Man presenting at a meeting

Here’s a thought for your next presentation in the New Year. Whether it’s our style of presenting, the time we wake up each morning, or the fact that you bite your nails, a lot of what we do isn’t by conscious choice.

It’s habit.

With the New Year just around the corner, even something as simple as conquering a sweet tooth can feel impossible. If you’re one of the many who struggle to stick to your New Year’s resolutions don’t worry, you’re not alone.

According to a study by the University of Scranton only 8% of us who make New Year resolutions are able to stick to them. The reason it’s so hard for most of us to break our bad habits is because the payoff we receive for keeping them is significant. Psychologists call it, ‘trigger, behaviour, reward.’

For example, you feel stressed, bored or perhaps simply tired so you eat a piece of chocolate and ‘hey presto’, you feel good for a few moments.

The more you repeat this cycle the more you are likely to form a habit.

Whether your habits affect the shape of your body, the size of your bank account or how you feel, they are major contributors to each of our lives. It’s an issue that extends itself to public speaking and presenting too.

The presenter’s habits

Speaking too fast




Reading slides

Saying um, err, ugh

These are just a few of the most common bad habits we are asked to help people with in our presentation skills training courses and public speaking coaching sessions.

The question is, do they fit the psychological profile of ‘trigger, behaviour, reward’ that I referred to earlier?

Anyone who has had to give a presentation will be very familiar with the trigger; for most of us it’s anxiety. The very thought of having to present can represent a trigger for a great many people.

Presenting isn’t easy. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us and can be a very stressful experience. Whatever level of angst we feel the result is often an unfortunate behaviour; we speak too fast, fidget or um, err, ugh or do any number of other things repeatedly.

The reward is that we get to survive the experience. It doesn’t sound like much of a reward, I know, but given the fact that 74% of people suffer from speech anxiety many people are happy to just get through it.

The behaviour, often regarded as a bad habit, is activated through our fight or flight response the moment the trigger is switched on. For many of us the switched is turned on simply by the thought of presenting.

What is a bad habit?

Given a great portion of the way we all live our lives is based on habit, I’d like to share my definition of what a bad habit is when it comes to presenting.

It’s anything we do repeatedly to the point of distraction.

In other words, we can fidget, um or err or even sway occasionally, but if we do any of those things repeatedly to the point where that becomes all our audience can focus on, that’s a problem.

At the heart of every presentation is a message and our purpose as presenters is to make sure that message is delivered in a way that will be understood, remembered and felt. Our ability to do so is severely compromised if all our audience can focus on is us fiddling with a pencil or twisting our wedding ring.

No one wants to see a slick, polished presenter who has flawlessly memorised and acted out a script, but they also don’t want to be distracted by bad habits.

As ubiquitous and troubling as bad habits are, thankfully there is a solution.

The solution – Mindfulness

When it comes to presenting, bad habits may appear to serve a purpose in subconsciously redirecting some of our anxiety, but they don’t fix the problem.

All they really serve to do is to put us on ‘autopilot’ and ensure we stay there. Bad habits restrict us by ensuring that we react instinctively rather than mindfully. It’s not good enough to simply know that we speak too fast, pace up and down or read our slides. If we know and continue to do it that makes us mindless rather than mindful.

The mindful presenter follows 5 important steps:

1. They notice it

Pay attention to and notice how you are feeling. Are you feeling stressed, anxious or worried? Do you feel any discomfort or tension anywhere in your body? If so where?

What does it feel like?

2. They accept it

Don’t judge or label yourself, just take the first mindful step of accepting that everyone feels some level of discomfort when presenting or speaking in public; no exceptions. Those feelings don’t make you a bad person or terrible speaker. They simply mean you’re alive, normal and that you care. Your first task having noticed how you feel is to accept it as normal.

“There are two types of speakers: Those who get nervous and those who are liars.” Mark Twain

3. They get curious

Now it’s time to ask exactly how those feelings manifest themselves; you need to get curious and find out. Do you play with your hair, say the same word repeatedly such as ‘like’ or avoid eye contact with your audience?

Stay curious until you find out how your nerves are exhibited. Whatever you find yourself doing, don’t judge yourself for doing it. Simply notice it.

4. They explore it

You know what the trigger is, you’ve found the behaviour and now it’s time to explore and get to know it better. Find someone you trust to observe you presenting and give you feedback as to what you do repeatedly. Get them to count exactly how often you do it and ask them whether it’s distracting and what impact it has on them.

Just because you feel warm and your mind is telling you that your neck and face are going bright red doesn’t necessarily mean that your audience see what you feel.

Just because you believe that you wave your hands around too much when you are speaking doesn’t always mean that you do.

You may even have convinced yourself that you speak way too fast, but do you really?

5. They change it

Remember, nothing changes until you change it.

You’ve identified a habit which can distract your audience from your message, you’ve accepted and explored it and now you have 3 choices.

– You can ignore everything you’ve learned and continue to do it.

– You can worry about it incessantly and continue to do it.

– You can become mindful of it a find strategies to change it.

The mindful presenter will always choose the third option and here are a few examples about how to approach some of these bad habits.

If you speak too fast

Take a few passages from your favourite book and practice reading it out aloud pausing for 3 seconds in between each sentence.

Take a breath after each sentence.

Build speed into your practice. In other words, make a conscious effort to actively focus on slowing down as you practice delivering your presentation.

If you um, err or ahh…

Become mindful of each time you are about to say the word and focus on taking a breath instead.

Practice becoming far more mindful of how often you use the word and the next time you present, make a decision to consciously reduce the number of times you repeat it. Find someone you trust to count and feedback to you.

If you fidget

Consciously remove every possible temptation before you speak.

If you tend to pick up, hold or wave a pen or pencil make sure that there is nothing in your hands the moment you stand to speak.

Make sure that there isn’t a pen, pencil or offending object anywhere nearby that you could be drawn to pick up.

If you have a habit of twisting your wedding (or any) ring whilst you speak make sure you take it off beforehand and put it in your pocket.

If you have a habit or tugging at or playing with a scarf or another accessory make sure you take it off or remove it first.

If you find yourself leaning on a nearby chair as you speak then get rid of the chair.

If you speak with a monotone voice

Give yourself and your audience the gift of challenging and stretching your voice by regularly doing some vocal exercises before you speak.

The brilliant TED Talk by Julian Treasure ‘How to speak so that people want to listen’ will help a great deal.

Take a few passages from your favourite book and practice reading them out aloud in a range of different ways.

Read them loudly

Read them quietly

Read them as though you’re angry

Read them with every ounce of passion you have

If you pace up and down or sway

Practice standing with your knees slightly bent squeezing your toes and feet in your shoes gently into the ground.

In other words, practice grounding yourself.

Before you take to the platform to speak find yourself a quiet space where you can comfortably jump as high as you can into the air 3 or 4 times. Each time you land notice how grounded you feel.

If you are speaking to a small group then imagine that your platform is a large red circle or rug similar to the ones used on TED Talks. Make this your space and own it.

Focus on making your movement meaningful. In other words, if you are speaking about the past then take a step back into the past. If you are talking about the future take a step forward into the future. If you have 3 key points or messages to share then step into each one separately.

If you keep your hands in your pockets or behind your back

Practice ‘taking the handcuffs off’. Movement represents energy and visual stimulation. Start speaking with your hands separated, free and out in front and let them speak for themselves. Each time you find them returning to your pockets or behind you back, take a breath and release them again.

When you practice your presentation at home or at work don’t just read it out aloud to yourself. Put your notes to one side, free your hands and practice in front of a mirror, letting your hands speak too.

If you get sweaty palms, a dry mouth or feel really hot

It makes good sense to always have a glass or bottle of water close to you each time you speak. If you tend to overheat in any way then be sure to take an ice cold bottle of water with you each time you speak. You don’t need to drink it unless you are thirsty or have a dry mouth you just need to grasp it from time to time to allow it to help you to cool down a little.

If you suffer from a dry mouth when presenting then suck a boiled sweet before you stand to speak or take a bite out of an apple.

Another strategical approach to getting rid of bad speaking habits is to adopt new ones which are far more empowering and effective. Many of these are available to you in another article I wrote called ‘The 20 habits of truly brilliant presenters’.

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