Public Speaking and Avoiding Distractions Help
Introduction to Public Speaking and Avoiding Distractions
By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.
—Christopher Columbus, 1451–1506
Anything that distracts your audience is working to defeat your speech—even if it's coming from you! In this lesson, we will consider how to avoid some often overlooked distractions.
Throughout our lessons, we have frequently touched upon the danger of distractions. A distraction is anything that turns your audience's attention—or your own—away from your words toward something else. Distractions can come from the environment, as we discussed briefly in Lesson 2. They can come from your presentation, as mentioned regarding visual aids in Lesson 14. And what's most dangerous of all, they can come directly from you!
Your job as a public speaker is to help your audience learn something they can apply in their own lives. To do this, you need to be on guard against anything that will interfere with your listeners' learning process. In a sense, you are more than a speaker; you are both a teacher and a guard. You want to teach your listeners about something that is important to you, but you also need to stand guard against outside factors that may prevent their learning.
Um… Ah… Like… You Know… See What I Mean?
Most speakers are not even aware of one of the most prominent sources of distraction: verbal mannerisms. I generally find this topic the most difficult to convey to my students, yet it is so pervasive that it cannot be ignored.
Everyone has certain habits of speech that crop up continually in casual conversation. We all tend to say "well…" and "ah…" when we're trying to find the right words. Yet even in casual conversation, this habit can become distracting. You've probably known someone who says "like" constantly: "I was like walking out of the store, ya know? And she was like standing in my way, like all upset, and I like tried to walk past…." Friends will sometimes tease a person who does this, counting the number of times the filler word is used in a given sentence. This demonstrates the basic fact of such mannerisms: If your audience is counting how many times you say "like," they are not listening to the rest of your words!
Filler words are not the only distracting element of speech. Simple intonation of one's voice can become irritating after a while. Perhaps you've had a teacher who droned in monotone throughout his or her lectures; if so, you know how dull and distracting it can be to listen to poor intonation.
A very common problem in this area is known as upspeak. Upspeak is the habit of ending sentences—even small phrases—in an upward intonation. To understand this, read the following sentences aloud, noticing how you sound:
- I was walking down the street, when I passed a yellow dog.
- I was walking? Down the street? When I passed? A yellow dog?
Did you hear the upward intonation in your voice as you read the questions? That's the sound of upspeak, ending phrases or sentences on an upward inflection as though you were asking a question, rather than stating a simple fact.
The danger of upspeak is that it conveys to your audience the notion that you are not at all sure of the truth of what you're saying! If you state your information to sound like a question, then the audience feels compelled to wonder what the answer is.
Filler words and vocal intonations convey more to your audience than the words themselves. These habits can be hard to break, but they must be broken if you hope to speak well. The best way to discover your own vocal mannerisms is to video yourself during speech practice. Pay attention to these elements, and then rehearse your speech in front of the camera again, deliberately avoiding those mannerisms. With practice, this avoidance will become a habit.
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