Seven Mistakes in Public Speaking

by Chuck Lawless

As a teacher, consultant, and preacher, I talk to groups for a living. In fact, I’ve been a student of public speaking for more than 30 years. I’ve learned by studying in the classroom and by simply listening to others. Too often, I’ve learned the hard way by making my own mistakes.

On a positive note, I have seen that it’s possible to exercise leadership from the public platform. A well-timed, well-delivered address can rally the troops, strengthen the team, and compel them toward excellence. On the other hand, I’ve seen (and exhibited at times, I’m sure) some mistakes in public speaking. Here are a few of those.

1. Not knowing the audience – Speaking to teens is not the same as speaking to senior adults. Communicating with a gathering of relationship-oriented non-Westerners is different than speaking to a group of Western businessmen. Most speakers have some sense of the importance of audience analysis, but understanding analysis and acting on it are two different matters. I’m amazed by the number of speakers I invite to different venues who never ask about the intended audience.

2. Inviting indifference – Maybe you’ve heard speakers do it:

  • “I’m sure this is not exciting, but it’s important.”
  • “I really haven’t had much time to prepare, so please bear with me.”
  • “This really isn’t my area of expertise. I’m sure there are others who are more qualified.”

I understand that humility may be the driving force behind these kinds of statements. Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if the audience is uninterested after you’ve told them you’re unexciting, unprepared, and/or unqualified. Let your hearers make that assessment without your help. They might find you engaging and enlightening.

3. Boring the audience – Here’s the difficult part with this mistake: only once have I ever met a boring speaker who knew he was boring (and he was forced to admit that after he fell asleep during one of his own lectures!). It would not hurt us to have friends who evaluate our speaking and critique us honestly. Good training and increased passion can help overcome a boring style, but not if we fail to recognize the problem in the first place.

4. Using irrelevant stories and illustrations – Much of the world learns best by stories and illustrations, so using stories is a significant communication strategy. Watch an audience when you begin to tell a story or use an illustration; often, they will lean forward, almost as if they are closing the space to hear better. The speaking strategy thus opens the door to effective communication. If, though, the story itself lacks relevance – like using automobile illustrations when speaking to urban poor who never owned a car – the technique loses its force. Again, knowing the audience matters.

5. Assuming audience application – Public speeches have different purposes. Some inform, and others convince. Some simply address a special occasion. Many public speeches, though, are intended to lead the hearer to do something. Support a candidate. Give to a cause. Adopt a belief. Accept a decision. Join the team. Celebrate a victory. Change a lifestyle. The problem is that speakers often fail to state clearly what they want the audience to do. Instead, they assume the hearers will listen intently, naturally connect the dots, and then respond appropriately. A lack of specific instruction from the speaker then results in a lack of intentional application among the hearers.

6. Ignoring time parameters – Seldom are speakers given open-ended time slots for speaking. Most often, we have an established time period that fits neatly into the organization’s overall plans and goals. To ignore those parameters is not only disruptive to the schedule; it is inconsiderate at best, arrogant at worst. Finishing within the allotted time shows respect, and it might even strengthen our speaking by demanding brevity.

7. Neglecting continued improvement – I suspect the more we speak, the less we see a need to improve. Perhaps we subconsciously convince ourselves that practice really does make perfect. There is little question that speaking regularly can make us more comfortable with the task, but actual improvement is not always the result. Growing as a public speaker requires an intentional strategy for improvement.

I realize I’ve included only a few mistakes on this list. What other mistakes have you seen in public speaking? On the flip side, what have you seen that characterizes strong public speaking? Help me to learn from your experiences.

Chuck Lawless currently serves as Professor of Evangelism and Missions and Dean of Graduate Studies at Southeastern Seminary. You can connect with Dr. Lawless on both Twitter and Facebook.



  1. says

    I would add “Over-dependence on technology.” A speaker is just that–an oral presenter, not a PowerPoint jockey. It is a mistake to abdicate the responsibility for being compelling to a projector.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      True indeed. I learned that truth from missionaries who sometimes speak where there is no technology — no electricity, in fact, in some places.

    • Pandu E Poluan says

      So true. That’s why I use animation very sparingly. And often on a white background bearing only a small slide number on the lower corner.

  2. James Lambert says

    Don’t forget using an overused illustration all the while acting like your the first one who ever told the joke, story, fact, or illustration.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Good point. Stories and illustrations have such “staying power” that the hearers may well remember them a long time. They’ll likely recognize something that is stale.

  3. says

    A common public speaking mistake is communicating a need to rush through a presentation. Many speakers will say they need to get through something “really quick,” or that they “have just a few short minutes” to say something. Through repetition, the speaker creates an unnecessary sense of tension in the audience that harms comprehension. And there’s also no consensus on what “really quick” means. Thus, the audience may expect the speaker to move more quickly than he/she plans to go. It’s better to settle back into the allotted time and avoid placing those kinds of demands on your audience.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      True. Sometimes those kinds of comments might also be perceived as “the host really didn’t give me enough time to make this presentation.” Not good.

  4. Matt Anthony says

    Research your illustrations. will keep you from telling a story that is not true. If you don’t have time, then introduce it with the disclaimer that it might be apocryphal. Of course, that probably violates another rule.

  5. Robert Turner says

    When a speaker says, “Finally,” or “And in conclusion,” that’s a signal to the audience that he is wrapping things up. We’ve all heard speakers who say they this and then go on for another ten or fifteen minutes. You’ve totally lost your audience by then.

    Maybe a corollary is that the speaker intends to draw to a close, but it is obvious that he doesn’t know how to “land the plane.” I think working hard on the main presentation but neglecting how to draw it down is a primary mistake for many speakers. Your audience can tell when you are circling the airport. Not good.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      True. My preaching professor, in fact, taught us not to say “finally” or “in conclusion,” as those words become a signal to start shutting down as a hearer. I’ve not always followed that philosophy, but it makes sense.

      • Jim Holway says

        At the risk of sharing a joke you all have heard, here’s a good one: You know what it means when a preachers says “In conclusion”? Absolutely nothing!

  6. Robert Ivey says

    Dr. Rainer.,
    Great list I would agree with all of them, I would add an * to number’s 2 and 6.
    A speakers, especially when preaching, can come across as being over-confident which, to me is worse than being humble.
    Often it is the speaker whose time is not respected by those preceding him, who take more time than they are suppose to and then leave the speaker who has prepared a 20 or minute 30 presentation with 10 minutes.
    To add one item to the lit would go alone with both of these items, “Never tell everything you know, always leave the audience wanting more.”

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Points well made. I’m especially interested in hearing from others about how you deal with the second issue. What do you do when others have inadvertently limited the time you have to speak?

      • Robert Ivey says

        When limited on speaking time due to others I have found it is best to go back to No. 1 and know your audience. If I feel like I have permission to “go over” I have made a joke at the beginning of my time by saying “OK everyone go ahead and look at your watches now and get that over with.” If I don’t believe that I have time to “go over” I make no mention of the time or clock and share what I can in the amount of time that I can. (I find it funny that a lot of times when people begin by talking about “how long they speak/preach” that if they would just go ahead and begin they would end on time or even early.)

      • Josh says

        If I am giving 35 minutes to speak, and the time is cut short, then i always do my best to respect the time given. I make it a general rule to never go more that 5 minutes over my scheduled time. I respect my audience by respecting their time, regardless of how others treated it before I have the platform. I have also found that it is an exercise in trimming more of the fat from what is being shared. It forces me to focus on the most important details that lead to my central idea. We should not fear less time, it means that what we share must be like a laser beam and focused clearly on point in stead of a shotgun with things spread all over an idea.

      • says

        I will stop when my time us up, no matter how much of my time was taken. It is a gift I have, the ability to get a conference back on schedule. I’m happy to do it because shorter is better than longer. Brevity is the soul of wit

  7. Don Matthews says

    One of the greatest advise I have ever heard came from Dr. Jerry Vines. He said when preaching or speaking “just see what you preach and preach what you see.” That means if you are preaching about the old church in the vale just visualize the old church and tell the what you see, what you hear and what you feel. When you get in trouble is when you try to preach on something you don’t believe and are not passionate about. If you are preaching on sin see how ugly it is. When you preach on grace see how wonderful and merciful our God has been to you and tell them what you are feeling and are seeing. When preaching on the cross you can not speak in abstract, you must see the blood, you must hear the crowd, you must hear the cry, Father forgive them…”

  8. says

    Another error that plagues itinerant and irregular speakers is thinking that they can simply warm up old material. There is, of course, nothing wrong with developing and reusing material but care must be taken that people start to be able to guess what you’re going to speak about. Always be fresh and up-to-date.

  9. says

    I fully agree with the technology comments above.
    Another area for myself and those I’ve seen is an over reliance on notes or an under reliance. I truly have an admiration for those who can speak/teach without notes, but for some it can come across as too polished/programed. While others can have some basic notes and have the style of winging it.
    Personally I leave room in my notes (hand written in my own style of long/short hand) for expansion of thought but have them in order to not get off on a rabbit trail.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      I’ve tried about everything — no notes, some notes, a lot of notes, a full manuscript. I’m most comfortable with a fairly detailed outline, but not a full manuscript.

    • Josh says

      i preach with out notes. At the same time, i never “wing it”. Every sermon has been studied, outline and almost completely written out long hand. I learn so much from writing things out by hand. There is plenty of “room” in the sermon for the Spirit to move. The note writing, the outlining, and the manuscripting of my sermon all serve the same purpose and that is to internalize the central idea of the sermon. instead of memorizing, it then becomes a part of me and my outline pops out to me when I look at the passage that the sermon is on.

      • Chuck Lawless says

        Thanks, Josh, for the insights. I agree that preaching without notes doesn’t necessarily mean you’re “winging it.”

  10. Clay DeWoody says

    I have a question related to #5 – Assuming Audience Application.

    In Jonah 3:4 there is a single-sentence sermon which is simple enough to understand yet in the proclamation Jonah makes no call for application. Indeed, if I read Jonah correctly, Jonah would prefer the Ninevites do not respond at all and instead are destroyed. Much to the chagrin of Jonah, as he makes clear in chapter 4, the Ninevites do respond and apply the sermon, as evidenced in their repentance and subsequent worship of Yahweh, forsaking vain idols (cf. 2:8).

    While Jonah “fail(s) to state clearly what [he] want(s) [his] audience to do” the audience correctly applies the sermon anyway.

    How does your #5 reconcile to Jonah’s message? (I’m not saying it doesn’t. I just can’t reconcile it myself.)

    Another and perhaps better example is Acts 13:13-52 where Paul and Barnabas preach at Antioch in Pisidia. The first of two messages offered is much longer than Jonah’s, but like the aforementioned one this message contains no help in applying the sermon.

    One might argue for an implicit call in 13:41 to believe (a form of application) what they just preached; however, it is definitely not an explicit call, which your #5 directs us speakers to do. Apparently the people do respond correctly as Paul and Barnabas urge them “to continue in the grace of God” (13:43). (Compare 11:23, where the phrase “the grace of God” seems to convey that true conversions had taken place in the other Antioch. Otherwise Barnabas would have been foolish to exhort the new believers there to remain faithful to the Lord, something nonbelievers cannot do.) Whether it was, at best, an implicit call to apply or there was no call to reply at all, this also seems to go against your #5.

    Further still, and perhaps more challenging, is the sermon Paul and Barnabas bring on the following Sabbath. Luke makes it clear that people believed as they “were appointed to eternal life” (13:48). Discussions of ordo salutis aside, there is no call to apply the message given by either preacher but that does not hinder (some of) the hearers from nevertheless applying the message.

    Please help me reconcile these three instances with your #5. Thank you, Dr. Lawless.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Thanks for the question, Clay. I grant that the application piece may not be as evident in these three examples, but I find many other examples in scripture where the application is quite evident. Sometimes the application is in the command (e.g., “Repent and believe”), but it is nevertheless clearly stated application. We may also find ourselves in a particular situation where the hearers already know what they must do, though that is certainly not always the case.

      Regarding the three examples you cite:
      1. We’re not told if this is all Jonah preached (though I assume it was). It may also have been that the Assyrians, having seen and heard from a Hebrew prophet come from the belly of a fish (some scholars believe his skin may have even been bleached by the event) assumed they must do something in response to his warning. Jonah’s granting them 40 days before destruction implies the possibility of their doing something to avoid the destruction, and nothing in the text precludes us from assuming they understood that repentance would have been the right step. The king’s response in vv. 6ff suggests that they knew that application was appropriate, though to your point, we’re not told if they learned that from Jonah. That they did repent, of course, is only a work of God.
      2. In Acts 13, verses 38-41 lay out the application. The people are to believe in response to the proclamation (vv. 38-39), and they are warned about the dangers of unbelief (vv. 40-41).
      3. Given that Paul and Barnabas were speaking in the same city on the next Sabbath, it is possible that the call to believe had already spread. In fact, it’s likely the believers spread the word throughout the week. I also doubt Paul and Barnabas were silent that week. The lack of an explicit call in vv. 44ff does not demand that the people did not already know what they must do. One might also argue that v. 46 only confirms the call to believe from the negative: if you thrust aside this message, you reject eternal life. Again, the grace of God is evident in that some do believe.

  11. says

    Thanks for the list Dr. Lawless. My preaching professor encouraged us to listen to our sermons on Mondays to see how well we communicated. He said if we couldn’t endure them or stay wake we needed to make changes in our preaching style.

    • Josh says

      i completely agree. The greatest danger as preachers is that we have finally found our groove, our way of doing ministry and preparing a sermon every week. Then we do not need to continue honing our skill as communicators of God’s Word. We must continually work on improving our skills in preaching and in ministry. We would not accept if the music leader decided they had it all figured out and just stopped improving their music knowledge, skills and repertoire.

  12. says

    Good list, and good comments.

    Perhaps another mistake communicators make is failing to be themselves. We’ve all been influenced by other communicators, and the temptation is to try to be like our favorite communicators. We can certainly learn from others, but we ultimately have to be who God gifted us to be.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      True. Sometimes it takes a while to figure out our own style, but trying to be somebody else doesn’t work.

  13. Demaroge says

    As a member of the audience, I find the most unbearable mistake to manage to keep up with is when the speaker/preacher talks about many different topics without a common thread. My personal silent dialogue is often confused trying to understand what I must have missed. Unfortunately, I have been subjected to many speakers who do not seem to have a goal, purpose or direction to their talk.

    • Chuck Lawless says

      True, Demaroge. The best speakers I know have a clear goal in mind, and they do not wander in getting there.

  14. Garnetta Smith says

    Regarding knowing your audience: Years ago at a women’s retreat the speaker made what she thought was a funny joke that included a comment about a dwarf. What she didn’t know, that most everyone else in the audience knew, was that one of attendees and a beloved member of our church was a dwarf. It was an embarrassing and awkward moment and she didn’t know why her “funny” had bombed. As a speaker, we should ALWAYS avoid those kinds of comments and “jokes.” Thanks for your wise words, Dr. Lawless.

  15. Joe M. says

    Can you expand on number seven?

    How does a young preacher seek improvement outside of practicing over and over? Isn’t it by practice that we learn our mistakes, how to tell our stories better, and how to structure our sermons to match the rhythm of the audiences’ attention?

    I’m blessed to have a lead pastor and a couple elders who provide feedback. Is that feedback the key?

    What else can I be doing?

    • Chuck Lawless says

      Joe, good question. You’re blessed to have the lead pastor and elders who give you feedback. Here are some ways to improve, in my opinion:

      1. As you indicate, practice by speaking, and do it with folks prepared to give you honest feedback.
      2. Do what Bob’s preaching professor said– listen to (and watch) your own sermons.
      3. Listen to other good preachers. Don’t try to become them, but do learn from them. How do they transition between major points? How do they tell stories? How do they introduce a topic and conclude a sermon?
      4. Each year, read at least one book about speaking or preaching.
      5. Never stop pushing yourself. Do the above as long as you’re speaking.

  16. says

    If you’re offered a microphone, use it. I’ve lost count of the times a speaker has claimed that they don’t need the mic, they’ll just “talk loud,” but I’ve rarely encountered a speaker who really could talk loud enough to be easily heard.

  17. Elizabeth Gingell McAdams says

    This is fabulous. As a student of rhetorical theory who loves the gospel, I get excited when I see ministers who are interested in the practical mechanics of proclaiming God’s truth.
    If I could submit a minor addition, it would be to #4 about relevant illustrations. I think it’s so important to consider how your illustrations will be relatable not only across economic lines, like you suggested, but also across gender divides. I remember one pastor – a former basketball coach – who seemed to ALWAYS be comparing the Christian life to a basketball game. All I know about basketball is that the ball goes in the hoop and that’s called a basket. While I would’t have minded an occasional illustration based on his interesting life experience, I would have appreciated more variety.
    I prefer my current pastor, who flavors his sermons with stories about his kids, what’s going on in the news, and when making a list of stores that can provoke us to discontent listed Antrhopologie and Ikea right alongside (and in the same tone of voice – it doesn’t count if you’re mocking the women) Bass Pro Shops and Best Buy. His “shotgun” approach means that, every one in a while, and illustration makes me sit up in my seat and think – “Wow! This guy gets me!” That’s a wonderful thing for a pastor to be able to do.

  18. says

    On brevity. As a teenager (many years ago) I sat through an extended revival sermon of which I remember nothing. This was followed by an “Invitation ad infinitum”. Relief was finally in sight when the preacher called upon the B.S.U. President to close with prayer. We all resigned ourselves to another ten minutes, at least. The great man stood to pray and said “24 The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. Amen. A prayer I remember some fifty years later.

    • Neil Foster says

      Can I offer a comment about using illustrations and stories? I thoroughly endorse the comment above about checking the veracity of stories you are telling the congregation are true- do your homework, and if it can’t be verified in a reasonable time, introduce it with “I heard a story somewhere” or the like instead of pretending it happened. I particularly object when a preacher relates a story as if it happened to him when I discover later that it didn’t. The principle “tell the truth” applies to rhetorcial strategies as well as the theological content, and misleading people in one part of the talk is likely to lead to them doubting the other bits.
      The other problem I occasionally encounter is a very memorable introductory story raising a problem, which is then only loosely tied to the theme of the sermon, and in the end is not resolved. Highly memorable illustrations can defeat their own purpose because they become what the audience takes away, not the point being illustrated. And failing to offer an answer to a problem which the Bible does address, but you just forgot to deal with in writing the conclusion, is just frustrating to the listeners.

  19. John Lewis says

    I remember the speaking style of the pastor that baptized me. He would have a short ‘bullet’ that he would repeat several times during the sermon. It would be a short phrase that summarizes what he is trying to say in the message. Derek Morris promotes this as well and I have sought to utilize it.

    I do have one question…at times struggle coming up with illustrations. I would love to have a list of stories that we can draw some illustrations from. I first seek to draw from my own life experiences, but I want to mix in accounts of others. Do you know of any good resources for illustrations?

  20. Jillian says

    I would add to the comment about including your whole audience that most sports illustrations will leave half or more of your audience clueless. The rules and ins and outs of football, baseball, basketball, etc., are not necessarily familiar to either the women or a good many of the men in your audience. If you use one, make sure it’s good enough to warrant an explanation of the rules behind it so that everyone gets it.

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