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Speeches gone wrong: Here’s why your audience can’t remember what you said

Learn the one thing you must do as a speaker to avoid epic fails (aka speeches gone wrong).


I was doing some catch-up work last week and tuned in to a recorded virtual presentation on a timely business topic delivered by an executive a few weeks ago.

I tried to pay attention (really I did!).

But quickly I got confused.

Where was he going with this?

And then I got bored.

Who cares about this?

And when it was over?

I remembered only random snippets of what this executive had to say – none of them particularly relevant or important.

In the category of speeches gone wrong, this was a classic case.

What was his point?

If he had one, I missed it completely.

But why?

Looking back at my notes, I tried to piece together the main reasons behind this epic fail:

  • He spoiled his opening. Instead of captivating us immediately with something we cared about, he opened with “a little bit about myself” – snapshots from his career trajectory unrelated to the topic at hand.
  • He told us he was going to tell us a story (instead of simply telling the story). And then the story was too long, too complicated and again, unrelated to his topic.
  • He bounced around from point to point (never landing squarely on the promised premise of his talk). Context, structural signposts and transitions – essential connective tissue for good presentations – were all missing.
  • He chose the obligatory vs. the purposeful. Enter the laundry list of company facts and stats (with a little corporate history sprinkled in), straight from the PR newsroom.
  • He leaned on the expected and the predictable, the trite and the clichéd. And he repeated this humdrum routine all the way to the end (closing with an eye-rolling line tantamount to a pitiful, sophomoric whimper).


How to avoid speeches gone wrong

Cognitive neuroscientist Carmen Simon would have a lot to say about all of this – why I felt so confused and so bored – and why I remembered only random snippets from this executive’s presentation.

I heard Simon speak about content, brain engagement and memory at the 2020 International Association of Business Communicators World Conference, where she convinced us of these three things:

  1. Memory drives all decision making.
  2. People will make decisions in your favor based on what they remember.
  3. If you can get people to pay attention, they will remember what you say.

Clearly the executive that I just heard failed in every respect to get my attention with engaging content.

As a result, I was unable to remember what he said.

And yet, it’s not about remembering everything, says Simon, noting that people will forget 90 percent of your content.

But what if you could control the 10 percent they remember – and not leave it to chance?

Simon says it’s possible.

And that’s what speakers need to do – every time they speak – if they want to avoid speeches gone wrong.


What’s boring, what’s not boring

Here’s the truth: Content that confuses or bores – like what I heard from that executive – is disengaging. And a disengaged brain commits nothing to memory, as evidenced by my experience with the content of his presentation.

According to Simon, what’s boring is content that’s “familiar, artificial, concrete and decontextualized” – some of the same problems I noted in my analysis above.

For example, she adds, “the brain tends to disengage when there is too much simplicity – when things are staying on the surface. Simplicity after a while is a snoozer.”

What’s not boring, she explains, is content that’s “novel, authentic, abstract, open-ended experiences, high-level thinking and questioning, and rich/messy content” – all of which were missing from the executive’s presentation that I heard.

In her book “Impossible to Ignore: Creating Memorable Content to Influence Decisions,” Simon teaches how to apply the 15 variables that we can use to influence other people’s memory:

  1. Context
  2. Cues
  3. Distinctiveness
  4. Emotion
  5. Facts
  6. Familiarity
  7. Motivation
  8. Novelty
  9. Quantity of information
  10. Relevance
  11. Repetition
  12. Self-generated content
  13. Sensory intensity
  14. Social aspects
  15. Surprise

She also issues a challenge to business professionals everywhere by asking them to identify the critical message they want to make memorable to their audiences.

“The memorable communicator practices content restraint and has a strong 10 percent message,” she writes. “Unless we take control of the metaphorical 10 percent message, an audience will remember things at random.”

And that is exactly what happened when I listened to that executive’s presentation:

I remembered only random snippets here and there, not any critical message that he wanted his audience – me and others – to commit to memory and potentially act upon.

For speakers everywhere, the lesson here is clear if you want to avoid the epic fail that leads to speeches gone wrong:

NEVER leave your critical message to chance.

Instead, always be the one who decides and controls “the 10 percent” you want your audience to remember.

And ultimately, to act upon.


Need help building a speech or presentation around a critical message?
Work with Teresa Zumwald, an award-winning speechwriter and speech coach.
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