Article Category: Speaker Habits

Average Speakers Suck.
Don't be Average.


If you are an average speaker, you suck.

So do all of your colleagues with average presentation skills.

Let’s see why this is so…

Cookies and the Cookie Police

Suppose you are baking cookies. After mixing up the dough, you scoop up a bit with your fingers, roll it into a ball, and plop it on the cookie sheet. Repeat this 50 times, and you’ve got an oven full of cookies. Repeat this 500 times, and you’ve got a freezer full of cookies — or, perhaps, enough for a bake sale.

Now, suppose that you were being investigated by the Homemade Cookie Police. After you plop each cookie onto the sheet, they carefully lift it up and weigh it. For all 500 cookies, they record the weight. When they finish, they prepare a chart (presumably for their PowerPoint presentation back at Headquarters).

If you are a normal human being, the chart would look something like this:

  • Most of the cookies would have a weight very close to the average, give or take a few tenths of a gram.
  • Small numbers of cookies would be either very small or very large.

The very small cookies might burn in the oven, and the very large cookies might be raw, but the vast majority of cookies would be delicious!

Humans and the Bell Curve

Why did the cookie weight/frequency chart turn out the way it did? Because you’re human!

You may have recognized the shape of the chart as the Bell Curve. (You might know it as a normal distribution, or some other name.)  It has many fascinating applications in mathematics and statistics, but perhaps the most fascinating is that if you consider any variable in a large population, the histogram (the chart of values versus the count) tends to follow the Bell Curve.

In the case of cookies, the weight is a variable because you aren’t a robot.

As another example, consider adult heights. The average height for North American men is about 69 ½ inches. (North American women are about 64 ½ inches.) Height is a variable, and the distribution of heights follows the Bell Curve.

  • A large majority of male adults have heights around 69 ½ inches, perhaps a little above or a little below.
  • There are, of course, some really tall people and some really short people. Relatively speaking, however, there are fewer of these people.

When it comes to height, being average is good. In fact, it’s preferred. Clothes, cars, and airplane seats are all designed for you. To be extremely short or extremely tall means a life of physical inconvenience.

As another example, consider a sport like golf and let’s look at how well people can hit the golf ball.

  • Professional golfers can really smoke it, but there aren’t many professional golfers.
  • Some people can barely hit it at all (perhaps they are too frail or maybe just too clumsy to swing a club). There are only a few of these people, too.
  • The vast majority of us are in the middle. We’re just skilled enough to avoid injuring ourselves.

When it comes to golf, we’d like to be able to hit the ball at a professional level, but it’s okay to be average. Being average is mediocre, and that’s fine for golf. It’s understandable because most of us never received any golf lessons. Your golf skills are only used a few times per year (or in a lifetime), and your career success doesn’t depend much on your ability with a golf club.

Public Speaking and the Bell Curve

It’s a little more complex to quantify presentation skills, but suppose for a moment that you could. (Perhaps the number of minutes you can speak without anyone getting bored? Maybe the number of listeners who are motivated by your call-to-action?)

On the high end, you’ve got Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, and Steve Jobs.

On the low end, you’ve got hermits and people who cannot communicate at all.

In the middle, you have the majority of people with average presentation skills. Is this good? Or is this bad?

Here’s the key to this article: The line between being an effective communicator and an ineffective communicator is not down the middle of the chart. It’s over to the right. That’s where you want to be. That’s where you need to be.

Statistically speaking, you can suck and still be an average speaker. Most of your colleagues are. This is the Death by PowerPoint abyss. This is the 15 filler words per minute zone. This is the “What the heck is this speaker talking about?” zone.

  • Presentation skills are not cookies.
    Chocolate chips won’t compensate for you being an average speaker. Your audience spends a lifetime in meetings listening to people who are average speakers and wishing they were somewhere else.
  • Presentation skills are not like height.
    The world is not designed for average speakers to excel. People do not rally around you if you have an average ability to convey your ideas.
  • Presentation skills are not like golf.
    It’s not okay to be a mediocre. Your communication skills matter!

To Be a Good Speaker, You Can’t Be Average

Why is the average speaker so bad? Like golf, most people in the world never receive any formal communications training, and they never pursue any informal training either. We all pay the price. Think of the last 50 presentations you have attended. How many kept you interested throughout? Ten? Five? Fewer than five?

The small fraction of the population who strive to improve their skills (that’s you if you are reading this article) has a huge advantage.  If your communication skills aren’t already above average, they will be. And above-average communication skills give you a huge advantage in life. Your ideas get communicated and noticed. You excel in interviews. You are seen as a leader.

The good news is that anyone can improve their skills with dedication, effort, and time. Read Six Minutes. Read other speaking blogs. Read communication books. Join a Toastmasters club. Volunteer to speak whenever you can. Practice. Practice. Practice.

Don’t be an average communicator. Be effective.

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Comments icon5 Comments

  1. Jon Thomas says:

    Awesome post Andrew. I just wrote a post about the necessity to be remarkable when designing a presentation (http://ow.ly/15h1u), especially if you believe Seth Godin when he says, “Either be remarkable, or be ignored!” If you’re just an average speaker (and don’t use the free resources at your fingertips to improve), then prepare to to be ignored.

  2. Knut says:

    That cookie analogy doesn’t ring with me. Great post, nonetheless.

  3. Rubio says:

    Average writers suck too. To lay the ground this article gives three similar analogies. One would have sufficed. In the end the information it offers can be summed up in two sentences. ‘Most people are not born good speakers. You need to work on it.’ Pretty long article for such a obvious message.

  4. Simon says:

    Hi Andrew – interesting idea.

    Of course the issue isn’t really with the Normal Distribution, more with the fact that the average (all three of them! :) ) is so low in the first place!

    Simon

  5. Dick says:

    Andrew — great stuff! And so very true. I’m doing seminars on presentations skills (http://rknisely.wordpress.com/) targeted at engineers and like-minded technologists and the normal distribution idea will hit ‘em. I’ll credit you but I gotta use that one for sure! Thanks.

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tmiket

Mike Taylor @tmiket — Aug 3rd, 2012

Average Speakers Suck. Don’t be Average. http://t.co/UddRy66t

frankgeerlings

Frank Geerlings @frankgeerlings — Oct 31st, 2012

Good presenter, average statistician. http://t.co/xcE2CFNr

propresent_uk

Gary Newton-Browne @propresent_uk — Mar 12th, 2013

Average Speakers Suck. Don’t be Average. http://t.co/LHQrJIAspv via @6minutes

catalyst

MichaelSantarcangelo @catalyst — Mar 12th, 2013

Brilliant explanation of why average speakers suck: http://t.co/LQhk097HdR Good news – you don’t have to be or accept average

kairoer

Kai Roer @kairoer — Mar 12th, 2013

RT @catalyst: Brilliant explanation of why average speakers suck: http://t.co/LQhk097HdR Good news – you don’t have to be or accept average

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