Five Common Public Speaking Myths

Public speaking myths abound. Over the years I have repeatedly heard and read a number of myths about public speaking. Let’s look at five common myths about public speaking that can hinder the development of speaking and presenting skills if they are believed and followed.

Woman public speaking with flip chart.

Public speaking myth number one: ‘Your words are not that important — it’s your voice and facial expression that communicate most of your message when speaking in public.’

This myth is a result of misinterpretation of research conducted by Albert Mehrabian in the late 1960s. From his studies, he claimed that in interpersonal communication:

  • 7% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in the words that are spoken
  • 38% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is the way that the words are said
  • 55% of the message pertaining to feelings and attitudes is in facial expression.

The problem is that these numbers were not meant to be applied to public speaking but to one-to-one communication of feelings and attitudes. For example, if you meet a friend and she tells you that she is having an excellent day, but she is frowning and her voice sounds sad, you won’t believe that she is happy because the words are not congruent with the vocal and facial expressions.

In other situations, including public speaking, your words are crucial for communicating your message. If your words only accounted for 7% of your message in general, you would not be able to listen to a radio program and understand it. More ridiculously, you would never have to learn a new language because you could communicate 93% of your messages through your voice and facial expressions no matter where you travelled in the world.

In explaining his research, Mehrabian wrote:

‘Please remember that all my findings on inconsistent or redundant communications dealt with communications of feelings and attitudes. This is the realm within which they are applicable. Clearly, it is absurd to imply or suggest that the verbal portion of all communication constitutes only 7% of the message. Suppose I want to tell you that the eraser you are looking for is in the second right-hand drawer of my desk in my office. How could anyone contend that verbal part is only 7% of this message. Instead, and more accurately, the verbal part is nearly 100% of the message.’

In the early 2000s, addressing the controversy raised by his research, Albert Mehrabian wrote:

‘I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately, the field of self-styled “corporate image consultants” or “leadership consultants” has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.’

Despite these statements from the author of the research, you still find public speaking ‘experts’ who say words are not that important.

You can read more about this topic in Communication is 93% Nonverbal: An Urban Legend Proliferates.

Public speaking myth number two: ‘You don’t need to prepare too much if you know the subject matter already.’

Many times I have heard ‘I know my subject matter very well, so I can just get up and present it without preparing for public speaking situations’. The problem with this statement is that having the knowledge does not necessarily mean you can present it effectively without thought, planning and preparation.  How many times have you seen experts ramble on, repeat themselves and lack impact due to a poorly planned presentation?

Taking the time to prepare for your presentation will help you organise your thoughts, conduct any additional research needed, and craft powerful phrases that are more likely to be remembered. If you don’t write a full script and memorise it, you could write a strong opening and conclusion and an outline for the body of your presentation. This will ensure you open and close effectively and present your topic in logical manner.


Public speaking myth number 3: ‘Speak fast to be a dynamic speaker and keep people interested.’

It’s good to be enthusiastic and passionate about your topic. However, this often leads to poor public speaking performance when the mouth tries to keep up with the mind. By slowing down, your audience will be able to absorb your message and remember it.

If we look at many of the great speeches in history, that have made a strong and lasting impact, they were delivered at a moderate to slow rate. For example, Dr Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech and Ronald Reagan’s Remarks at the Brandenburg Gate (‘Tear down this wall’) were delivered at a rate of around 100 words per minute.  As a speechwriter, I aim for a maximum of 125 words per minute when writing for clients.

Besides slowing down your overall speaking rate, pausing when making important points or transitioning to a new topic will help your audience follow you throughout your speech or presentation.

Public speaking myth number 4: ‘Don’t quote other people in your speeches and presentations, but be quotable.’

I started hearing the idea that you shouldn’t quote others in speeches and presentations a few years ago. The idea is to create your own quotable content instead of quoting others. The problem with this idea is that using the right quote at the right time can be highly effective in many public speaking situations. Quoting respected authorities, who agree with your message, will strengthen your position.

Some of the most admired speakers from the present and past — political, motivational and business — have quoted others in their speeches and presentations. A few examples are Earl Nightingale, Martin Luther King Jr, John F Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Al Gore, Brian Tracy and Wayne Dyer.  All of these top speakers used quotations in their speeches and presentations. One of my favourite examples of using quotations effectively is Earl Nightingale. See how he used quotations in his best-selling motivational program The Strangest Secret.

 Public speaking myth number 5: ‘Great public speakers are born, not made.’

A big part of my development as a speechwriter and speaker has been my involvement in Toastmasters International. I originally joined Toastmasters in the mid-1980s. Over the years I have watched and helped speakers go from being terrified on stage to becoming masters of public speaking.

If you are in extrovert, introvert, or somewhere in between, you can boost your public speaking skills through practice and feedback. If Toastmasters isn’t for you, one approach to improving your public speaking is videoing your speeches and presentations. A video recording doesn’t lie, so you will see all the annoying, distracting and ineffective things you might be doing while speaking.

Michael Gladkoff

About the author: Michael Gladkoff is a speechwriter, author, speaker and trainer based in Melbourne, Australia. His next Speech Power workshop will be held in Melbourne on 17 November, 2016.