How to rid yourself of phonic tics

Many speakers are unaware of the idiosyncratic sounds they make during a presentation, distracting the audience and subverting the intended message. Here’s a remedy.

I was in high school, I had a French teacher who grunted between every few words—little pig-like grunts would come from her mouth even when she was not speaking.

It was awkward for us, to say the least, and she was the brunt of many jokes. However, she was either completely unaware of this tic, or did not know how to stop it.

Most people have seen physical tics such as head jerks or hands that pull at clothes over and over when speaking, but there are also phonic tics. Phonic tics are involuntary sounds produced by moving air through the nose, mouth or throat.

Some call them vocal tics, but they could be a sound made when you breathe, a tongue click or throat clearing. The extreme of phonic tics is Tourette syndrome, but most are not that severe.

For most of us, tics appear when we least want them to-when we are in front of a group. Tics are associated with anxiety. (Naturally, I now have much more compassion for my French teacher, because I realize that we must have scared her to death.)

People with tics report that they first feel an irresistible urge to clear the throat, or grunt, or whatever the tic is followed by the tic. Even though it feels like you can’t stop yourself, it is possible to get rid of most tics as you do other habits, through awareness and practice; if you are aware of it you can stop it.

Some tics are more deeply ingrained, more about the anxiety of being in front of others, and may take longer to conquer. Either way, if you have a vocal tic, eliminating it will increase your credibility, your comfort and the audience’s comfort as well. Here’s how to work on it:

Observe yourself, through either video or others’ feedback. Pinpoint when the tic appears and what it is (grunt? click? sigh?). Sometimes this is all it takes to begin to break the habit.

Answer the tic urge with a distraction. Tics are pent-up energy. Try to notice when the urge comes upon you to make the tic sound; then, say something before you can tic, or energize your voice consciously. This way you might dissolve the urge or replace it with a positive habit.

Before going on stage, calm yourself down with several deep low breaths, and repeat.

Focus on what you can do for others rather than what they are thinking about you. This is the key to conquering almost any kind of stage fright.

Prepare well. The more prepared you are, the less likely it is that the nerves will get to you.

Kate Peters has coached voice and communication impact for over 30 years, and is the author of the book, Can You Hear Me Now? A version of this article first appeared on Kate Peters’ blog.

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