Presentation Skills – The truth about bad habits

Closeup of group of business people in a meeting seated around squared office desk. Several people are seated around conference table and team leader is having a presentation in front of a projection screen. He's showing annual profit charts ending with 2016 result.

Professionals looking to develop their presentation skills have one major concern aside from anxiety; it’s their bad habits. For many people those bad habits are of course very real and visible whilst for others they are largely imagined.

Here are the top 10 bad habits we are asked to help our clients with every day in no particular order:

Saying ‘Err’, ‘Umm’, ‘So’, ‘You know. Etc.

Talking too fast

Fidgeting… playing with my wedding ring, hair, pen, etc.

Not making eye contact

Reading slides

Moving around too much

Hands in pockets, behind back, clasped

Standing with legs crossed ( ladies)


Speaking too much

At recent workshops we have even heard delegates say:

‘I repeatedly quote sound bites from my favour children’s films.’

‘When it comes to the Q&A I have no patience for people’s questions’

‘I very rarely spend enough time preparing and practicing’.

At Mindful Presenter we have a very clear definition of what constitutes a bad habit in the world of public speaking and presenting.

‘Anything done repeatedly to the point of distraction’

I know but I don’t know

My son is all grown up now but I still remember when he was naughty as a small boy. Our conversation would often take the following shape.

Me: ‘Reece that was really naughty, why did you do that?’

Reece: ‘I don’t know’

Me: ‘Yes you do, you know better than that’

Reece: ‘I know’

Me: ‘Well if you know why did you do it?’

Reece: ‘I don’t know?’

Me: ‘But you just said you know

Reece: ‘I know’

Me: ‘Well if you know why did you do it?’

Reece: ‘I don’t know’

Now please keep in mind that my son Reece was a very small boy at the time.

Everyone who attends our presentation training courses and public speaking workshops are adults yet we often have a very similar conversation.

Me: ‘You’ve said that you repeatedly play with your wedding ring whilst presenting and that you know it’s very distracting so why do you still do it?’

Delegate: I don’t know.

Me:It must be really frustrating for your audience’

Delegate: I know

Me: ‘So why do you do it?’

Delegate: I don’t know

Me: ‘But you’ve just acknowledged how annoying it must be for your audience’

Delegate: I know

Me: ‘Well if you know why do you continue to do it?’

I’m speaking with highly intelligent, creative and talented professionals who are experts in their own fields yet the conversation is similar to the one I used to have with my son.

 Why do we do it?

I’m not a behavioural psychologist or a ‘habit expert’ but as a professional public speaking and presentation skills coach I do have a perspective I’d like to share.

I believe that the reason we do so many of these things when we know we shouldn’t is simply because we are on ‘autopilot’. Rather than being Mindful Presenters I believe we often become quite the opposite, mindless presenters.

Let me explain.

We have the scientific prowess and expertise to put a man or a woman in a construction of titanium and other materials to send them 250,000 miles to the moon in just 3 days.  When they arrive there we can then land the spaceship with the precision of a fraction of a second.

We’ve been doing that for decades. 

Is it therefore possible for us to attain some insight into the way we think?

Studies suggest that we each have tens of thousands of thoughts each day and that for most of us the vast majority of our thoughts are repetitive and recycled thoughts from previous days. If that’s not depressing enough, the same studies also claim that for many of us a great number of our thoughts are negative.

If you believe as I do that there is some substance to the research then it wouldn’t be hard to agree that human beings are creatures of habit. That means that the reason we speak too fast, play with our wedding ring repeatedly or click that pen is because that is what we have repeatedly done and it has become a mindless bad habit.

When we then challenge those highly intelligent, creative, talented and responsible professionals to stop fidgeting or speaking so fast, they say they can’t and they don’t know why.

They know it’s wrong, they know they shouldn’t do it, they even know it’s within their control to stop doing these things yet they continue to do them.

The painful truth

Its lazy and mindless thinking; there I said it.

We know and we know we know but yet we continue to do it.

With that level of knowledge many of these people book themselves onto a public speaking or presentation skills training course with the objective of someone showing them how to stop doing something they know they shouldn’t do.

Why do you:

–           Say, ‘Err’, ‘Umm’, ‘Urgh’, ‘So’, ‘You know’

–           Talk too fast

–           Fidget… play with your wedding ring, hair, pen, etc.

–           Not make eye contact

–           Read slides

–           Move around too much

–           Keep your hands in your pockets, behind your back, clasped

–           Stand with your legs crossed (ladies)

–           Waffle

–           Speak too much

I don’t know

Well, given that you know it’s not very helpful for your audience why don’t you just stop doing it? – ‘I don’t know’

The solution

One of my least favourite clichés is, ‘It’s easier said than done’

I haven’t yet come across anything that isn’t ‘easier said than done’.

Eradicating bad habits when presenting and speaking in public is without question just like everything else in life, ‘easier said than done’.

The painful truth however is that a great number of our bad habits are completely avoidable and within our gift to stop immediately. There really is no magic wand or silver bullet. Other than to perhaps have your bad habits pointed out you probably don’t even need a presentation skills coach.

All you have to do is stop it right now; ‘easier said than done’ I know.

Once you have acknowledged and accepted that you are doing something repeatedly, to the point of distraction don’t say I know it’s wrong but I don’t know why I do it or how to stop it. You know that’s not really true.

Do this instead:

Preparation – If you don’t spend enough time preparing and practicing your presentation recognise that you are doing your audience a huge disservice. What you are doing is unforgivable. Stop making excuses, put your audience first instead of yourself and allow ample time to mindfully craft and deliver a memorable presentation. The very idea that you have no time to prepare for and practice your presentation is myth. What you really mean is that it’s not important enough to you and you don’t care enough about your audience.

Questions – If you have no patience for your audience’s questions recognise that you have no right presenting to them in the first place and you have two very clear choices. The first is to completely change your attitude to one which is grateful for your audience listening well enough to ask questions. If you insist on devaluing your audience’s questions then you owe it the both them and yourself to find a new job where you never have to present and answer questions.

Quotes – If you find yourself quoting your favourite soundbites from your cherished films then make a decision to stop it right now. What makes you think that your audience will all have watched the film or be familiar with your quote?

‘Err’ – If you believe or are told that you repeatedly say, ‘Err’, ‘Umm’, ‘So’, or ‘You know’ too much then make a decision right now to monitor and stop it. Have the mindfulness and courage to watch out for when you say ‘Err’ and make a conscious decision to pause and breathe instead. Ask a trusted colleague to count the number of times you say ‘Err’, ‘Umm’, ‘So’ or ‘You know. However many times they say you distracted your audience with these noises make a decision to do so less each time you speak and get your trusted colleague to count them again. Set yourself a goal to reduce the offending exchange each time you present.

Too fast – If you speak too fast then make a mindful decision to slow down and pause regularly, don’t carry on speaking too fast when you know it’s an issue. Take a few pages from one of your favourite books or if you don’t have one the newspaper will do. Read those pages out aloud in your normal reading voice and then practice slowing the pace right down. As you practice your presentation make the effort to record yourself speaking, play it back and then record yourself again at a slower speed.

Fidgeting – If you find yourself playing with your wedding ring then take it off, if you have a habit of playing with a pen make sure there isn’t a pen in sight when you speak. If you find yourself playing with your hair then make a point of tying it back out of reach. If you have a habit of leaning on a chair in front of you then remove the chair. Remove the distraction before you utter a word.

Eye contact – If you know you don’t make eye contact then remind yourself how painful it feels to be in a conversation with someone you really care about who doesn’t make eye contact with you. Recognise that it’s one of the greatest personal gifts you can give your audience and practice giving it. Always remember that it’s not about you, it’s about your audience. Each time you make eye contact with someone directly it not only connects you to them it makes them feel important.

Reading slides – If you are one of those presenters who insist on reading your slides out to your audience then recognise three things.

1. You are insulting their intelligence by intimating that they can’t read.

2. Your audience can’t read and listen to you speak at the same time.

3. Your slides are your script and offer no value at all to your audience.

Your job is to know your content inside and out. That doesn’t mean you need to memorise it you simply need to practice delivering it.

Movement – If you feel that you move around too much or have been told you do so then do yourself a big favour and capture the movement on camera and ask yourself and others just how distracting it is. Imagine you are standing in the middle of a large circle which has 3 X’s marked out on the floor within the circle. Practice stepping onto each of those markers from time to time. Move to them sparingly and wisely.

You definitely don’t want to stand still but you need to ensure that your movement is meaningful and at the very least not mindless. If you are talking about the past then take a step back into the past, if you are speaking about the future be sure to step into the future.

Hands – If you find yourself with your hands in your pockets, behind your back, or clasped in front of you as you speak make a conscious effort to set them free. At Mindful Presenter we call it ‘taking the handcuffs off’. Despite what you may believe, your hands are desperate to express themselves. You don’t need to think about how to use them or instruct them in anyway. All you need to do is to ensure they are not trapped and are always readily available to speak for themselves in front of you.

Stance – If you are one of those presenters who tend to stand with your legs crossed there is something you need to know. It may feel safe or comfortable to you or it may even be a subconscious stance but rest assured you audience think you are about to fall over in any moment. If that isn’t what is running through their minds then they will most certainly feel that you don’t look very confident. Practice standing with your feet slightly apart pressing your toes into the ground. Your job is to stay and look centred and grounded.

Waffling – If you have a tendency to waffle then you need an ‘M point’. Your ‘M point’ is your ‘moment of truth’. It’s the one place you really want your audience to be the moment you finish speaking in terms of what you want them to think, feel and do.  Everything that you say which doesn’t support your ‘M point’ is just noise so cut it out.

Too much – If you speak too much then we have the perfect solution for you. You need to switch your entire focus to being ARMED. Whether your presentation normally takes 20 minute or 2 hours to deliver practice giving it in 90 seconds using this structure.

Attention – Make sure you grab you audience’s attention immediately.

Relevant – Make sure that everything you say, show or do is personal and relevant to your audience.

Message – If you can’t communicate your message in the form of a simple and powerful tweet then we don’t believe you have one. Make certain, it’s short, simple and compelling.

Example – We all live and learn by examples. Don’t’ just share facts, data and insights with your audience; give them real life human examples to illustrate your point and ensure that they ‘get it’.

Do – Whatever you do make sure that no one leaves the room without you making it abundantly clear what it is you want them to do next.

If you can learn how to present your message or idea in 90 seconds then when you have the gift of time to take much longer you will realise just how much of what you usually say is unnecessary

It’s outside of my control

 There are of course a number of physiological responses which appear to be outside of our control.

Sweaty palms

Heart beat racing

Shaky/wobbly legs


Again, these are just a few of the countless concerns we hear at our workshops each week.

As you would imagine, these are not difficulties we face as a result of lazy or mindless thinking, these are genuine, debilitating physiological responses to presenting and public speaking. As they are all part of our ‘fight or flight’ response mechanism there is no quick fix although there is a great deal you can still do.

Sweaty palms, heart beat racing – You need to breathe!

Many people are anxious about public speaking and presenting because they believe that their body will let them down by making them feel very uncomfortable and out of control. It is not a physical response they consciously decided to have it’s something we inherited from our ancient ancestors when we feel under threat.

Whilst it’s not something you can simply tell people to stop feeling the good news is that there is still a great deal you can do about it rather than complain or accept it.

The Vagus Nerve – Is the longest of the cranial nerves which sends out fibres from our brainstem to your visceral organs. It communicates nerve impulses to every organ in our body which can help us to dramatically reduce the effects of the fight or flight response. It’s an amazing physiological gift we each have which we can use to help us to calm down.

It releases the neurotransmitter acetylcholine which tells our lungs to breathe and we can manually stimulate our vagus nerve by focusing on breathing. Try taking a few slow, rhythmic, abdominal breathes by breathing from your diaphragm and holding your breath for four to eight counts.

 Shaky/wobbly legs – can also be steadied by stimulating the vagus nerve through breathing properly. Another simple but powerful tool we teach our clients whose legs feel little shaking when presenting is to ground themselves. The way to do so is by simply standing tall when you are about to speak and squeeze your toes and feet into your shoes and the ground beneath you. Your audience won’t even see you doing it and as you do so your legs will become much steadier. If your legs are excessively shaky then just before you speak find somewhere that you know you won’t be disturbed and practice jumping high up into the air a few times. Each time you land feel how solid your legs and feet are on the ground.

Blushing – Stimulate your vagus nerve by practicing some breathing techniques before you begin presenting.

Acknowledge the idea that blushing for some people is simply a physiological response and don’t dwell on it as a problem, acknowledge it and let it go.

Deliver your presentation a few times in front of a mirror before you speak and even though you probably won’t blush there because you have no audience just get to know your content inside and out and watch yourself speak.

As you speak, practice slowing down, breathing and pausing.

Try to get rid of some of that nervous energy before you speak. Head to your office or the rest room, push against a wall for a little bit  or do some star jumps or something to burn a little energy. Once you’ve done so allow yourself time to calm down again and breath for a good few minutes to rebalance and settle yourself. Don’t head straight into speak.

Practice focusing exclusively on your audience and your message.

Even the best presentations in terms of content and engaging delivery can quickly turn into a total disaster through a bad habit repeated to the point of distraction.

Our challenge is to identify them and then to mindfully do whatever it takes to get rid of them or significantly reduce their impact on our audience. As you can see there is enormous scope to help ourselves but that of course is the ultimate challenge; we have to help ourselves.

I really hope you enjoyed this post. If you did, please feel free to share it through your preferred social media channels below and subscribe to our mailing list so you won’t miss any future posts.

If this article has inspired you to learn a little more about how effective your presentation skills are you may want to take a look at our presentation training and presentation coaching pages to see how we may be able to help you. You will also find a great deal of really helpful ‘free’ information in our Learning Centre.

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