Which Public Speaking Behaviors Are Most Distracting to an Audience? [Updated May 2024]

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If you’re seasoned in public speaking, you know that there are many different behaviors and techniques that can be used to draw an audience in and hold their attention. Contrastingly, there are also behaviors and body language that can be distracting and cause your audience to become disinterested or disengaged.

Even experienced speakers can fall into the trap of using certain distracting habits without realizing the negative impact they have on their talk’s effectiveness.

In this updated guide, we explore common missteps in public speaking and provide strategies for avoiding them, ensuring your next big talk holds your audience’s attention from start to finish.

1. Minimize Nervous Habits

We all have nervous habits. Most of these habits have been with us for years and are the behaviors we fall back on when we want to feel comfortable. When you’re a public speaker, however, these habits need to be kept in check because they can become distracting for your audience.

If you’re fidgeting with your hands, tugging on your shirt, jangling your keys, playing with your wedding ring, or many other common habits that you usually don’t think twice about, your audience may start to focus on what you’re doing with your hands and less on what you’re actually saying.

Here are a few of the most common nervous habits that I’ve come across in my experience as a public speaking coach:

  • Fidgeting with hands, feet, or clothing
  • Hands in pockets
  • Tapping fingers or foot
  • Playing with keys or other items
  • Clenching and unclenching fists
  • Flipping hair or twirling hair around a finger

2. Maintain Appropriate Eye Contact

Human psychology is very much at play when public speaking. In everyday conversation, we generally use eye contact to help us establish a connection with the person we are speaking to. Naturally, you cannot make eye contact with every single person in the room if you’re speaking to a large audience. It may make sense to you in the moment to fixate your gaze on the floor or on a spot in the distance – such as an exit sign. But this is the exact opposite of what you should do.

From an audience perspective, when the speaker isn’t making eye contact, it can be a sign that the speaker is either not knowledgeable about their topic or is unengaged. As a public speaker, if you’re not engaging with your audience through eye contact, then you could be sending the wrong message and cause an audience to become disinterested in what you have to say.

Let your eyes roam the room, and attempt eye contact – even if it’s for a brief moment – with anyone in the room who is looking directly at you. In that moment, you will connect with that one person in the audience, and they’ll hone in on what you’re saying even more than they already were.

That said, you do not want to stare at individual members of your audience for an extended period of time, either. If you make too much eye contact, it can start to feel uncomfortable or intimidating. This can also cause members of your audience to become distracted and lose focus on what you’re actually saying.

3. Use Notes and Slides Wisely

This is a very common mistake that many public speakers make, and it can become very distracting for an audience. Slides and notes should serve as reminders or talking points. A slide presentation is also a great way to visualize the data you’re speaking to. But there should never be a point in your delivery where all you’re doing is reading directly from notes or slides without engaging with the audience.

This can be damaging to your performance because if you’re just reading directly from notes or slides, the audience is not getting any value out of listening to you. It would be much more beneficial for them to read the slides and notes on their own without having to sit through your delivery.

So instead of focusing on what’s written on your notes or slides, use them as a guide and build off of them. Speak to the audience, bring in stories or examples that highlight your points, and then refer back to your slides or notes when necessary. This will keep the audience engaged and show them that you have a strong knowledge of your topic.

4. Control Your Speaking Pace and Use of Fillers

When giving a presentation, it’s important to make sure that you’re speaking at the right pace. If you speak too fast, then people won’t be able to process what you’re saying and may start to tune out. On the other hand, if you speak too slowly, then you can start to lose the interest of your audience.

Another common mistake is using filler words such as “um,” “like,” or “you know.” These types of phrases can cause an audience to become distracted because they do not provide any value, and they detract from the overall message that you’re trying to convey with your talk.

5. Limit Your Use of Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended and rhetorical questions can be an amazing way to engage with your audience, but they should not be overused. When giving your big talk, it’s natural to want to involve the audience by asking questions. However, this can lead to confusion and distraction for an audience if you aren’t selective in the questions you’re raising. Open-ended questions are ones that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. They require more thought and explanation – something that may not be suitable for the context of a public speaking event.

6. Avoid Jargon and Technical Language

When giving a talk, do your best to avoid using industry jargon and slang terms. Remember, you’re the expert in the topic that you’re speaking about; using common phrases in your industry may seem like second nature, but your audience likely isn’t as well versed.

It’s important to keep your language simple and concise so that everyone in the room understands what you’re saying. You may also want to avoid abbreviations or acronyms unless they are absolutely necessary. If you must use them, it would be best to explain the acronym or abbreviation so that everyone in the audience is on the same page.

In Conclusion

These are some of the public speaking behaviors that can be distracting to an audience. Public speaking is a skill that takes practice and dedication, however focusing on avoiding these mistakes will help you become more confident in your delivery. With time and practice, you’ll be able to master the art of presenting in front of any type of audience.

If you desire support from a public speaking coach and mentor, I would love to connect. As an award-winning director, writer, producer, speaker, and public speaking coach, I serve speakers at every stage of their journey.

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