I often post blogs on how to create and give great presentations. Occasionally, I talk about what not to do. Usually, in those cases, I focus on the big, fatal issues that kill great public speaking. Today, I’m looking at some pet peeves of mine. None of these are career-threatening; they’re just infelicities, minor annoyances and tics. Please feel free to weigh in with yours in the comments.

1.Starting a speech with throat-clearing. That’s what I call the tendency many speakers have to start with what appear to be lame attempts to connect with the audience. “It’s great to see everyone here. Especially after last night in the bar. Huh? Huh? You know who you are!” When I task my coachees with this sin, they say, “It’s to connect with the audience,” but the real reason is that they want to make themselves feel comfortable. Don’t do it. Instead, start the speech.

2.Starting a speech with the verbal equivalent of a prologue. Too much fiction starts with a prologue that details something that happens before the main events of the book, or after, or in some other universe. It’s self-conscious, and annoying, and the speaking equivalent, “Let me begin with a bit of background,” is just as annoying. If you’re telling me background then you haven’t done the real work of figuring out what your story is.

3.Saying, “What I call (the X-Factor)….” A strange verbal tic that many speakers have is to take a perfectly well-known bit of professional jargon and attaching the phrase “What I call” to the front of it, as if they had invented the term. “What I call professional suicide.” “What I call a business cliché.” “What I call a mistake.” You and everybody else. If you’ve really made up the term, fine. But usually it didn’t begin with you, so don’t appropriate it as if it did.

4.Using air quotes. This lamentable tic usually happens when a speaker wishes to signal that he’s speaking ironically or knows that he’s using a cliché. You should be busy gesturing your passion, not your irony. Lose the air quotes.

5.Quoting great thinkers. Quoting famous people used to be a mainstay of public speaking. Indeed, as a young speechwriter in Virginia, I thought it was a rule that I had to quote Thomas Jefferson in my speeches for the Governor. I made a game of finding obscure quotes representing Jefferson’s strangest ideas. Until I realized that the whole effort was a way of hiding behind other people’s thinking. Don’t do it. In this age of authenticity, stand or fall with your own words.

6.Quoting yourself. This relatively new habit is one I find bizarre. It has crept in from Facebook, I believe, where people sometimes vary the obnoxious inspirational quotes from Einstein or Snoopy with – incredible as it may seem – quotes from themselves put up over a picture of a sunset or a seascape. Now I’m starting to see slides where people quote themselves. How pretentious. If you’re going to quote someone, then at least quote someone who has been dead for a while so that his or her words have stood the test of time. But see #5.

7.Breaking into regional accents, dialect, imitations, or – worst of all – song. The technologist David Pogue began a memorable TED talk with a song about tech support and voice mail based on Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.” He just pulls it off, but he’s a very talented person, and most of us are not so talented in multiple spheres. We may have received positive reinforcement for our funny accents or imitations or songs from family and friends, but that’s relying too much on a small sample. Usually those sorts of performances are cringe-worthy or insulting to someone in the audience. Save your performances for the shower, unless you’re already a real Broadway star.

8.Slide decks that combine multiple styles, fonts, and approaches. Readers of this blog will know that I often recommend doing away with slides altogether, because usually they don’t help the audience understand what you’re saying. Rather, they just force us to multitask. And we all know how well we do that. But if you are going to use slides, then at least go to the effort of designing them properly and consistently, rather than just stealing one from here, there, and Jane down the hall and putting them together in a visual mish-mash that’s an insult to hard-working designers everywhere.

9.Not finishing your sentences, thoughts, or points. Speaking on your feet means a certain amount of ad libbing and improving – I get that. So of course there are going to be changes of direction and so forth. But get a grip, and try to keep the “rabbit rabbit” tendencies under control. I say this as a reformed sinner – I’ve worked hard on improving my own tendencies in this regard. Finish your thought, then move on to the next one. It’s so much easier for the audience to follow if you do.

10. Finishing every phrase with the word, “right?” The other way people commit this sin is with an uptick in tone, as if they were asking a question? At the end of every sentence? Hi, my name is Nick? Annoying? It sure is. So is checking constantly with the audience to see if it agrees with you by ending your phrases with right, right? Stand for something! Don’t be needy! Right?

We’ll be working to fix our tics and peeves at our one-day public speaking conference in Boston on April 22nd.  There are a few places left, so let us know this week if you can attend.

24 Comments

  1. Using too many “I, I, I” instead of “we” or “you”. The focus should be on the audience, not the speaker.

    A high “I”-Q is the best way to lose them.

    1. It’s much easier to to send a special greeting to the audience in the back rows than to ask the question “Can everybody hear me in the back rows

      Send the greeting is a way of recognising the back seaters and by waving at them and watching their response is a good indication if they can hear. And additionally, the audio person will be in a position to adjust levels without us asking any questions.

  2. Yup. And Number 11 would be following every statement or idea with “You see what I’m saying?” This is a subliminal attempt to force the listener agree or side with the speaker. Gggggrrrr…..

  3. Talking about the speech as if it were the act of you giving the speech that were interesting for the audience, or how you felt about having to do it, or how you prepared for it, and not the content of the speech itself…. A variation of your verbal throat clearing that always irks me!

  4. I’ve heard lots of people finishing almost every sentence with the word “right?” – it’s also used a lot by young outdoor pursuit instructors when they’re showing people to what to do to stay safe.

    I guess the theory is that it provokes an answer but in practice it’s definitely lame. Right? 🙂

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