Public Speaking Demands Productivity


“If I had a gun, I’d shoot myself,” I scribble on the note I pass to my friend Chester, who’s sitting next to me at the LinkedIn seminar. “If I had a gun, I’d shoot them,” he scribbles back. The “them” Chester is referring to are the two people presenting the social media session I was invited to attend by a local networking group. It is, without doubt, one of the single worst presentations I have ever had to sit through.

This out-of- town team says they travel around the country, wafting from state to state, sharing their social media knowledge. But how, I seriously wondered as I sat there, can they be so bad at this?

Lest you think this is just a rant on my part, I do have a productivity point to make; it may just take me another paragraph to get there, so please be patient with me.

The crux of my problem with these two presenters wasn’t that I doubted their technical knowledge; it’s that their presentation was so unprofessional they rendered it unproductive at best, and offensive at worst. What do I mean by unprofessional and unproductive? I’ll tell you:

  • They continually made self-referential jokes aimed at amusing each other, rather than for the benefit of the audience.
  • In a 90-minute presentation, they mentioned their book (a self-published paperback) at least 15 times. It was actually more than that, but I stopped counting after 15. They mentioned their one-day workshop coming up at least six times, after which time I stop counting. They offered, at best, a total of 15 minutes of content on their topic.
  • They regularly went off on riffs and tangents that had absolutely nothing to do with the topic, add no value to the evening and are not in the least bit entertaining or charming.
  • They were dressed as if they are going to spend an evening at a rock concert, or drinking beer in a bar, instead of doing a business presentation for a group of professionals.

OK, why am I telling you all this? Perhaps because I’m annoyed that I took time out of an already jam-packed schedule to have my time wasted? That’s true, but it’s not the reason. I’m telling you because as I was sitting there in disbelief, it dawns on me that productivity isn’t just something we give ourselves. It’s a gift we give other people as well — especially when we are making a presentation.

So whether we’re standing in front of the room with a PowerPoint (s msft) slide pitching a new client, presenting a report to management or giving a speech to our peers at a conference, we have a responsibility to honor our audience’s time by making it productive. Here are just four simple ways to avoid the kind of basic mistakes the presenters in my story made and, instead, really rock the house with productivity.

  1. Unless you are Jerry Seinfeld, skip the jokes. If you haven’t spent time as a professional comedian, don’t try and turn your presentation into a stand-up routine. Instead, express you humor through telling a relevant story with a slightly funny side to it or using humorous examples of situations everyone can relate to.
  2. Follow the 90/10 rule of promotion. When you speak in public — whether you are offering a free teleclass on search engine optimization or discussing modern web design as part of a panel at a conference — lead with content. Ninety percent of what you talk about should relate directly to your topic, provide value for your audience and be valuable information. Only 10 percent should be promotional — i.e., announcing your upcoming seminar or promoting your book or services.
  3. Develop and stick to a content plan. Before your presentation, prepare the major points you want to make, what the sub-points of those major points are and what stories and examples fit within each topic point. Practice this at home, until you can comfortably get through the presentation with just an outline. Doing so will prevent you from running off on a tangent or riffing into inappropriate topics.
  4. Dress as well as the audience you’re speaking to. Like it or not, people will judge you based on how you are dressed. Always match your outfit to the tone of the occasion. For example, if you are giving a talk at a conference hotel in Hawaii, a top end Tommy Bahama shirt over khaki slacks would be ideal. But for a tony talk to a group of executives in midtown Manhattan, a more corporate look would win the day.

Just remember, productivity does not only live at a desk or in an office building. It’s not just managing our time well and getting through our in-box efficiently, it’s also about making the most of the time we spend with others and the time they invest in being with us.

And now, following my 90/10 rule of promotion, here’s my 10 percent: For more tips, check out my book, “Public Speaking In An Instant: 60 Ways to Stand Up and Be Heard.

How do you make sure your presentations are productive?



Karen, great blog post… Point 4 is interesting. And Ryan’s point about the way I dress when presenting – was great to hear but it was surprising too.

I really don’t think about the audience’s dress when prepping for a preso. I research the conference, I look at who else is speaking, I try to see who is chatting socially about the event. Basic blocking and tackling stuff. Then I prep my preso.

Packing is a last check-off my list thing. I never wear suits when presenting, mainly because they’re not as comfortable and their not what I wear except for certain occasions. So I pack what would be my everyday wear – I frankly dress to be myself and at the same time relatable.

Again great post.


Karen, I love the idea that productivity is a gift that we can give others!

So many presentations and meetings I’ve been in, I’m keen to get the information from a speaker. I’m willing to put up with pitch. But like everyone else in the audience, I’m giving up valuable time to listen to irrelevant tangents about camping or pets. I’ll forgive any presentation blunder except wasting my time!

Ryan Stephens

@Karen- I completely agree with you on the majority of your points here especially with respect to promotion. I don’t understand how marketers haven’t discovered that just providing great content and solid thought leadership is more than enough to get people to become interested and approach them about their products/services.

There’s nothing that tests my patience more than someone giving a presentation and it being a thinly veiled excuse for delivering knowledge all designed to promote their next book or elearning class, et al.

Where I KIND OF disagree is the dress. While in MOST instances I do agree with you there are exceptions to every rule. For me, I love the way the Brains on Fire guys (Geno and Spike) dress. Though it doesn’t usually mirror their audience, it’s an accurate reflection of their personality and Brains on Fire’s approach and culture. To me it adds a whole other dimension to the content they’re presenting.

Thanks for sharing these tips!


Love it. I too have exclaimed “just shoot me” to which my partner has retorted “I would, but I’m already dead”
Sitting through a presentation like this is uncomfortable and a waste of time. I appreciate the post and gives me an inventory for my next presentation. Thank you!

Avish Parashar - Motivational Smart Ass

Nice post – very true (sad, but true) points. As a person who makes his living speaking and is very involved with the speakers association, it always saddens me to hear stories like this. They probably where giving the talk for free as a way to showcase and get sales (pretty evident from all the pitching they were doing), but that’s not the way to do it. I would slightly disagree with the 90/10 rule – I think it needs to be more like 97/3! In a one hour talk 90/10 would be 6 minutes of selling. I think if you do a great presentation with great content, one or two minutes at the end of “if you liked this, here are some other things we can do” will be appropriate and effective.

Also, it’s weird how casual they took it. I feel sometimes I work harder prepping for my “free” gigs than I do for paid. Since I am not getting paid, I need to do such a good job that people want to hire me afterward.

In the spirit of 90/10, here’s a link to a post I did just last week on a very similar topic (“5 conference speakers that can kill a conference”) that you may enjoy:

PS Great opening line, “If I had a gun, I’d shoot myself,” Reminds me of John Lovitz from “A League of Their Own” :-)

John Clairmonte


Thank you for your insight. I found your piece on Public Speaking to be spot on.. In todays world time is more valuable than ever. Investing time should be just that, an investment.

Public speakers should make that a priority focus if they truly care as we usually invest time and money to seek their expetise.

Thank you for not wasting my time and reminding us all to make the most of the time we share with others.

Much gratitude

Simon Raybould - presentation skills trainer

Can I ask you a tongue-in-cheek question?

At what point did you walk out?

You didn’t? You just put up with it? Well then how are they to know they suck!?

Okay, I’m overstating the case to make a point, but it’s a serious one: the standard of presenting in business world is shocking (and in a way I’m glad, because I get paid to improve it :) ) but one of the reasons it’s so bad is because people accept it being so bad.

Stand up, walk out, complain, boo them off stage, ask a direct question: do whatever, but don’t let them get away with it! After all, if you don’t shoot them (!) they’ll just go and do the same evil stuff to someone else next week……!


Karen Leland

Simon, excellent point. I normally would have walked out, but I wanted to wait and see if they were going to get to it eventually. I was curious if their ‘show’ was just at the beginning or not. If the program was longer than 75 minutes, I would have walked out. But boo – no. I don’t think their unprofessional presentation warrants my being badly behaved. I’ve trained thousands of executives and managers in public speaking and I always tell them they need to look for the signs before people start standing up and walking out. Thanks for your comments.

Eric Garland

Perhaps this is a sign people are spending too much time with social media and not enough time in social situations? The presentation techniques you describe are classic and haven’t much changed since Socrates. Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn have changed nothing about those principles of stage craft.

Karen Leland

Amen to that! I think underlying your comment is the point, that people often think they can rely just on the power of the topic to pull them through, they can’t. In my mind, it’s more important now than ever to have your social skills in order.

Priyanka D

I think if the content is really good as in something new and sensible then the dressing might not be so important, but I totally agree with the 90/10 rule!

Karen Leland

Yes, if the content is killer than you can forgive a small amount of poor presentation skills. But don’t underestimate the power that a good presentation has to get good content across in a much more powerful and impact-full way.

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