Common Speaking Mistakes We All Make (And How To Fix Them!) Part 1

Speaking in public is one of the most common fears that people share. The threat of humiliation and embarrassment in front of a crowd is, for some, more terrifying than death. Regardless of your own personal feelings towards speaking in public, in most every profession you will likely need to give a presentation or talk sometime in the future. Additionally, in the sciences with the current political situation and many people harboring a distrust of science, public communication is more important than ever. Here we will explore some of the commonly made mistakes by when speaking in public, and some simple ways to fix them!

Rajagopal speaking to 25,000 people, Janadesh 2007, India

Mistake Number 1: Just try to “relax” when you speak

Far too often each of us has watched a talk that was stifled by someone’s anxiety or nervousness. Sometimes it is a person  struggling with what they want to say or simply just stumbling over their words.  Other times their own anxiety disrupts the flow of the talk and the speaker loses their train of thought. Whichever the case, the common conventional wisdom is to try to “relax”. This might be the most useless advice since it is only saying what should be done and not how to actually relax. Much like the white elephant thought experiment, the more you try not to think about being nervous and/or force yourself to relax, the more likely you are to be nervous! The bottom line is, this is a mistake in the way of thinking and can be easily corrected.

The Fix: Practice as much as you can with conditions that are the most similar to that of your next talk aka the stressful environment.

If you can gain access to the room you will be speaking in ahead of time, get in there and invite an audience to listen to a run through of your stuff. What you want to do is condition yourself to the exact high stress environment that you will be in. The more you can create a similar environment to the one that causes the nervous atmosphere for you the better. This kind of practice is priming your brain to react the way you want it to when the real talk is being given. Creating a habitual pattern before you give your next talk will help you fall into a calmer more rehearsed state.

This is similar to how humans learn new tasks, but we often take it for granted. For example, riding a bike takes many attempts, since you have to gain the balance and coordination to ride while worrying about falling down. Once you get it, however, your brain becomes conditioned to make balance corrections without thinking about it. You want your next talk to flow naturally during a stressful situation, the conditioning done beforehand (i.e. practice) will take over and you can then focus your effort on your message rather than being nervous. It may take a while but even the most severe nervousness and anxiety can be overcome, with repetition and conditioning.

Plenary session at American Geophysical Union policy conference

Mistake Number 2: Speaking and/or reading to the screen

Have you seen this one? The presentation is going well, but the speaker is making more eye contact with the projection screen than the audience. This one is common with people who have many visual aids and want to make sure the slide look correct. Or perhaps they are eager to direct the audience’s attention to something on the slide. In either case it is a big mistake because it disconnects the speaker from the audience.

The Fix: Consolidate the slides before hand and check for problems

This fix is a has two parts and simplicity is the key. First you need to figure out the AV (audio video) requirements before your talk. For example, were your slides made on a mac? will they display properly when put on the PC connected to the projector? Do you need to export your talk to a PDF for the session? Will your figures render and take a long time when the slide changes? If you have animations with sound is the volume appropriate?  Generally once you are confident with all the technical issues that may come up, you then need to evaluate your slides for content.

For example, if you have to use a laser pointer on every slide or you are apologizing for things being not easy to read when you practice, then your slides are too busy and distracting. Strictly speaking, humans can only remember and deal with, 5 to 7 pieces of new information at a time. So if your big picture slide has two figures on it, that means the audience has to comprehend 4 axes, 2 data sets, and at a minimum 2 results for those data. If you add on to that fact that you are talking to the screen not even facing the audience then there is no chance anyone is going to get the message clearly. Clean concise slides with one central idea should be the goal. Use arrows or simple animations to make a point and so you don’t have to continually to break eye contact to use laser pointer. If you must look at the screen, just glance briefly and then return to the audience and reconnect.

Mistake Number 3: No gestures and/or lack of body language

This mistake is committed most often by inexperienced speakers and is compounded if the speaker is stuck behind a podium. What tends to occur is that the person falls into the mode of holding on to the sides of the podium and dictating their to the audience. Humans are audio and visual creatures, we evaluate another person’s trustworthiness not only based on their speech but also on their body language. Some people learn and remember best from listening while others are better at watching. Remove the body language and you are only using half of your potential communication tools to connect with the audience.

Sid Meier - Game Developers Conference 2010 - Day 4 (4).jpg
Sid Meier – Game Developers Conference 2010 – Day 4 (4)” by Official GDC

The Fix: Go wireless and add natural body language to your talk

Some speakers have a well rehearsed repertoire to connect with the audience. If you are working on a talk you will give often, then it might be useful to nail down a routine. Otherwise simply let your natural body language come through as if you were excitedly telling a story to a friend. If you are going to speak at a conference, see if there is a way to get a wireless mic and allow yourself to move around. If you have no choice and must use the podium, then at least get you hands off the podium and gesture in a natural way. Don’t overdo it however, but using a reasonable amount of body language will all  the audience to connect with you in a deeper way. I have seen experienced speakers simply walk away from the podium and approach the audience off stage so they can better connect. If you choose to do the same make sure to use a powerful voice so that people can hear you well without the aid of a corded mic.

Mistake Number 4: The dreaded wall of text

If you have ever been to a scientific conference then you have definitely seen a slide that is full of text while the speaker is going on like there is nothing amiss. This one is not only distracting but can bore the audience to tears. Have you ever tried to read a book when people are talking nearby? or perhaps when someone is talking directly to you? It is very difficult because the brain can only really do any one task at a time (sorry multitaskers it’s true). Additionally the left side of the brain does all the language processing and you simply can’t read and listen at the same time, since your left brain cannot process the language from two inputs simultaneously. Some of the attention has to be given up and that means your audience can’t (or doesn’t want to) try to comprehend two things at once.

The Fix: Memorize your script, and never ever read to your audience!

The simplest thing to do is cut text where you can and memorize what you want to say. In the case that your talk is very technical, you might want to print out your script to help jog your memory when you get stuck. However, consider this, if you yourself can’t remember all the points yourself (and you are the expert on the subject right?), what are the chances that an audience who is not familiar with your work will get it right away? I call this the “post doc” syndrome, because so often young scientists want to tell you everything they have done during their PhD since it was so amazing now that they have graduated. You may want to consider downsizing the material to better fit what the audience is capable of remembering. Generally the best option is to put something visual on your slides to go with what you are saying. This way the audience can use their right and left sides of their brains to process what you are presenting on. Thus the comprehension and retention of information will be higher with the audience.

Hopefully with these tips you can avoid the common mistakes in your next public presentation. In the next post I continue on this theme and we will list out the remaining common mistakes and their easy fixes.

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