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Public Speaking: Good and Bad Habits

In this article we explore good and bad habits that are used whilst presenting, and the impact that they have
Presenters at a conference workshop
© Royal Observatory Greenwich
My experience presenting has taught me a lot over the years so here are my top tips of things I think about when I am about to present.
Volume
This is absolutely key. If your audience are struggling to hear you or alternatively, feel like they are being shouted at, that is not a good start. There is a definite balance to strike which comes from practicing.
Pitch
No I am not talking about how high or low your voice is, this point centres around getting to know your audience which we will be looking at in much more detail throughout the course. It always helps to find out as much about your audience in advance as you can so you can pitch at the right level although this is not always possible. There is no faster way to alienate an audience than to make them feel that what you are talking about is not for them or is too complicated for them to engage with so I always aim to keep them on side.
Intonation
Adding energy and character to your voice is a great way to add personality. However, artificially modifying your intonation or adding emphasis in a way that makes you sound unlike you is not. Some of the best presenters have completely monotone voices. On paper that shouldn’t work because it could sound ‘boring’, however, when used with conviction it does work – for them. Experimenting is all part of finding out what your presenting style actually is – just be sure to have a healthy dose of YOU in there for good measure.
Pace
Checking your pace comes with practice but it is something you can actively keep an eye on as you present. Speak too slowly and you might lose the attention of your audience, speak too quickly and the audience can often give up trying to keep up with you. Try to speak at a conversational pace as you would to a friend. If you think you might be racing along, take a beat and try to slow things down.
Pauses
Taking a second to let your audience digest something or for you to think is a VERY effective technique and is frequently underused. This is mainly because lots of presenters understandably feel nervous leaving ‘dead air’ and feel they need to fill every second of time with words. That is not the case. If you are asking your audience to look at or think about something give them chance to do it. Remember that although you may have seen all of your images, graphs and videos 1,000,000 times before, your audience will be seeing everything for the first time so will need time to process the information.
Verbal pauses of ‘erm’ and ‘um’ are very common and if overused can become potentially irritating to listen to as an audience member. However, DO NOT try to get rid of them all. Occasional stumbles are what will make your speech sound human and natural. If you iron all of them out you will end up sounding over-rehearsed and robotic. My top tip is to just be aware of them so you can make sure you don’t use them all the time.
Physical movements
Some presenters race around a stage in a bath of sweat as an absolute ball of energy – and it works for them. Some stand as though they have been glued to the spot – and it works for them. The truth is there is no one right way to move around, you need to try things out and see what feels right in the environment you are in. There are some things that can distract from what you are saying in a negative way though –
  1. Pen clicking and twiddling. Put the pen down. If you are presenting you will not be writing anything and your audience have not come to see a pen-twiddling display.
  2. Fidgeting is often a very natural thing to do when we feel nervous but it can be distracting to watch so try when you can to keep it under control.
  3. Facing your slides. It is of course fine to take a quick look to remind yourself what is going on but there should be no need to face them. It also makes it absolutely impossible for someone lip-reading to follow you if you keep turning away.
Interaction with the audience
There are so many ways for a presenter to interact with their audience and we will look at lots in more detail throughout the course. My advice about interacting with your audience is yes, do it – but be prepared for what response you might get back.
Asking questions – this is a great way to find out what your audience know to help you pitch but also to get them involved. However, it can backfire. If you ask a lot of questions of your audience they can feel like they are under attack, especially if it is early on in the presentation. Try to be sparing and use questions when you need to enforce a particular point or move on to another linked topic.
It is also important to be careful with questions when presenting to children. Particularly young children won’t always understand rhetorical questions and will try to answer everything you ask. If it then appears to them that you are not interested in the answers they are giving they can become despondent and switch off.
Being asked questions – it is highly likely that someone will have questions mid-way through your presentation. It is completely up to you whether you choose to answer them as you go along or at the end – this is your presentation and you know how much time you have to play with. Generally speaking I have found it is best to keep questions to the end in case you answer them as you go along. Also, interruptions like questions can completely throw your train of thought so to keep things moving and smooth, save questions for the end.
Look at the points that came up and think about how they relate to your current presenting style. Remember not to only focus on the negatives here, if there are things you do that are already great – make sure you give yourself a pat on the back for those too.

What aspects do you think you need to incorporate into your style to improve?

My experience presenting has taught me a lot over the years so here are my top tips of things I think about when I am about to present.

Volume
This is absolutely key. If your audience are struggling to hear you or alternatively, feel like they are being shouted at, that is not a good start. There is a definite balance to strike which comes from practicing.
Pitch
No I am not talking about how high or low your voice is, this point centres around getting to know your audience which we will be looking at in much more detail throughout the course. It always helps to find out as much about your audience in advance as you can so you can pitch at the right level although this is not always possible. There is no faster way to alienate an audience than to make them feel that what you are talking about is not for them or is too complicated for them to engage with so I always aim to keep them on side.
Intonation
Adding energy and character to your voice is a great way to add personality. However, artificially modifying your intonation or adding emphasis in a way that makes you sound unlike you is not. Some of the best presenters have completely monotone voices. On paper that shouldn’t work because it could sound ‘boring’, however, when used with conviction it does work – for them. Experimenting is all part of finding out what your presenting style actually is – just be sure to have a healthy dose of YOU in there for good measure.
Pace
Checking your pace comes with practice but it is something you can actively keep an eye on as you present. Speak too slowly and you might lose the attention of your audience, speak too quickly and the audience can often give up trying to keep up with you. Try to speak at a conversational pace as you would to a friend. If you think you might be racing along, take a beat and try to slow things down.
Pauses
Taking a second to let your audience digest something or for you to think is a VERY effective technique and is frequently underused. This is mainly because lots of presenters understandably feel nervous leaving ‘dead air’ and feel they need to fill every second of time with words. That is not the case. If you are asking your audience to look at or think about something give them chance to do it. Remember that although you may have seen all of your images, graphs and videos 1,000,000 times before, your audience will be seeing everything for the first time so will need time to process the information.
Verbal pauses of ‘erm’ and ‘um’ are very common and if overused can become potentially irritating to listen to as an audience member. However, DO NOT try to get rid of them all. Occasional stumbles are what will make your speech sound human and natural. If you iron all of them out you will end up sounding over-rehearsed and robotic. My top tip is to just be aware of them so you can make sure you don’t use them all the time.
Physical movements
Some presenters race around a stage in a bath of sweat as an absolute ball of energy – and it works for them. Some stand as though they have been glued to the spot – and it works for them. The truth is there is no one right way to move around, you need to try things out and see what feels right in the environment you are in. There are some things that can distract from what you are saying in a negative way though –
  1. Pen clicking and twiddling. Put the pen down. If you are presenting you will not be writing anything and your audience have not come to see a pen-twiddling display.
  2. Fidgeting is often a very natural thing to do when we feel nervous but it can be distracting to watch so try when you can to keep it under control.
  3. Facing your slides. It is of course fine to take a quick look to remind yourself what is going on but there should be no need to face them. It also makes it absolutely impossible for someone lip-reading to follow you if you keep turning away.
Interaction with the audience
There are so many ways for a presenter to interact with their audience and we will look at lots in more detail throughout the course. My advice about interacting with your audience is yes, do it – but be prepared for what response you might get back.
Asking questions – this is a great way to find out what your audience know to help you pitch but also to get them involved. However, it can backfire. If you ask a lot of questions of your audience they can feel like they are under attack, especially if it is early on in the presentation. Try to be sparing and use questions when you need to enforce a particular point or move on to another linked topic.
It is also important to be careful with questions when presenting to children. Particularly young children won’t always understand rhetorical questions and will try to answer everything you ask. If it then appears to them that you are not interested in the answers they are giving they can become despondent and switch off.
Being asked questions – it is highly likely that someone will have questions mid-way through your presentation. It is completely up to you whether you choose to answer them as you go along or at the end – this is your presentation and you know how much time you have to play with. Generally speaking I have found it is best to keep questions to the end in case you answer them as you go along. Also, interruptions like questions can completely throw your train of thought so to keep things moving and smooth, save questions for the end.
© Royal Observatory Greenwich
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Become a Better Presenter: Improve Your Public Speaking Skills

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