5 common speaking mistakes—and how to fix them

Storytelling isn’t just about stringing words together in narrative form. Your presentation will profit from avoiding these habits.

I recently spent a day working with people who are a part of the government that I can’t mention.

Aside from talking about hamsters and flying cars instead of the real work they were doing, so that they didn’t have to kill me at the end of the day, the training focused on body language and storytelling, as it usually does. The concerns and struggles of this great team of people were the same as any civilian group or business team would be: how to express yourself with clarity, authenticity and persuasiveness.

We all want to communicate effectively, and the difficulties that arise when we try to do so are pretty much the same, whether you’re in the cremation business, or office supplies, or health care, or national security.

Five issues come up with such regularity that if you can conquer them, you’re on the way to becoming a master of the universe-or at least a clear communicator.

1. First-person perspective. Our initial instinct is to argue our case from our own point of view, but the better argument is almost always from the audience’s (or someone else’s) point of view. One participant told a great story about overcoming the disapproval of an adult in his life, persevering, and becoming finally expert at a sport he loved. At the moment that he was about to give up, his mother encouraged him to keep going, because she had been a trailblazer in a male-dominated field herself. Our story teller, incidentally, revealed this detail in the middle of the tale.

I pointed out that the story would be immeasurably strengthened if he changed its focus, began with his mother’s trailblazing, so that her support would make dramatic sense instead of coming as a surprise halfway through.

It’s a simple point, but it’s illustrative of the challenge we all face: We begin from our own point of view and struggle to get above our own concerns. The story almost always gets better when we do.

2. Chronology/structure. Even though we know we should tell stories to hold our audience’s attention, because we experience life as a series of events (first this happened, then that happened), our attempts at narration usually take the form of lists and information dumps. It’s hard to impose a story structure on what we want to say. Hard, but essential. We can’t expect everyone else to do the structuring for us. That’s our job. Almost all first attempts at stories have either too much or too little information, and they lack structure.

3. Demeanor. Even the confident speakers are initially closed and defensive in their body language. Speaking in front of a group, in any way more formal than a quick, casual one-on-one conversation, puts people on the spot, and the result is that they get defensive. It takes a lot of training—and video—to get people to open up. I’ve worked with actors and musicians, and even they do the same thing until shown otherwise. If you want to take a huge jump on everyone else, force yourself to open up.

4. Empty syllables. Training yourself to avoid filler words (“like,” “you know,” “actually,” “really,”), ums, and using “and” or “but” as the connector for every sentence you utter, will immediately increase your reputation as a polished performer. Trust me, it’s not that hard. It simply takes attention, and a few weeks of practice listening to yourself and mentally adding the periods at the ends of your sentences. Just do it. Please. If we all clean this verbal litter up, the world will immediately become a better place.

5. Nonstop speaking. The pause is the greatest secret weapon a speaker has. It’s universal: Everyone getting communications training believes they have to fill every second with sound. Don’t do it. Take your time. Put pauses in your speeches. Watch how the audience is reacting. Breathe. Respond to the reactions. Breathe again. You’ll immediately increase your authority and charisma tenfold if you do.

There’s a lot more to effective communicating, of course, but follow these five tips to get off to a great start.

A version of this story first appeared on Public Words.


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