Public Speaking Myths

In the last two weeks, I’ve had multiple students in my workshops ask incredulously, “I get what you’re teaching, but I was taught the exact opposite. Which is correct?” Those are the sorts of questions that can strike fear into the heart of an instructor – perhaps I am teaching it wrong! But in each case, I’m exceptionally confident in the method that brought the techniques to me. And I’m more than happy to take on any public speaking myths, especially ones that begin with “my college speech professor told me…

public speaking mythsHere are the two most popular public speaking myths that I’m presented in our workshops:

  1. The speaker should look over the heads of the audience, not into their eyes.
  2. Imagine your audience in their underwear and that you’re the only one who has clothes on.

I think both of these fall into the “if you repeat something enough, it will be believed.” One simple word/response to these myth statements causes the person who believes them to stammer and stutter. I respond, “Why?!
Why would I look over the heads of my audience? Why should I imagine them in their skivvies? The loss for any answer that makes sense should give us clarity on the truth. This is especially true in light of what we teach in our workshops about eye contact.
In both cases, I think I know why these myths have stood in the face of logic and time. They’re designed to fool the mind and heart of the speaker into feeling good about speaking. Speaking is a normal and expected source of anxiety, and people want to feel good. If I can make myself feel better than my audience (Hah! You’re in your undies!), or avoid having to look at them directly (over their heads!), then perhaps my mind won’t convince me that I’m anxious. Feel better, do better, or at least that’s the theory.
But if you ask the right question, these techniques fail miserably, and are replaced with techniques that work both for the speaker AND the audience. “What is best for the audience?” (oh, that pesky Rule #1 thing again–it’s not about you).
Any audience smaller than 1000 can likely tell when you’re not looking directly at them, and it’s just weird. Stare at the back wall and you’re going to miss a connection. You’ll lack believability. Misbehavior and inattentiveness will increase. Side conversations will crop up. Your message will be less effective. Or at least that’s what students come up with when I ask what direct eye contact does for the audience.
Imagine your audience in boxers, loincloths, jockeys, or a corset, and I’m hard-pressed to predict what facial expression will ensue. And with the audiences I speak in front of, it might be a mixed bag. Should I smile when I envision this? Frown? Show surprise? What will the audience think when you get a sly grin as you begin your talk? Should you reveal what you’re doing. How far do you take it? Long johns or BVDs? Lace or granny panties?
The myths don’t pass any test that makes sense. Even if it helps the speaker get through their anxiety, they fail on the only test that matters – it doesn’t help the audience.
In both cases, skill trumps myth. It’s simple — but hard — and likely won’t be mastered without practice, but the technique that will improve your speaking more than anything else is this:

Whenever you are speaking, look directly into a set of eyes.

Not the wall behind them. Not your notes. Not the carpet. Not a scan of everyone in the room. One set of eyes. One person. Then speak. That’s not a myth. It’s good speaking skill.

Communication matters.  What are you saying?

This article was published in the October 2016 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters. Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.