Which Public Speaking Behaviors Are Most Distracting to an Audience?

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If you have experience in the art of public speaker, you know that there are many different behaviors and tactics that can be used to draw an audience in and hold their attention. On the flip side, there are also behaviors and body languages that can be distracting and cause your audience to become disinterested or disengaged.

Most public speakers are guilty of at least one distracting habit or tendency, but they may not be aware of what they’re doing or how detrimental their behavior can be to their overall delivery.

In this article, we’ll dive into what those behaviors are and look like so that you can avoid those behaviors in the future.

1. Nervous habits, such as fidgeting, foot tapping, hair flipping or pacing

We all have habits. Most of our habits have been with us for years, and they may be a behavior that we fall back on when we want to feel comfortable. When you’re a public speaker, however, these habits should not make an appearance because they can become too distracting for your audience.

If you’re fidgeting with your hands, tugging on your shirt, jangling your keys, playing with your wedding ring, or any of these other common habits that you may not even think twice about in your everyday life, the 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. Lack of eye contact (or too much!)

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 couldn’t be further from the truth.

From an audience perspective, when the speaker isn’t making eye contact with them, it can be a sign that the speaker is either not knowledgeable about their topic or 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 that 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 in the audience for an extended period of time, either. If you make too much eye contact, it can start to feel uncomfortable or intimidating. This will only cause some members of the audience to become distracted and lose focus on what you’re actually saying.

3. Reading directly from notes or slides without engaging the audience

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.

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

So instead of focusing on what’s written down in 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 around your topic.

4. Excessive use of filler words, or speaking too slow or fast

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 are not getting any value out of them and it takes away from the overall message that you’re trying to convey.

5. Asking too many open-ended or rhetorical questions

Open-ended and rhetorical questions can be a great way to engage with your audience, but they should not be overused. When giving a presentation, 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. Relying on industry jargon, slang or abbreviations

When giving a presentation, do you 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 language simple and concise so that everyone in the room is able to understand 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 provide an explanation of the acronym or abbreviation so that everyone in the audience is on the same page.

In Conclusion

These are just 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’re in need of a public speaking coach, Tricia Brouk is an award-winning director, writer, producer, speaker and public speaking coach. Get in touch today to discuss her variety of services for speakers at every stage in their career.

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