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How to Avoid Distracting Habits While Presenting
by Chris King

I know that in many of my previous articles, I have stressed how important it is for us to work on appearing natural while making a presentation. If, however, we become too natural and relaxed, we may not even realize that we have adopted one or more distracting habits that will rob our presentations of their power. In this article I am going to discuss some of the common habits that speakers unknowingly exhibit while presenting, how to spot them, and ways to overcome them.

Do you look at your watch to check the time? Time is extremely important when we are presenting. We don’t want to talk past our limit, but we do want to fill the time we are expected to fill. This causes many presenters to continually look at their watches. What this does is cause the audience members to start looking at their watches and become more concerned with the passage of time than the important information we are trying to impart. There are several ways to work around this distraction. If you have a lectern or a table, you can place a small travel clock that it easy to read from a distance, so that a quick glance will be inconspicuous. Another aid is to ask a friend to sit fairly close to the front of the room and give an agreed-upon signal when you have five to ten minutes remaining, so you can start your closing without rushing.

Banish the use of filler words from your speech. By “filler words” I mean the ums, ahs, ers, you-knows, ands, buts, and any other word that you may be using to excess. We often are not aware that we are filling our presentations with these distracting words, so the best way to spot them is to ask someone to tape your presentation. Then listen to the tape in the privacy of your home or office. You will be astounded. There may not be any “ums” or those kinds of fillers, but you may be saying a word over and over again. The first time I tried this, I found that I said “and” close to thirty times at the beginning of or between sentences. I have mentioned Toastmasters International before, but want to reiterate that these meetings are worth the money you might spend on a coach, for you can ask members to count the number of times you use filler words. Once you are aware of this habit, you just need to stop and pause for a moment, and then clamp your mouth shut before you let one escape.

Keep your hands off and out of your clothing. I can’t begin to tell you how many speakers I have observed who put their hands in their pockets — and even jingle change. Talk about a distraction! I also witnessed a well-known woman speaker who kept smoothing her skirt and another who kept pulling the front of her jacket together. Neither was aware of what she was doing, but part of the problem arose because they were either nervous and/or uncomfortable with the clothing they were wearing. If you can find someone to video your presentation, again you will be amazed with the little habits you have acquired over the years. Be sure you pick clothing that fits comfortably and also makes you feel like a million dollars, so you will have nothing to worry about.

Avoid what I call the “speaker’s samba.” It is actually better to stand comfortably still than to get into a repetitious movement that resembles a dance. I have become incredibly distracted by speakers who move three steps forward, three steps to the side, three steps back, and three steps to the opposite side. It is not always “three” but it is usually repeated many times. Someone told them it was a good idea to move around, so they initiated this awkward approach. Again, a video will provide an eye opener if you are unaware of your movement around the platform. Just remember that any movement without a natural purpose will distract the audience.

Watch where you are walking. While we are discussing movement — which is a good addition to a presentation if done with purpose — I want to caution you to be careful of a couple of common pitfalls. If you are using an overhead projector, a slide projector, or a computer generated slide show, do not walk in front of the light source. When people in the audience are distracted by seeing your silhouette on the screen, they will lose all focus on the brilliant words you are presenting. If you want to walk in front of your projector, turn off the light or blacken the screen with a dark slide. Also, be cautious about walking back into the audience. If you turn your back on the participants in the front rows, you will lose their attention completely.

Make note of other presenters’ habits when attending keynotes, seminars, and/or workshops. I have always attended a lot of presentations, and not only for the information I will learn. I make note of both the good, the bad, and the better. Oftentimes, another speaker’s habits will serve as a wake-up call to a habit I have that I wasn’t even aware of. I also love to observe the really great speakers — not to mimic them — but to make note of what makes them so special and unique.

Remember to check out your habits. Getting rid of the distracting ones will take you to another level of becoming a polished, professional speaker with pizzazz and panache!

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