5 bad habits of experienced speakers—and how to break them

You already know that you shouldn’t stand behind a podium, that it’s important to practice, and that PowerPoint can get boring. But did you know about these other bad speaking habits?

Developing as a speaker has been a long journey for me—25 years. I started off shy, nervous and tentative. Now I’m a high energy, animated speaker, and I love connecting, laughing and riffing with an audience.

But, I’ve picked up some bad habits along the way. I identified some of these habits at Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Retreat. Here is a list of my own bad habits, and habits I’ve observed amongst other experienced speakers.

1. The plastered-on smile

At the Story Theater retreat, I discovered that I smile while I speak. My pattern was to start talking, then smile. This discovery made me cringe. I observed other speakers with this habit and internally mocked them without realizing that I suffered from the same problem.

For me, the habit probably started because I wanted to portray myself as warm and friendly to my audiences. It became so ubiquitous though, that I even smiled when I described unpleasant events. I broke the habit by identifying the segments of my presentation when I shouldn’t smile, and then consciously rehearsed those segments with my face relaxed. Just before starting my presentation, I reminded myself of the times when I didn’t want to smile.

Now that I’ve broken the habit, I just remind myself to “live my content”—to be in touch with the feelings behind what I’m saying, and live those feelings in my speaking.

Stevenson has written more about this here.

2. Relying on memory

When I first started speaking, I scripted all of my presentations word for word. As I became more comfortable and experienced, I let go of the script and trusted myself to say what I needed to say. I needed to communicate ideas, not sentences. This is what I teach most of my clients who are beginner and intermediate speakers.

Stevenson advocates scripting your stories. Having eschewed a script for so long this took me a while to grasp. But here’s the paradox: Some time in your speaking career, you will reach a point where you can’t improve without going back to scripting. You should fine-tune and replicate your best lines, but you can’t do that consistently unless you write those lines down.

I spend most of my time working with my partner Tony. We listen to each other speak, and write down each other’s great lines. We then add these to our notes so we can use them again. If you don’t have a partner, record your speeches, listen back, and note your best lines so you can replicate them. You don’t have to use a video camera; you can use a sound recording.

3. Hamming it up

As you gain experience and become more comfortable telling and acting out stories, you might be tempted to ham it up. For example, in one of my presentations I act out the drama I have in my head about people being able to see that I’m nervous as I give a presentation. The more I ham it up, the more people laugh. Then there are other situations when hamming it up has no effect on the audience. The distinction between these two situations used to elude me. Stevenson had the answer:

Humor is big, drama is small.

When you want people to laugh, exaggerate. When you want to portray emotion, think Colin Firth—be subtle.

For more on his take on humor, click here.

4. Power corrupts

Speaking can be like a drug. It’s a great feeling to be at one with the audience and ride a wave of interaction and laughter. You feel like you’re on top of the world, with the audience in the palm of your hand. You are all-powerful—and yes, power corrupts!

You start improvising and riffing, and you get hyper. Most people in the audience appear to be having a great time. The problem is that these manic offshoots don’t take the presentation anywhere.

Sure, play with your audience—but don’t forget the point of your presentation.

5. Throwing out random questions

Then there’s the opposite situation where you just can’t seem to make it with a particular audience. Your best lines fall flat, and you’re facing a sea of unresponsive faces.

Some speakers get desperate in this situation. They depart from their plan and throw out random and clichéd questions, hoping for just a bread crumb of interaction from someone, anyone in the audience.

Don’t let this happen to you. Audiences are different. Some will show their delight in the ride overtly; others may be quieter in their appreciation. Asking the audience questions can be an excellent interactive technique, but your questions should be carefully planned in their placement, wording and implementation.

Olivia Mitchell is a senior trainer for Effective Speaking, and is based in Wellington, New Zealand. She blogs at Speaking about Presenting, where this article originally ran. This article first ran on Ragan.com in June 2011.


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