“Common sense is not so common.”Voltaire


Following one of my recent seminars on presentation skills, I was somewhat dismayed to find this sentiment scribbled across the bottom of an unsigned evaluation: “Ron gave us some good ideas, but much of it was just common sense.”

I didn’t know whether I should feel good or gently harpooned. It disturbed me enough that I started pulling some presentations out of my memory and reviewing them in light of my critic’s forthright observation. Is it common sense for a speaker to rise majestically to a platform and start to speak without ever having checked out the equipment or environs?

This happened recently at a marketing conference I attended. The little tubular bulb inside the podium hood had burned out. A replacement could not be found. Finally, a table lamp was lugged up from the audience, plugged in, and placed on the podium. It was a scene I shall not soon forget.

The speaker, eyeglasses perched on bridge of nose, was peering out at his audience from around the shade of a lamp that should have been next to his couch in his living room.

Having learned a lesson, that speaker never speaks now without the security of a nearby flashlight.

Sometimes I wonder if speakers ever have to go to the bathroom. Common sense would suggest that they do. Yet I have watched speakers drone on mercilessly while members of the audience did bizarre contortions in their seats.

Recently, I was giving a talk in Kansas City and someone passed a note up to me from the back of the room. I unfolded it. “May I please go to the bathroom now?” it said. I looked to the back of the audience, and a plaintive face looked back at me in anxious anticipation. The whole scene had a sort of kindergarten quality to it. I now have an unbreakable law: Audiences must be allowed a five-minute “gift of time” for every 30 minutes that I speak.

Is this dollop (see “Word to the Wise,” below) of advice a presentation technique? Common sense is more like it.

Speakers of a certain genre, often while making presentations of great importance, have a habit that drives audiences nuts. Technically, the habit is called “a vocalized pause.” Actually, it’s a moment in time when the speaker has lost his or her way and winds up saying, “you know.”

I have actually clocked “you knows” per minute (YKPM). The record is 27. Other vocalized pauses are “OK?” and assorted “uhs” and “ohs.” The speaker never hears these meaningless conjunctives, but the audience does. Common sense would indicate that a person prone to vocalized pauses would put himself or herself on audiotape, listen carefully, then vow to eliminate these noxious little “fillers” forever.

I hate to admit this, but sometimes I don’t know what the speaker is talking about. I honestly don’t have the foggiest idea. Good common sense might mean having the basic proposition of the speech clearly stated within the first five minutes. (Five minutes is an eternity when you don’t have a clue as to what is on the speaker’s mind.) A visual aid to pin down the proposition would make it even better.

It’s a funny thing, but I’ve never heard of a speech being criticized for being “too short.” Have you? Speakers get carried away by the sound of their own voices. This can extend presentations endlessly. More frequently, speakers don’t bother to time their speeches.

My point is this: If you’ve been given a certain amount of time in the program, doesn’t it make sense to clock your speech before you give it?  Or, at the very least, take your watch off when you start and put it where you can see it while you’re speaking? This is a nice little touch of nonverbal language that signals your audience that you’re going to try to stay within your allotted time.

This is common sense that is violated in every sales meeting, every corporate conference, and every competitive presentation in America. When you realize that there are 33,000,000 business presentations in America every business day, that is one full docket of violations.

Never mind. Common sense will save the day. Some capsules:

  • It’s just common sense to look people in the eye if you’re trying to make a point. It always worked pretty well for John Wayne.
  • It’s just common sense to study the body language of your audience. Remember that old chestnut: “Words lie. Body language never lies.”
  • It’s just common sense to anticipate the audience’s questions. The president of the United States does. If he can take the time to do it before a press conference, so can you.
  • It’s just common sense to end on a call to action that will give your audience something specific and helpful to think about.

So, tell yourself to get a frank, honest evaluation of your next speech. Read those comments carefully. If they would make you into something you’re not, forget ’em. If they sound like good common sense, maybe you’ll want to work on them.