your message to this audience. (Envy)
  • You will trim all of the fluff to deliver a message which is focused and easy-to-understand. (Gluttony)
  • You will respect the time your audience has given you. (Greed)
  • You won’t saddle your audience with your problems. (Wrath)

As for Lust when speaking, well… that’s just silly.

7 Deadly Sins of Public SpeakingThe Seven Deadly Sins of Public Speaking

  1. Sloth: failing to prepare for your speech or presentation
  2. Envy: believing that great speakers are born with their skills
  3. Lust: quelling your nerves by picturing the audience naked
  4. Gluttony: believing that more words/slides/facts/numbers is always better
  5. Greed: speaking over your allotted time
  6. Wrath: rigidly reacting to problems and losing your cool
  7. Pride: placing yourself ahead of the audience

How many of these speaking sins are committed in presentations you attend?

This is one of many public speaking articles featured on Six Minutes.
Subscribe to Six Minutes for free to receive future articles.

Comments icon10 Comments

  1. What a great article! Spot-on identification of some of the big sins of public speaking. Many of the people we work with come to us with myths they imagine to be true — like the one that “ums” and “ahs” are unforgivable — and we spend a lot of time debunking the false ideas. These 7 deadly sins are real ones to worry about. Nice job!

  2. Hi Andrew

    A very nice post.
    I attended a presentation a couple of months back. In the light of you sins, I would charge him of gluttony, wrath and being a sloth.

    He overloaded his presentation with data, got extremely defensive when someone found a flaw in his analysis and had done a lousy job of preparing before the meeting.

    You commit 1 sin and the audience shall forgive you. But if you commit 2 or more, it really gets irritating and bad.

  3. Allyncia says:

    Great article. I was also thinking that the “Lust” idea of viewing one’s audience would not make me any less nervous or relaxed. Since when does that relax a person? I think it would justify me walking out!

  4. I can relate to the greed and gluttony sins the most. Including too much information is bad because you can only absorb so much. The greed sin is also related to the pride sin. If you go over your allotted time you aren’t putting the audience first. Great article!

  5. Bilka says:

    Dear Andrew,
    Thanks for brilliant article – you’ve just targeted my today experience with nasty speakers at PR (!) Congress! Thanks God, I was not speaking this time and now have some minutes to review my speaking behaviors:) Thanks, Anna

  6. Yenni says:

    Seriously!!!
    Great article! great reading! I really enjoyed it!!!
    I found the 7 sins are so real and will be very useful for public speakers.

  7. Clever way of presenting the info… but more importantly it is a technique that could be used for any presentation.

    The seven deadly sins of Public Speaking / Healthy Eating / Applying for a Job… put your own title here.

    Seven may be too many for a short talk… but the idea still holds good.

  8. George says:

    Great Write up. it gave new insight over the topic. I never thought of correlation between the deadly sins and public speaking. Thanks for the article.

  9. Mark S. Wardrip says:

    This is fantastic advice!
    What about these?
    1. What do you do when you draw a blank and you are temporarily brain dead?
    2. How do you recover from no laughs at your joke or from humor not well received?
    3. Audio and/or video equipment not functioning properly?
    4. When asked the unanswerable question?
    5. When you’ve lost your script/notes and you still must go on?
    6. When you are asked to cut your presentation short or to extend it longer?
    7. What if you fall ill or have a bathroom emergency midway through the speech?

    These may not be sins but they are worth considering. We do need some redemption from them. Thanks!

  10. Interesting spin on the famous 7 Deadly Sins, Andrew.

    The two most common sins I witness out there are:

    1. Reading off the PPT slides. I guess that would fall under your #1; and

    2. Talking well beyond the allotted time (#5: Greed).

    Both are curable. Sadly, some presenters just don’t take the necessary steps.

Tweets icon68 Tweets

Showing the most recent...

mortenkvist

Morten Kvist @mortenkvist — Dec 12th, 2011

Public speaking: http://t.co/G8FicUcd

alextheis

Alex Theis @alextheis — May 18th, 2012

Speaking tip: It's not about you, it's about them. The 7 sins of public speaking from @6minutes http://t.co/8roCYpI6

urvitalchoice

Coach Erica @urvitalchoice — Aug 1st, 2012

The 7 Deadly Sins of Public Speaking http://t.co/uTpF3ilV via @6minutes

thejanwallen

Jan Wallen @thejanwallen — Aug 30th, 2012

Just For Speakers: The 7 Deadly Sins of Public Speaking – http://t.co/IZvvJhwt

thejanwallen

Jan Wallen @thejanwallen — Nov 21st, 2012

Just For Speakers: The 7 Deadly Sins of Public Speaking – http://t.co/2YNI3LAl

Links icon6 Blog Links