HR & Management

5 pitfalls to avoid when giving a speech

5 min read

09 September 2014

As the famous George Bernard Shaw phrase goes, success can cover a multitude of blunders, but if there’s a choice, not making them in the first place is always the better option.

When in a position of leadership or with a high profile, a blunder – no matter how small – can be catastrophic, so how can leaders ensure they don’t say the wrong thing, and if they do, recover successfully to make up for their failures?

In this article, Robin Kermode – one of Europe’s leading speech directors – looks at his top five speech blunders and the five lessons to learn from them.

1. Don’t rubbish your own product

The most famous blunder in this category has to be jeweller Gerald Ratner’s 1991 speech at the I.O.D. where he rubbished his own company’s products. “People say, “How can you sell this for such a low price?” I say, “because it’s total crap.” 

The burst of laughter that followed seemed to spur him on, he then said that a pair of his gold earrings was “cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn’t last as long.”

This speech had such an impact – wiping £500 million from the value of his jewellery chain – that pressing self-destruct in this way has now become known as ‘Doing a Ratner’!

We will never know if it was a moment of rashness or that he felt relaxed enough to say what he might have said to friends but a company platform was clearly not the time or the place for this amount of honesty!

2. Don’t rubbish your own customers

David Shepherd, Topman’s brand director, suggested that his company’s clothes were worn by “hooligans”, before going on to say, “Very few of our customers have to wear suits for work – they’ll be for his first interview or first court case.”

The company tried a PR offensive afterwards suggesting that the word “hooligan” might not be seen as an insult among its customers. Keep digging!

As with Ratner, there is a time and place for this level of personal humour and honesty.

3. Don’t think you can improvise a speech

A keynote speech cannot be improvised. Ever!

Actor Richard T. Jones discovered the pain of trying to make a commencement speech at the University of Maryland with no preparation. He started with a joke that worked well enough, “I had such great quotes for you today but every single one has been used already!” After that he came to a crashing halt and after a long pause said “I’m glad I looked up a word “improv” ‘cause that’s what’s going happen here today – an improvisation.”

It was like watching paint dry as he desperately tried to think of important things to say. Eventually he said “I believe in thoughts. Extraordinary thoughts.” However, through lack of preparation, they sadly all eluded him as he stood squirming at the podium.

Preparation, preparation, preparation!

4. Know who you’re introducing

If you find yourself having to introduce someone at a big event, my recommendation is always to have the name written down in front of you – however famous the person you are introducing.

At a Democratic rally for Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden in Tampa, Fla., campaign volunteer James J. Piccillo mistakenly introduced Biden as Republican ‘John McCain.’ Despite the huge introduction that had gone disastrously wrong, Biden walked on pretending as if it hadn’t happened, clearly hoping the audience hadn’t noticed.

If you make a mistake sometimes it’s good to own up but sometimes it works as well to bluff it out – the more audacious the mistake the more the audience might think: “Did he really say that? No, I must have misheard!”

5. Don’t drink before giving a speech

Tempting though it is to think that a quick glass will give you Dutch courage before giving a speech, the reality is that it rarely works. Mariah Carey was not the first, and certainly won’t be the last, celebrity to find this out this too late. Her rambling speech at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in 2010 is definitely something I wouldn’t recommend trying in front of an audience or TV cameras!

Robin Kermode is one of Europe’s leading communication coaches and founder of Zone2, a professional training and coaching consultancy. His new book SPEAK (so your audience will listen) – a practical guide for anyone looking to improve the way they connect with their audience – is available now from Amazon