Speakers, don’t fret about these four normal behaviors

Of course you should get feedback from a trusted source about your presentation prep, but don’t obsess over ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ or worry about natural gestures.

There’s a type of speaker coaching that’s common, but more and more distasteful to me.

It’s coaching (or just garden-variety advice) that focuses on factors that, in large part, are normal and natural. Much is made of these factors, but you’d do better to focus on your content and your confidence, and to practice more, than to obsess about any of these normal qualities.

That’s especially true for female speakers, given that excessive attention to these behaviors can be used to silence women. After all, if we’re all busy nitpicking how you speak, we’re not really listening to what you’re saying, right?

As linguistics professor Robin Lakoff says: “We ought not to be instructing women to be better speakers. We should rather be teaching ourselves to be better listeners.”

Here’s my short list:

Ums and uhs: Yes, these can be distracting on those rare occasions where the nervous or ill-prepared speaker dumps two ums for every word. For the rest of us, ums and uhs are normal—so much so that they are found in every language in the world, and make up about 10 percent of everyone’s speech. (Most of the words you utter are function words like “a,” “an,” and “the.” “Um” doesn’t come close.)

Even the very first audio recording, made by Thomas Edison, includes a big, fat “um” in the middle of it.

Instead of working on replacing ums—which generally are a sign you’ve forgotten what you want to say—try rehearsing more or memorizing portions or all of your speech or presentation. Most in your audience won’t notice the ums any more than they do the frequently uttered “the.”

Vocal fry and uptalk: These supposedly modern trends in speaking are often attributed to young women (although plenty of men from Silicon Valley helped make uptalk popular over the past 25 years).

Now, linguists say you should be giving them credit for establishing trends in how we all speak, rather than trying to get them to reform themselves. One linguist says, “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”

Because the article cites such old-timers as actress Mae West as an occasion user of vocal fry—for emphasis—let’s stop blaming and shaming young speakers on this score. Apparently, it’s been around a lot longer than you think.

Resting face: I’ve already suggested that we take the “bitch” out of “resting bitch face,” because it occurs no matter which gender you are. Everyone’s face in default mode or resting mode has a mouth that either flatlines or is slightly downturned. It’s normal to have a “resting face” when you are not speaking.

“Resting bitch face” is another way of telling women they ought to smile, suggesting that they’re there to be pleasant and pretty. There’s nothing wrong with not being “on” all the time. After all, in a poker game or a tense, political meeting, a good resting face is a decided asset.

Gesturing: I still shake my head when I hear people being shamed, or feeling ashamed, for gesturing. Your brain needs you to gesture in order to produce smooth and fluent speech, and the gestures can be random, not necessarily a literal illustration of your words. So gesture away, dear speakers.

If you keep your hands in your pockets to avoid gesturing, remember this: Immobilizing your hands will make you stumble and sputter and “um” more, so keep at least one hand free to gesture.

Strive for moderation

The above qualities are often criticized, with an emphasis on doing them excessively. Doing anything too much in a talk is, by definition, overkill. Few people, though, gesture continually or vocal fry or um their way through an entire talk.

If you worry about the frequency and duration of any behavior in your speeches, try recording your rehearsal on video. You may find that you feel as if you’re doing something a lot when you actually are not. What worries me more is when people pounce on you for just one “um” or gesture.

Each of these criticisms is a useful occasion for thinking clearly about your audience—that is, the person leveling the criticism. Often, the person giving advice about these factors will say, “It drives me crazy when I hear…” Others in your audience probably don’t notice. So why are you customizing your presenting style for one listener? Is that listener really upset about something else—maybe that you’re speaking and he’s not?

Most freely shared advice represents only that one person. There’s a major difference between getting coaching from a professional with thousands of use cases and hearing feedback from someone who just wants you to present the way she would do it.

Unfortunately, many coaches focus on picking just these nits, or on externals instead of your content. Some observers will use them to shame you into being silent. The most important thing for speakers to remember is that these are natural behaviors, not deep flaws that will prevent you from becoming a great speaker.

Think about the context for the criticism before you take it personally.

Denise Graveline is a Washington, D.C.-based speaker coach who has coached more than 150 speakers for TEDMED or TEDx talks. A version of this article originally appeared on her blog, The Eloquent Woman.

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