Easy ways to overcome the 3 most annoying public speaking tics
Say bye-bye to vocal fry, filler words and other presentation challenges.
You’re on. It’s your turn to speak, present or tell a group what you think. How do you respond? If you’re like most people, your heart starts to pound, your voice shrinks and you stumble over every third word. Don’t freak out. This is a common reaction for many speakers, whether they’re on stage in front of a crowd or just presenting to coworkers in a meeting. The good news is that you can overcome these pesky hang-ups once and for all.
We asked speech experts and coaches for their tips on avoiding common public speaking roadblocks. With a little practice, you can send these three bad habits packing.
Bad habit: Relying on filler words
Why it’s a problem: People use filler words (“um,” “ah” “like,” “you know,”) when they’re uncomfortable with silence or lacking confidence, says Jeremey Donovan, author of How to Deliver a TED Talk.
How to overcome it: Record yourself to understand where you’re using filler words (are they mid-sentence or between sentences?) and train yourself to simply pause instead of using the filler word. “One of the things that really helps me is knowing that other people appreciate the pauses,” says Donovan. “It’s a gift to the listener because the listener needs time to process what you’re saying.”
One technique Donovan uses: “I pause for one beat at whatever feels like a comma, and for two beats whatever feels like a period.”
Bad habit: Vocal fry
Why it’s a problem: Vocal fry is the sound you make in your throat when you run out of air as you’re speaking. Matt Abrahams, who teaches business students at Stanford how to give more effective presentations, lumps vocal fry with other “vocal graffiti” that distract our audience.
How to overcome it: “Any technique that helps people relax can help vocal graffiti,” Abrahams says. “Take deep belly breaths, meditate, try tensing everything up for a few seconds and then relaxing.” Then, at the end of a sentence, “get rid of the air purposefully, and land on a down tone.”
Donovan recommends a similar exercise: Take a huge, deep breath and deliver one sentence at a time to get a sense of what it feels like to have enough air in your lungs. Next, record yourself speaking to understand what the vocal fry sounds like, and practice eliminating the vocal fry through breathing.
Bad habit: Sounding cold or aggressive
Why it’s a problem: Many speakers struggle to sound warm and friendly while still commanding authority. When people focus too much on sounding formal, assertive or smart, they can come off as cold and aggressive. “Excess formality often comes off as low-confidence,” Donovan says. “Excess formality is like showing up at a business casual workplace wearing a tuxedo.”
How to overcome it: Ita Olsen, a speaking coach in Malibu, California, says that over-articulating is one of the ways people can sound excessively distant. Instead of articulating every letter, she says, the trick is using a strong intonation on the parts of the words that have the most information, and not on what she calls the “grammar glue”—the less important sounds like prefixes, conjunctions and prepositions. “Don’t try to sound smart,” she says. “Just try to reach people, get in touch and love them. That’s a way to get out of yourself, and that’s what gets people to like you.”
Abrahams says that sounding warm is also about word choice. He suggests using inclusive language (“you,” “us,” “we”). “Speak from the perspective of your audience,” he says. For example, try saying “what we learned today” versus “what I showed you today.”
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