6 Habits of Highly Annoying Public Speakers
Watching public speaking -- at a corporate seminar, a presentation, a high school assembly -- is more often than not a miserable experience. Part of the problem is that a lot of what's being presented is bullshit, which already doesn't bode well, but lots of speakers make it even worse by trying to glaze the bullshit with decorative cake frosting and sprinkles, so to speak. They'll dress up a five-minute talk on the most obvious and meaningless statements about sexual harassment with annoying gimmicks and tricks to the point where everyone leaves the seminar determined to sexually harass somebody, just out of spite.
Here's a couple of their worst habits:
Blaming the Audience for a Lack of Enthusiasm
I think a lot of us have run into a guy like this at some time in our lives. Now what can we see here, other than that stock photo minorities are apparently very vindictive people?
Well, the most annoying thing, beyond being nagged to do something you don't really want to do, is that the speaker is basically blaming you, the audience, for not being enthusiastic about something as stupid as his initial greeting, or maybe a catchphrase he wants you to repeat later, or maybe some opinion you're supposed to get excited about.
Well, that's his job. He's supposed to get you excited by making the subject matter exciting, not by guilting you into pretending to be excited. Does the pizza delivery guy have the balls to lecture you about not paying him for the pizza when he hasn't brought you any pizza? Does he tell you that good customers pay money? Does he act disappointed in how little you care about the pizza he didn't bring?
It's even slimier when a speaker equates lack of volume with the audience not caring deeply enough about the subject -- especially when the subject is some morally good cause. "That's it? That's all I get when I talk about building houses for the poor?" or "Come on, don't you care about Darfur a little more than that?" You could be giving a thousand dollars a month and passing out flyers all over your campus, but apparently because you don't yell loudly enough at a speech, you don't REALLY care.
Sometimes the speaker means well and naturally shouts about anything he cares about, and is just mistakenly projecting his extroverted personality onto everyone else, but sometimes the speaker is deliberately hoping to redirect well-intentioned audience guilt about a good cause toward cheers for himself. In which case maybe those vindictive minorities above aren't too far off.
Forced Acrostics and Other Useless Mnemonics
An acrostic is that piece of shit I made above. It's different from an acronym, I guess, in the sense that saying the whole thing in order doesn't have to make sense, and you can have sentences. Every motivational book or speaker has to have one, and the famous ones are "good" in the sense that they're easy to understand and you can remember what they stand for.
Unfortunately, that means that every high school speaker and bush league pastor thinks that using them is the key to success.
As you can see, when you have to force your points to begin with the letters of whatever cutesy word you come up with, like "SMART" above, you'll end up with convoluted phrases like I've got, or you'll be digging in a thesaurus and coming up with obscure, hard-to-remember synonyms for the word you really wanted. It completely defeats the purpose of the acrostic in making your points easy to remember.
Another variant on the same thing is "the 4 E's" or something similar, where you make every point begin with the same letter. This really forces the thesaurus usage.
In this case, it would probably be easier to just make people memorize those three sentences than to make them try to remember the weird, barely used word you came up with, and then figure out what that word was supposed to mean.
Seriously, if you can't think of a clever, compact way to make people remember your points, just pass out a goddamned outline. The printing press has been around for over 600 years, maybe make some use of it.
Forced Audience Participation
All that said, I want you to memorize the acronym for Forced Audience Participation (FAP) because it's very apt. FAP is basically a speaker getting his rocks off by having the audience do things that he can fool himself into believing are a sign of how interested they are in his fascinating speech.
For example, there's a kind of bad habit going around where the audience has a printed outline of the speech, and at certain points, the speaker asks them to stop and circle a key word. Sometimes this makes sense, I guess, if you're introducing a new term like the 180 degree rule, or if the word is central to all the points you're making. ("Quentin Tarantino goes in a lot of exciting directions in his films but it all comes back to his foot fetish. I want you to circle 'foot fetish.' We're going to come back to that a lot.")
"Just like Tarantino does."
Of course, all this depends on a grasp of what words are vital and recurring in your speech, and you know what? Most people with that skill know how to emphasize those words without making people circle them on a piece of paper. So most of the people using this trick have no idea what words would be appropriate to circle. I have seen speakers tell me to circle words like "the" and "and" in a desperate last-ditch effort to feel like the audience is listening to something they are saying.
And it's very self-gratifying when you give an order and everyone obediently scritch-scratches with their pencils. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking, "Well, that particular 'and' I asked them to circle must have been a very important 'and' indeed." But if that's not enough, you might make them repeat key words or phrases out loud, which is annoying in the same sense as forcing a louder "good morning" out of people is annoying.
But if you still can't get an erection after making people dutifully circle and repeat things, you can make them really pretend they're into it by dragging volunteers up to the front of the room and having them participate in stupid skits. You can give them goofy props, to make it funny. Just don't give them anything sharp.
Asking Really Hard or Really Stupid Questions
There's two ways to ask questions of the audience that will make them hate you. One is to ask really hard questions, where they stress out about getting it wrong and looking stupid in front of everyone. If you've ever attended high school or college, you've probably run into that.
The other way might be even worse, when they ask the most obvious question possible. If they ask the audience as a whole, they just want a loud "YES!" or "NO!" same as any of the other forced enthusiasm tactics. But if they single you out, it's really the most no-win situation ever.
"After I've had an entire 12-pack of cheap beer, should I get in my car and start driving? What do you think? Todd?" If you answer wrong, you'll look retarded. If you answer right, you will get a much-too-excited string of praise for answering a question a trained monkey could answer.
Sometimes a speaker likes to show he "gets" his audience by mentioning some local in-joke or popular person in the community. This tactic seems to be used mostly by people who speak at high schools, possibly because high school students often can't tell when they're being manipulated.
However, this Family Guy episode has been around a while now, about some obnoxious teen speakers who put on a skit for the kids and make a one-off joke about how a crazy driver "must be from Jefferson High," causing the high schoolers to laugh on cue and explain, "They're our rivals!" So the kids might be wise to this trick now.
Do high school kids watch Family Guy? I'm so out of touch.
My school didn't have a rival high school because we were absolutely apathetic about sports, so one speaker instead kept making jokes about one popular kid (jokes based on how popular the guy must be) and using him as an example. I assume he just asked around ahead of time who the "most popular boy in school" was. This could have worked better considering I went to a 2,000-person school where nobody knew anyone outside of their clique of about 50 people. My only reaction was, "Yeah, that guy sure is a student who attends this school. I think."
And you don't get away from it when you move into the corporate world. I've had speakers diss rival companies -- "Of course these are some of the problems that came up when I was over at Company Y. I'm sure nobody here at Company X runs into that problem!" -- or pick out a really vocal employee on the assumption that he must be a popular guy that everybody knows -- "I know none of you guys would do that, but I don't know about Lester over here!"
Because speakers often have very little to work with in terms of their subject matter, they often turn to any weird and zany tricks they can think of to keep the audience's attention -- ventriloquism, card tricks, skits, musical performances, knife throwing, whatever.
The problem is, how often is someone good at both public speaking AND one of these esoteric hobbies? From what I've seen, not very often. And sadly, they're usually lacking on the public speaking side, if not both sides. That means they don't manage to integrate their gimmick seamlessly into their presentation as a way of illustrating their points. They're just basically interrupting their speech every now and then for what is essentially a commercial break where they entertain you.
Or "entertain" you.
That means that the boring speech ends up taking even longer because of all the interruptions. You probably would have appreciated it more if they'd left the dummy or the cards at home and just finished up faster. And man, if their gimmick is something truly awful like mime or interpretive dance, they're just doubling up on the misery.
Pretty much your only hope is that the stunt goes terribly wrong somehow.
For more from Christina, check out 6 Famous 'Frivolous Lawsuit' Stories That Are Total B.S. and 5 Reasons Why Anticonformity Is Worse Than Conformity.