What happens when we get complacent with public speaking?


Phew – I got away with that one!

I have lost count of the number of times someone has quietly admitted that to me in their one-to-one speaking coaching sessions. These are not people who are new to speaking.  They are not always people who worry or get overly anxious about speaking.  In fact, these are people often regarded as competent, confident and engaging speakers. But what happens when we get complacent with public speaking?
What happens when we get complacent with public speaking?

So, where does that feeling of ‘getting away with it’ come from?

At its heart, it is complacency.  If you know you can do it and if you know that any mistakes or slip-ups, near misses or ad hoc adjustments can be hidden from view, in other words, no one will notice, then it is easy (and understandable) to become complacent.

There are three probable reasons for this complacency creeping in:

  1. Over familiarity with the content.

When we know our content and structure inside out and backwards, then the need to prepare doesn’t feel so urgent, and the preparation tends to be refreshing memory rather than making sure that this will speak directly to the audience.  It is easy to assume that we know the material well enough and don’t need to put in as much effort.

Equally, the more familiar with the content we are, the more boring that content may become. A speaker may not be as excited about the topic or the audience.

In each of these cases, inconsistencies and errors might start popping up and as sure as eggs are eggs, if the speaker is bored with their topic, then the audience will be too.

  1. Reaching a level of skill that makes you stand out from the crowd you currently mix in

This is an interesting one.  Maybe you have delivered a presentation, and people have come up to you to say how good you were.   You may have a reputation for being a good speaker.  You might have heard people saying that they couldn’t do what you do. While this is pleasant to hear, and let’s face it, we all like to be praised, if inside you know that you just scraped by or in your heart of hearts, know that you could do so much better, then you will realise that you have become complacent.

I distinctly remember a moment about ten years ago when I thought that I had reached the best I could with the skills and experience I had learned.  I knew that I needed to find another circle, another mentor or teacher to uncover and explore the potential that was within me.  I had grown tired of being complacent and wanted to step up.  I had to change the crowd to learn. I had to expose myself to others who were better, more effective, and more powerful than me as a speaker and immerse myself in learning.


  1. Not wanting to step out of the comfort zone and risk a dent in confidence and reputation.

The wonderful thing about being good at something is that you make fewer and fewer mistakes.  To learn to do something different or to apply a new skills, techniques or tools means potentially exposing yourself to more mistakes as you learn. Complacency can discourage us from trying new things or innovating with our presentation style. What if it doesn’t work? What if people lose their respect for you? What if you fail? Going from feeling confident to suddenly being aware of your lack of competence can feel unnerving.  Is it even worth it, we might say?

Yet, if we know that we only ‘get away with it’ and that we could do even better, then not taking the steps to do something about that seems to me to be a disservice to ourselves and to our audiences.   Surely, our message, if it is important enough, is worth the investment of time and effort in getting it as clear, compelling, and impactful as we can.

This is not to say, of course, that we aim for perfection just for the sake of perfection.  This is becoming the best we can be so that our message lands and whoever needs to hear our message or is ready to hear it does.

So, how do we overcome complacency?

  1. Set speaking goals for yourself.  Who, what, why and where do you want to speak?
  2. Focus on your audience – who needs to hear what you have to say?  Why do they need to hear it, and why should it be you?  What impact do you want your message to have?
  3. Be clear on your strengths. Ask yourself what could you do more of and what do you need to start doing.
  4. Seek feedback from someone who can both spot your strengths and identify what you can do to uncover and realise your potential.
  5. Commit to continuing the development of your craft.  Read, listen, watch.  Seek out the great speakers and the exceptional speakers, and learn.
  6. Keep speaking.  The more prolific you become, the better you become – provided you take time to review, reflect and learn.
  7. Invest in learning to extend and elevate your skills.  If they are not currently on your radar or within your circle, go look further.  Having someone who knows the path you are treading can mean that ‘Phew, I got away with that’ is a phrase of the past.

What happens when we get complacent with public speaking?

So make sure if you’re a regular public speaker that complacency doesn’t creep in. And if it does, use my checklist above, or get in touch.