Mistakes to Avoid When Making a Speech

Joan Detz, author of How to Write & Give a Speech, has some savvy tips on the mistakes you should avoid when giving your next speech. Hint: Brevity is the soul of wit.

QDT Editor
April 2, 2014

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Sharpen Your Sentences

Let the audience hear your time frame first.  Say “Since 2013, we have ______“  Don’t say, “We have ___________ since 2013.”

This technique improves audience comprehension.  It’s also easier for a speaker to deliver.  (Try it both ways.  Read both versions aloud.  You’ll hear the difference.) 

If you average 20 or more words per sentence, you'd better start cutting. Why? Because an audience can't follow what you're saying if you put too many words in a sentence.

Same for geography. Put location references at the beginning of sentences. Let the audience hear the geography before you provide other details.  Say “Throughout Taiwan, we have created______”  not “We have created ___ throughout Taiwan.” Again, citing locations upfront makes it easier for an audience to follow your message. 

Try this experiment: Take a sample page from the first draft of your upcoming speech and count the number of words in each sentence. Write the numbers down and average them.

If you average 20 or more words per sentence, you'd better start cutting. Why? Because an audience can't follow what you're saying if you put too many words in a sentence.

Your message just gets lost.

If you don't believe me, read your longest sentence aloud, then read your shortest sentence aloud. See which one is more powerful—and more memorable.

If all your sentences are long, no one will be able to follow you. But if all your sentences are short, your speech may become boring. People get tired of hearing the same rhythm. If you use a rather long sentence, precede or follow it with a short, punchy one. The contrast will catch your audience's attention.

FDR was a master of this technique, and his speeches show a great sense of rhythm and timing. Consider the following example. He uses a powerful, two-word sentence followed by a rhythmic, 18-word sentence:

"Hostilities exist. There is no mincing the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger."

Ronald Reagan also knew how to vary the rhythm of his speech:

"Everyone is against protectionism in the abstract. That is easy. It is another matter to make the hard, courageous choices when it is your industry or your business that appears to be hurt by foreign competition. I know. We in the United States deal with the problem of  protectionism every day of the year."

Count the words he used: 7 in the first sentence, then 3, then 26, then 2, then 16. Average length? About 11 words per sentence.

Use the Active, Not the Passive, Voice

It's time for a grammar lesson. I'll keep it brief. The following sentences are in the active voice because they show that the subject acts, or does something:

  1. The Customer Inquiry Department answers almost 400 phone calls every day.
  2. Our new maintenance program saved the company $5,000 in the first 6 months.
  3. The committee records all suggestions in a logbook.
  4. Government must place some constraints on these contracts to prevent price excesses.

A sentence is in the passive voice when the subject is acted upon:

  1. Almost 400 phone calls are answered by the Customer Inquiry Department every day.
  2. Five thousand dollars was saved by the company in the first 6 months of our new maintenance program.
  3. All suggestions are recorded by the committee in a logbook.
  4. Some constraints must be placed on these contracts by government to prevent price excesses.

Read the above sentences aloud, and notice that the active voice:

  • sounds more vigorous
  • is more personal
  • uses fewer words
  • is easier to follow
  • is easier to remember

Get rid of passive constructions in your speech. They sound stilted, flat, and contrived.

Limit Adjectives and Adverbs

Try this test. Pick any two-to-three-page segment of your speech manuscript and underline the adjectives. Now, delete some of those adjectives—read the section out loud—and see if your speechwriting sounds crisper and stronger. If you really need those adjectives, fine, put them back in. If not? Just leave them out.

In my upper level speechwriting seminars, I urge the speechwriters to try this experiment:  Cut all the adverbs on any given page.  Ask yourself, “Do I honestly need to put those adverbs back in?”  Most of the time, adverbs just “pad” a speech. Cut them.  Read the page aloud, and listen.  You’ll probably find the message becomes stronger when you take away these words.

The more adverbs in a speech, the more contrived that speech will sound.  Consider:

“We carefully deliberated … ” v. “We deliberated ….”

“I thoughtfully reflected on  …” v. “I reflected on …”

“He hastily escaped …”  v.  “He escaped”

 We tend not to use adverbs in ordinary, everyday conversation.  Why use them in a presentation?

Cut as Much as Possible

The writer Thomas Wolfe tended to overwrite his early draft, producing in such huge quantity that he had to deliver his manuscripts to the publisher in a trunk. I can only imagine what his editor, the esteemed Maxwell Perkins, must have thought upon receiving manuscripts so bulky they could only be delivered in a trunk.

But I can tell you this: Speakers who give their audiences overlong presentations will flat-out lose their audiences.  Listeners fortunate enough to sit on the aisle or at the back of the auditorium will simply stand up and walk out.  Those poor folks stuck in the middle of the room might not be able to leave physically, but they’ll leave mentally:  texting friends, making grocery lists, or just plain dozing.  Either way, a too-long speech will lose its audience. 

So, in short, cut as much as possible.


In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell tells us how to make your writing simple:

  1. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  2. If it is possible to cut out a word, always cut it out.
  3. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  4. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  5. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

David Belasco, the great American theatrical producer, once said, "If you can't write your idea on the back of my calling card, you don't have a clear idea."

So, get out your business card, and see if you can put your main idea on the card. If it fits, wonderful. If not, maybe your idea is too flabby. Whittle. Cut.


Joan Detz is also the author of "Can You Say a Few Words?" and "It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It," as well as the newly-published "How to Write & Give a Speech." She coaches executives and conducts presentation skills workshops for major organizations around the world. A popular presenter at professional conferences, she also teaches seminars in public speaking and speechwriting. She lives in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Visit her at joandetz.com.