The most common public-speaking mistakes—and how to avoid them

Don’t expect perfection—or think that you can just wing it.
By Alex Granados

For many people, public speaking is extremely stressful. CPAs are no exception—especially since most don’t get much formal training on making presentations while in college or during their first few years on the job.

So how do we minimize the fear associated with public speaking? How do we avoid the mistakes that will bring the flop sweat to our brows and leave us quivering backstage? We asked three experienced public speakers to share common mistakes people make—and identify ways to avoid them.

Common mistake No. 1: Expecting perfection

Peter Margaritis, CPA, CGMA, is known as The Accidental Accountant. He doesn’t practice as an accountant anymore but instead uses his improv experience to help CPAs learn to be better public speakers. And he says one of the most common mistakes a public speaker can make is expecting a presentation to be perfect.

Often, new speakers memorize their entire presentation in the hopes of sounding perfect. But such speeches often sound canned, Margaritis said.

Perfectionism can also cause speakers to stumble if they realize mid-speech that they’ve forgotten to make a point. This can “create a snowball effect,” Margaritis said. “We’ll start to stumble or back up, and there’s a lot of stuttering. Whatever confidence we may have had has gone away.”

Often, when you realize you’ve left out a point, or made a minor error, it’s best to simply move on. The audience typically won’t notice the omission or mistake anyway.

“Ignore it,” Margaritis said. “Get back on track.”

Common mistake No. 2: Not listening to yourself practice

No matter how natural a public speaker you may be, it’s essential to listen to yourself go through a presentation before you actually deliver it, advised Andy Woodhull, a North Carolina-based stand-up comic who has appeared on The Tonight Show, Conan, and Comedy Central.

“When you start public speaking, you’ll say ‘um,’ and ‘like,’ and ‘you know,’ ” he said. “The only way to get rid of it is to listen to yourself.”

Filler words aren’t the only problem. Practicing out loud also will alert you to tongue-twisting phrases or words that you may have trouble pronouncing (people’s names can be particularly tricky, especially if it’s somebody you don’t know well.) 

Common mistake No. 3: Sounding too rehearsed

The hardest thing to do as a successful stand-up comic, or public speaker, is to not sound rehearsed, Woodhull said.

He likens good stand-up comedy to a magic trick. A comic may sound like he or she is talking to an audience off the cuff, saying things for the very first time. But behind that seemingly impromptu performance are hours of rehearsal.

For instance, you may have noticed that comedians like to single out people in the crowd. They pick someone and start cracking jokes. To the audience, it seems spur-of-the-moment.

Don’t be fooled: It’s really all a carefully prepared act. The comedian will look for similar people during each show and make the same jokes with a mastery of their craft that seems like the comments are spontaneous. 

Public speakers, by contrast, often sound too rigid—especially if they are simply reading off of a PowerPoint presentation.

Practicing at home will help, but it’s also important to seek out as many public-speaking opportunities as you can. Experience will breed confidence, and eventually you’ll be able to relax a little more and your performance will flow better.

Common mistake No. 4: Not eating properly or exercising

Dale Deletis, a former teacher turned public-speaking coach, has somewhat surprising advice for improving your presentation skills: eat bananas.

“When we get frightened, we go into the fight-or-flight syndrome,” he said. And the fight-or-flight response can occur whether we’re facing a threat to our physical safety—or the imagined threat of an audience judging us as inadequate.

When the fight-or-flight response kicks in, our blood pressure rises, Deletis said. We get anxious, and our performance suffers.

Turns out there is a good, natural antidote to high blood pressure: potassium. And you know what’s high in potassium? Bananas.

According to Harvard Medical School, potassium does lower blood pressure, and bananas are a good way to get that extra dose. It’s an investment, though. You’ll want to add bananas, or foods with similar properties, to your everyday diet to get the benefits. But in the long run, those bananas may help calm your nerves and keep you from feeling like you want to flee the room.

But that’s not the only lifestyle change you might want to make.

“Being successful in this business requires a solid foundation of diet and exercise,” Margaritis said. “Everything else is built from that foundation.”

He brings workout clothes with him when he’s on the road and spends his mornings using the elliptical, lifting free weights, and doing pushups.

“I find that morning exercise gives me a lot of needed energy for the day, and that translates well in my presentations,” he said. “Being in decent shape also helps dealing with the grind of travel.”  

He also tries to steer clear of fast food on his travels. Instead, he seeks out salads for lunch and dinner, and travels with Clif Bars that he can eat for breakfast or for snacks.

“Once, I ate in the hotel restaurant and had a cheeseburger and fries for dinner,” he said. “That led to a poor night’s sleep, and a lack of motivation to exercise the next morning—which affected my presentation the next day.”  

While some people are natural public speakers, being a good presenter is a skill like any other. It takes practice, realistic expectations, and, from time to time, maybe even a banana or two. With these simple tips, you can hone your public-speaking persona and start captivating audiences. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is a Raleigh, N.C.-based freelance writer. To comment on this story, email Chris Baysden , senior manager, newsletters, for the AICPA.

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