10 annoying habits that undermine good speeches

The author’s pet peeves include air quotes and self-quotation. Which of these behaviors are driving your listeners batty without your even realizing it?

In my blog posts about how to create and give great presentations, I sometimes focus on the big, fatal issues that kill great public speaking.

This time, I’m looking at pet peeves. None of these is career-threatening; they’re just infelicities, minor annoyances and tics. (Please feel free to weigh in with yours in the comments.)

1. Starting a speech with throat-clearing. That’s the tendency many speakers have to start with lame attempts to connect with the audience. “It’s great to see everyone here—especially after last night in the bar. Huh? Huh? You know who you are!” When I reproach my coachees about this sin, they say, “It’s to connect with the audience,” but the real reason is that they want to make themselves feel comfortable. Don’t do it. Instead, start the speech.

2. Starting with a prologue. Too much fiction starts with a prologue that details something that happens before the main events of the book, or after, or in some other universe. It’s self-conscious and annoying; the speaking equivalent, “Let me begin with a bit of background,” is just as vexing. If you’re giving me background, then you haven’t done the real work of figuring out what your story is.

3. Saying, “What I call (the X-Factor)….” A strange but common verbal tic is to take a well-known bit of professional jargon and attach the phrase “What I call” to the front of it, as though they had invented the term. “What I call professional suicide.” “What I call a business cliché.” “What I call a mistake.” You and everybody else. If you really made up the term, fine, but usually it didn’t begin with you, so don’t appropriate it as though it did.

4. Using air quotes. This lamentable tic usually happens when a speaker wishes to signal that he’s speaking ironically or knows that he’s using a cliché. You should be busy gesturing your passion, not your irony.

5. Quoting great thinkers. Quoting famous people used to be a mainstay of public speaking. As a young speechwriter in Virginia, I thought it was a rule that I had to quote Thomas Jefferson in my speeches for the governor. I made a game of finding obscure quotations representing Jefferson’s strangest ideas—until I realized the whole effort was a way of hiding behind other people’s thinking. Don’t do it. In this age of authenticity, stand or fall with your own words.

6. Quoting yourself. This relatively new habit is one I find bizarre. I believe it has crept in from Facebook, where people sometimes vary the obnoxious inspirational quotes from Einstein or Snoopy with—incredible as it may seem—quotes from themselves put up over a picture of a sunset or a seascape. Now I’m starting to see slides in which people quote themselves. How pretentious. If you’re going to quote someone, at least quote someone who has been dead for a while so that his or her words have stood the test of time—but please review No. 5.

7. Breaking into regional accents, dialect, imitations or—worst of all—song. The technologist David Pogue began a memorable TED talk with a song about tech support and voicemail based on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” He just pulls it off, but he’s a very talented person, and most of us are not so talented in multiple spheres. We might have received positive reinforcement for our funny accents or imitations or songs from family and friends, but that’s relying too much on a small sample. Usually those sorts of performances are cringe-worthy or insulting to someone in the audience. Save your performances for the shower, unless you’re a Broadway star.

8. Slide decks that combine multiple styles, fonts and approaches. I often recommend doing away with slides altogether, because usually they don’t help the audience understand what you’re saying. Rather, they just force us to multitask, and we all know how well we do that. If you are going to use slides, then at least design them properly and consistently, rather than just stealing one from here, there and Jane down the hall and putting them together in a visual mish-mash that’s insulting to hardworking designers everywhere.

9. Not finishing your sentences, thoughts, or points. Speaking on your feet means a certain amount of ad-libbing and improvising, so of course there are going to be changes of direction. Get a grip, though, and keep the “rabbit rabbit” tendencies under control. I say this as a reformed sinner: I’ve worked hard on improving my own tendencies in that regard. Finish your thought, and move on to the next one. It’s so much easier for the audience to follow if you do.

10. Finishing every phrase with the word, “right?” The other way people commit this sin is with an uptick in tone, as if they were asking a question? At the end of every sentence? Hi, my name is Nick? Annoying? It sure is. So is checking constantly with the audience to see if they agree with you by ending your phrases with right, right? Stand for something; don’t be needy. Right?

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words. This post first ran on Ragan in 2016.


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