Debunking the Myths of Public Speaking
By Jeanette Henderson

There’s a very good reason why so many people are afraid of public speaking; it’s because the advice they typically get is so full of old wives’ tales and gobbledygook, they instinctively know that it just can’t be right, but they don’t know what else to do, so they just go along with it, thus perpetuating the myths. They seldom stop to ask the question, "Why?" Yet if they were to stop and ask the question, they might be very surprised (and relieved) at the answer.
Let’s start at the beginning. The opening of a presentation is critical and many theories have been offered as to what the best way open. Here are some of them, and why you should NEVER USE THEM. The reasons are simple once you know why.
1. The Joke - When you start with a joke, there are four possible
outcomes: 1) People will get the joke and laugh, 2) people won’t get the joke and won’t laugh, 3) people will get the joke and think it’s not funny or appropriate and won’t laugh, or 4) will have heard the joke before and won’t laugh. So even if you tell the joke perfectly, with the timing of a professional (which is unlikely), you have a 75% chance your audience won’t laugh. Or worse, sometimes they laugh a little just to be polite, but are saying to themselves, "How lame." So why would anyone start with a joke?
2. Asking a Question - When you begin by asking a question, there are numerous possible outcomes, with the most likely being: 1) People will think the question is rhetorical and won’t answer, 2) people won’t know whether they are supposed to raise their hand or call out the answer, and because they don’t want to risk embarrassing themselves, they won’t answer, 3) people will be afraid they’ll get the answer wrong, and don’t want the speaker to point out their error, so they won’t answer, 4) they’ll call out an answer that is wrong, which means you have to correct them, and you’ve just alienated that person and everyone else who might have agreed with him or her, or 5) they call out the right answer, which means there’s someone (or many people) who have just figured out they know as much about the subject as you do, so any motivation to stay for the rest of the presentation has just fizzled out.
3. Talking about Yourself - When you begin by talking about yourself, (the most common mistake made in the political arena) these are some of the possible outcomes: 1) People will see you as a self-centered bore, in the same way they would if you were simply having a one-on-one conversation with them, 2) people won’t care about who you are, they just want to know what you can do for them as a result of your presentation, so they’ll turn you off, or 3) people will find things in what you say to dislike about you, or with which to disagree, an impression you must now work twice as hard to overcome.
4. Saying Something Shocking - When you start your presentation by saying or doing something shocking, there are several possible outcomes; a) People will think that you believe they have the attention span of a child and must be treated as such, and will immediately resent you for that assumption, b) people will find the statement or action so outrageous they will be in disagreement with you right off the bat, making the rest of your presentation and long and difficult uphill climb, or c) people will think you have a screw loose, and will realize that it wouldn’t be possible to believe anything you say after that anyway, so they’ll try be focused on a way to escape rather than on any subsequent explanation you might care to give about your shocking statement or action.
5. Starting With an Apology - When you begin by apologizing, which most often includes some excuse for not having enough time to prepare, there are several possible outcomes: 1) People will realize that you cared so little about the value of their time that you decided you could waste it, 2) people will think you got stuck making a presentation to them, making them feel unwanted, 3) people will think you must not know very much about the subject if you needed that much effort to prepare, or 4) people will realize that you are simply making preemptive excuses for the bad job you are about to do, and will look for the quickest way out.
6. Telling the audience what you’re going to tell them, then telling
them, then telling them what you just told them - When you begin with the age-old, misguided approach of tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em, (which is the equivalent of telling your audience the moral of the story before you’ve even begun) these are the likely outcomes: a) People will hear the conclusion, will usually assume they already know the path to get there, and will lose interest in going along for the long and arduous ride, b) people will decide they don’t want to know about that particular subject and will look for a way out, or c) people will believe you must think they are stupid to have to hear something three times in order to get it, and will not be inclined to want to listen to someone who thinks they are stupid.
When you ask the question "why", it’s easy to see the reasons these old myths should be eliminated from the public speaking lexicon. They simply don’t make sense. Which leaves the question, "What does?"
The purpose of the opening of a presentation is to get everyone
together, to make sure everyone is on the same page, to get everyone in agreement as to the state of things as they are now, so that your presentation can progress from there. The best and only 100% effective way of doing that is start by making an irrefutable statement with which everyone can agree.
(Jeanette Henderson is author of the book “There’s No Such Thing
as Public Speaking” to be released by Penguin Books later this year. A writer, speaker, speech coach, teacher, presentation consultant and Special Correspondent for the radio talk show Viewpoints on WCPI-FM in Middle Tennessee, she is co-founder of Podium Master, a nationally-recognized presentation consulting firm. She may be contacted through


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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