8 public speaking habits you should avoid at all costs

You’ve probably heard that we fear public speaking more than death. According to Psychology Today, there is an evolutionary reason for this: rejection from a social group used to be a direct threat to our survival. So whenever you give a presentation, you’re basically working against deep-rooted primal fears. And then there are so many things to think of in order to communicate your message effectively, both in terms of content and delivery. 

To make your life easier, we’ve asked two speaking experts for their insights on public speaking habits you should be avoided at all costs. “The first step to improving a bad public speaking habit is to become aware of it. Record yourself speaking to an audience and review yourself. If you have perfectionist tendencies or are very self-critical, watch your performance with a friend so you don’t spiral into negative thoughts,” says Dr. Megan Fisk, public speaking coach. 

Ready to nip your bad speaking habits in the bud? Watch out for the following behaviors and you’ll be able to make a bigger impact with your message as well as feel more confident about your speaking skills. 

Swaying and fidgeting

“Swaying is the true mark of a novice speaker. You want to stand with feet planted firmly on the ground and then walk with a purpose and in a way that compliments your speech,” says Dr. Fisk. 

Also, do you remember Amy Cuddy’s famous TED talk on power posing? Standing and walking around with good posture while you speak will have the added benefit of decreasing stress and increasing confidence. 

Not connecting the dots

It’s important to reiterate your core message and walk your audience through the points that you are making. Not reminding people where you’re at in the structure of your talk is a surefire way to lose them. Dr. Fisk says transition words are your friend. “Words like ‘importantly, in addition to this, or alternatively,’ help the audience follow along and catch up should they get distracted,” she says. 

If you find yourself often using filler words like “um” and “like” as transitions, aim to breathe and get more comfortable with pauses. “Give yourself a go-to gesture like resting your hands together with a slight bend at your elbows.” 

Saying the phrase “kind of”

According to Alexandria Agresta, empowerment speaker and speaking coach, saying “kind of” hurts your credibility for three reasons: It sends the message that you don’t fully believe in what you’re saying, that you lack confidence and that you’re not taking full ownership of the thoughts, insights, and experiences you’re sharing. Kind of a dealbreaker. 

Running off the stage after your talk

Think twice before breathing a sigh of relief and getting off the stage as soon as possible. “To me, what that’s telling the audience is ‘that was so scary and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.’ Let the audience thank you. Let the audience applaud you for your courage and vulnerability. Let the audience love you,” says Agresta. 

Take a few seconds after your talk to really take in the reaction of the audience (you can silently bask in the fact that it’s over and feel proud of yourself for doing it) and stick around for conversations and questions. 

Distracting body language

“80% of our communication is non-verbal, thus our body language on stage can make or break us. Hands crossed over the chest and hands in pockets are a big no-no,” says Agresta. “These movements indicate disinterest and even defensiveness.” 

And we often forget our faces when considering body language, according to Dr. Fisk. “You don’t have to go as far as choreographing your facial expressions, but you do want to make sure your expression matches the tone of your speech and mirrors your message. When in doubt, go with a pleasant smile. Raise your eyebrows to accentuate a point,” she says.  

While both experts agree that practice makes perfect when it comes to public speaking, you don’t want to get caught up in practicing a speech so much that you sound emotionless and rehearsed. 

“It’s so easy to get caught up in nerves or focus on the talk being ‘perfect’ that a speaker may become stiff, robotic or straight-up emotionless. Lack of emotion creates a disconnect between you and your audience. With no connection, people aren’t going to want to see you speak again,” says Agresta. 

Using complicated language

On the topic of connection, it’s also important to use vocabulary that feels simple and easy to grasp. The worst thing you can do is alienate your audience with jargon. 

“Choosing your language to sound fancy is such a bad habit. Have you ever tried to say all the university-level words you know so you sound smart in a presentation? That actually further disconnects you from your audience. You want to speak conversationally and use words that are natural to you,” says Dr. Fisk. 

Ineffective slideshows

Visual aids can support your speech, but if executed badly they can actually do more harm than good. “When you have more than 15 words on a slide, your audience stops listening and begins reading,” says Dr. Fisk, who recommends thinking of your first slide like a book cover, keeping a consistent color scheme that’s aligned with your message and using minimal text. “Once the audience has disengaged, it is difficult to re-engage them in your presentation.”

Agresta actually advises against using slideshows because they have a “safety net” effect that can end up being damaging if you start reading off slides and not leaning into the intuitive element of speaking. So when it comes to slideshow presentations, either nail them or ditch them completely.

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