Five Common Mistakes Made by Leaders When They Speak

Many of the failures in leadership are failures to communicate well. No matter how smart we are or how good our strategies are, they are doomed for failure if no one understands them.

In previous articles, I dealt with poor written grammar, so much so that some of my friends refer to me as “the grammar cop.” In this article, I deal with five of the more common communication mistakes made by leaders when they speak.

  1. Poor grammar. Grammatical mistakes are not limited to written communication. They are much too common when leaders speak as well, including some leaders who are highly educated and in positions of great influence. The most common speaking grammatical error that I have noticed in recent years is the incorrect use of reflexive pronouns. For example the reflexive pronoun “myself” is used improperly in this sentence: “The award was presented to Janice, John, and myself.” The correct pronoun is the non-reflexive “me.”
  2. Too much information. An audience can only absorb a limited number of facts in a given presentation. Some leaders attempt to cover a multitude of items, leaving the hearers bored, confused, and frustrated. Speak to the essential issues and provide supplementary written material if necessary.
  3. Too many visuals. PowerPoint and other visual aids can be either a help or a hindrance to a speaker. Too often leaders try to put too much information in visual aids. At that point the aid becomes a barrier to communication. Consider having no more than one visual aid for each three minutes of speaking. You might be surprised how much the retention of your listeners improves.
  4. “Insider” language. Acronyms should be banned from speaking presentations. At my organization we have one acronym for every molecule that exists in our building. Those who are on the inside may think it’s okay to use acronyms with other insiders. The problem is that the pattern of speaking develops into a habit that will creep into external presentations. Indeed, good speakers avoid acronyms and insider technical words unless they are clearly explained to the audience.
  5. Insufficient pathos. Aristotle divided the means of persuasion into three categories. Ethos is used to establish the credibility or character of the speaker. Logos means persuading by reasoning or logic. Pathos means persuading by appealing to the readers’ or hearers’ emotions. Too few speakers attempt to speak to the hearts of the audience through personal illustrations, humor, or captivating stories. As a consequence, the presentation is often deemed dry and boring, regardless of the quality of the content.

I continue to be a student of effective communication. I still have a long way to go. What could you add to this list? What stories or examples do you have of either effective or ineffective speaking?


  1. says

    Thanks so much for great advice! I recently was discouraged that I only use 9-12 slides when I speak, but reading this has made me re-evaluate my position. Thanks for the info.

    • Jay Smith says

      “Only 9-12 slides”? In my opinion, that’s too many for a typical 30 min sermon. I use 6-7 with a max of 5 bullets per slide. You should show the sllde and speak to the point you’ve just made on the slide allowing your audience to grasp the message and take notes on the outline you’ve provided or underline text. 9-12 slide makes it more of a presentation than a sermon. You’ll lose the involvement of the congregation. They’ll just sit there and “watch the show.” Plus changing that many slides consumes a lot of time that you should be using to connect with the people.

  2. Steve Drake says

    Excellent post! Only yesterday I heard a pastor make a very common grammatical mistake, “They asked to take my wife and I out to dinner.” I notice this mistake very often even in news broadcasts from people whom you would think should know better, professionals who speak to millions five days each week. If mistakes with reflexive pronouns are the most common, the use of nominative case pronouns in an objective case position is a close second.

  3. says

    I can resonate with all these, Dr. Rainer. On point 1, even after completing Bible college and seminary, I had not realized how poor my grammar was in preaching until my fellow pastor (Tom Ascol) had someone transcribe my sermon, including the “ums” “likes” and so on. it was brutal but incredibly helpful. This rolls over into other areas of communication. For example, poor grammar can obscure the message, making it very difficult to understand. A person who believes in the simplicity of preaching ought to do everything he can to eliminate any preacher-made barriers for people understanding the message, grammar included.

    On point 4, I have learned a lot from Tim Keller. In his classic article, “The Missional Church” he said,

    “The missional church avoids ‘tribal’ language, stylized prayer language, unnecessary evangelical pious ‘jargon’, and archaic language that seeks to set a ‘spritual tone.’ The missional church avoids ‘we-them’ language, disdainful jokes that mock people of different politics and beliefs, and dismissive, disrespectful comments about those who differ with us. The missional church avoids sentimental, pompous, ‘inspirational’ talk. Instead we engage the culture with gentle, self-deprecating but joyful irony the gospel creates. The missional church avoids ever talking as if non-believing people are not present. If you speak and discourse as if your whole neighborhood is present (not just scattered Christians), eventually more and more of your neighborhood will find their way in or be invited.”

    Thanks for another great article.

    • Thom Rainer says

      Good word Tim. I cringe at the thought of someone producing a literal manuscript of any presentation I have made. That just sounds painful!

      Great quote by Keller. It’s a keeper.

    • Charles McClelland says

      I wonder if Jesus or Paul would follow this advice. Jesus said–“The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables” (Mark 4:11, NIV) That sounds like insider speech to me.

      Paul said–“The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit.” (1 Corinthians 2:14, NIV)
      and–“I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.” (2 Corinthians 11:6, NIV) I

  4. says

    This is a great list overall, but #4 is the one that is most irritating. I wish Pastors would understand that using jargon instead of plain language is at least unproductive, and at worst vain. I think we would do a much better job in general if we would stop trying to impress the mind, but reach the heart.

    Thanks for the work, Dr. Rainer.

  5. says

    I remember reading John Stott’s book on preaching a while back and he said that preachers need to forget 90% of what they know when they enter the pulpit. I was guilty of bringing 100%. My preaching was all over the place. But, when I kept it simple and clear, my sermons were transformed.

  6. says

    After years of competitive public speaking, as well as judging both high school and collegiate competitions, I can say the main thing I’ve learned is that audiences generally want a speaker to succeed. One of the worst things a speaker can do is to reveal his or her nervousness to an audience. There’s also no place for false humility (“I’m really not qualified to speak on this topic.”), or for apologies (“I’m sorry you have to listen to this speech today.”) The truth is that you’re up there, you have an audience, and it’s time to speak. Do your best, don’t make excuses, and learn from your mistakes.

  7. Cheryl Lewis says

    The misuse of “entitled,” as in, “Tonight our choir is singing a song entitled, ‘Glorious Day.'” “Entitled” is a legal term; books and songs are TITLED.

  8. Drew Dabbs says

    The overuse, misuse, and downright abuse of “like,” “ya know,” and “I know, right?!” just make my skin crawl. Even in everyday conversation, it drives me batty. I have worked diligently to keep these out of my vocabulary. I’m not quite as much of a grammar cop, in general, but there are certain things that I just can’t handle.

  9. says

    You nailed it!!!!!
    The incorrect use of “myself” by a speaker is like fingernails on a chalkboard for me!

    Thanks for raising awareness to that as well as the other four! We all desire to be more effective and less distracting in our communication of The Greatest News ever!

  10. says

    You might be a bit of a grammar nazi on the first point. :)

    I actually think a little bad grammar adds character to the speaker. As long as the audience understands what he is trying to communicate.

    But the rest are definitely spot on. Good points. Thanks.

  11. Randy B says

    Great article as usual Thom!
    I can think of recent examples of all 5 of these issues. I must constantly be aware of #2 and #5 to make sure I address them properly. I would add to #5 that the speaker must know the audience to whom he is speaking and appeal to them accordingly. In the community where I pastor, most people in the audience would prefer a lot more of the heart warming stories and humorous illustrations than I would prefer if I were in the audience.

  12. says

    My number one rule for public speaking: Know your audience! The demographic make-up of your audience should influence your presentation. I guess this really speaks to number four. –Norm in Texas

  13. says

    Sometimes I think it is the difference between a preacher who wants to impress his peers or climb the denominational ladder and a preacher who desires people hear, see and perceive. I have heard a an ‘uneducated’ country preacher preach a great message and a person with a Doctorate preach a great message, and preachers all over the spectrum in experience and education, but the speakers that succeeded had one thing in common; they communicated and didn’t just preach, there is a huge difference between the two.

  14. Teacher Ann says

    I believe another item to remember for number 2 is the attention span of your audience. Every time I attend a conference, I am reminded no one likes a long presentation especially after lunch.

  15. Jeremy Bryan says

    Thanks for your blog and promotion on twitter. What resources do you recommend for sermon delivery? Secular and Christian? Thanks.

  16. Jimmy Macharia says

    Hi Thom
    How can someone whose first language is not English improve his spoken English for effective communication?

    • Chip Holmes says

      If I could answer this question from life experience I would like to do so. I am bi-vocational, and my restaurant employees many Spanish-speaking employees. The best easy for them to learn English is to include them in mundane conversations. This is how our children learned, and it a great

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