Worst Speeches Ever

..and the lessons we can learn from them.

#5 President William Henry Harrison (1841)

William Henry Harrison, the 9th president of the United States, delivered what would become the longest inaugural address in U.S. history when he took office on March 4, 1841. His mammoth, 8,445 word speech, took him almost 2 hours to deliver. He spoke outdoors on a cold and wet day without wearing a proper coat or hat. Despite what many believe, the bad weather did not directly cause his death – yet he caught pneumonia and passed away about a month later. Harrison’s passing made him famous for another reason – he had the shortest presidency in U.S. history… 31 days.

You can read the text of the speech here. But, be warned, it’s pretty dense stuff. To the modern ear it reads like a lecture on constitutional history and powers. Some have speculated his speech was so long because he was from the countryside and wanted to convince listeners that he was an educated man and a skilled orator. Unfortunately, Harrison’s example teaches us that a shorter speech is usually a better speech. First, its easier for people to remember a shorter speech and second, it may be detrimental to your health! Here’s a clip of an historian discussing President Harrison’s speech. (Link will open new window).

#4 Richard T. Jones (2011)

Richard T. Jones delivered this painfully worded commencement address to the graduating class of 2011 at the unfortunately named University of Maryland University College (yes,they really call it that). In it, Mr. Jones commits one of the greatest public speaking faux pas. Never tell people what’s wrong with your speech, while you’re giving it! Even if you have to wing-it, nobody is going to notice your mistakes unless you blatantly point them out. (The pain begins around 3:05).

To his credit, Mr. Jones does give it his best shot, despite the difficulty of having every speaker before him take most of his material. But, this is clearly a tough speaking moment.

#3 Gerald Ratner (1991)

The person who carries the distinction of delivering perhaps the worst business speech in history is Gerald Ratner, former CEO of the Ratner Group, once a major British jewelry company. Mr. Ratner joined the family business in the 1960’s and went on to lead the company to great success in the 1980’s. Ratner Group stores were known for their bright florescent displays and steep discounts.

During a speech to the Institute of Directors on April 23, 1991, Mr. Ratner poked fun at his company’s “cheap” image by joking that the reason his prices were so low was because some items were, “total crap“. Additionally, he said the earrings sold in his stores were cheaper than a sub sandwich, but “probably wouldn’t last as long.” After the speech, the Ratner Group’s market value collapsed literally overnight, losing approximately $750 million in a matter of days.Customers simply stopped associating themselves with the low-cost jeweler and the company almost went bankrupt.

The lesson here is to never make fun at the expense of your customers, by making them appear foolish. If you wouldn’t say such things in front of your grandmother, you probably shouldn’t say them at all!

#2 Rev James Standridge (2013)

This clip of Reverend Jim Standridge exploded onto the internet in 2013, after he brutally accosted his parishioners for falling asleep during his sermon and for having a poor church attendance record. What makes this clip so disheartening is how he fires off very personal insults to his congregation, telling one person, “you’re not worth $0.15” only to counter that a few seconds later by saying, “do you know I love you, sir?”

When people respond poorly to your presentation, they are almost never the source of the problem. Instead, a speaker must reflect on the reasons why they are not connecting with their audience. Instead of taking offense, use a poor performance as a learning opportunity to improve upon your presentation skills. Unfortunately, Rev. Standridge missed the boat on this one and the results were profoundly harmful to his credibility as a speaker.

Brace yourself for this one.

#1 Phil Davison (2010)

Phil Davison, former councilman of the city of Miverva, Ohio, USA, has the distinction of giving one of the most awkward political speeches ever caught on camera. His high energy speech given before the Star County Republican Party in 2010 went viral overnight and was dubbed by some media commentators as the, “worst speech ever.”

In this clip, Mr. Davison yells at his audience for over six minutes arguing why he should be nominated for County treasurer. His mannerisms are reminiscent of the time former Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer tried to rev up his audience during a company leadership event. (Watch Steve Balmer’s clip here). Davison’s speech is at times funny and cringe-inducing, but a serves as a powerful reminder that giving a speech is never about overpowering your listeners!