Public Speaking and Avoiding Distractions Help (page 2)
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.
Physical mannerisms can also be very distracting to your audience. I had a college professor who always had a coffee cup in her hand, which she would rub throughout her lecture as though her hands were freezing cold. When she got excited, she would clink her rings against it. At first, this seemed like a casual approach to teaching—but before long it was simply a distraction. I found myself rubbing my hands together to warm them up, while longing for a steaming cup of java!
There are as many physical mannerisms as there are people in the world, and the best way to discover yours is to watch for them in your practice video, which we discussed previously. Here are some things to be on guard against:
- Fiddling with clothing or jewelry
- Touching your face
- Smoothing your hair
- Rubbing your hands together
- Grabbing your arm or hugging yourself
- Squinting, wriggling your nose, or licking your lips
- Gesturing wildly
- Playing with objects, such as a pen or your notes
There is also the case of a physical distraction you cannot help, such as a disability or incorrigible tic. You have several options in this case. You can make a joke of it if you feel comfortable doing so (and if you can do so without it coming across as forced). You can simply acknowledge it, getting the so-called elephant in the room out of the way. And you can absolutely ignore it if that's what makes you most comfortable. The ultimate goal is to change the focus of the speech to the message and your words—not your physical presence.
In a previous lesson, we suggested that it's good to move around a bit, rather than stand frozen like a statue. Now, we will consider the other side to that principle: too much movement, or nervous motion.
It can be effective in holding your audience's attention to move out from behind the podium from time to time, but it will become very distracting if you do it too frequently or too far. For example, walking into the audience will rivet your listeners' attention, but you only want to do it once. If you continually walk into the audience, your listeners will begin to anticipate it and will pay more attention to wondering when you'll pay your next visit than they do to your words.
It is much better to walk to your left or right away from the podium, such as moving to use a visual aid. But this, too, can be overdone. Most of your speech should be given from one spot, such as behind the podium.
Nervous motion can also be distracting, such as continually rocking back on your heels or rolling up onto your toes. Some people habitually tap a toe or jiggle their knees; others habitually jingle change in their pockets. These habits will drive your audience to distraction. They won't remember your words, but they will remember how much money you carry around.
Handling the Unexpected
The Best Laid Plans
We discussed a number of environmental conditions in Lesson 2 that can become a distraction to your audience, and we made suggestions on how you can minimize or even remove those conditions. But to paraphrase poet Robert Burns, "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry." No matter how well prepared you are, something unexpected is almost guaranteed to occur.
Mechanical devices are a frequent source of unwelcome surprises. The battery goes dead on your microphone midway through your speech; you flip on the overhead projector, hear a slight pop, and the bulb goes out; you fire up your PowerPoint presentation, only to discover that you copied the wrong file to your flash drive.
Being human is another source of unexpected entertainment. You lose your place in your notes and suddenly go blank, or you trip on the step up to the stage and fall flat on your face. When I was a graduate student, I was teaching a freshman English class one warm spring day, and things were going great. The students laughed heartily at my witticisms—a trifle more than expected, even—and every eye was riveted on me as I lectured. I had their undivided attention, and I felt quite good about my delivery that afternoon—until a student informed me as she was leaving that my zipper had been down the whole time. Oops. Feel free to not take yourself too seriously—to laugh at yourself, even. We're all human, speaker and audience alike.
There are a million things that can go wrong during a speech, and the only thing you can do is to take it in stride and not lose your composure. Here are a few suggestions on how to handle the unexpected:
- Ask for help. You drop your notes or your overhead transparencies, and they scatter across the floor. Don't panic! Calmly ask someone in the front to collect them while you begin or continue speaking.
- Improvise. You did memorize your outline, right? Just continue discussing whatever point you were on, using part of your brain to calmly collect your thoughts on where you'll go next.
- Make a joke at your own expense. The audience is actually not hostile, and they're not sitting there hoping that you'll fall on your face. They empathize with the stress of public speaking, and they'll quickly join you in a good laugh—provided that it's at your expense! Never lose your cool and blame someone else. I actually did trip on a step going up to the stage once, and dropped my notes to boot. I collected my papers, walked to the podium, caught my breath, and then said, "I meant to do that." It wasn't the greatest witticism ever recorded, but it was sufficient.
- Carry on and ignore technical problems. You can always summarize the slide that you'd intended to show if the projector isn't working. The visual aids were only intended to assist your speech anyway, so keep going with the main purpose of your being there—your speech.
- Act like Abe Lincoln. He didn't have a microphone, yet he riveted his audience's attention by projecting his voice. You can do the same.
- Adjust. Some microphones, for example, are very sensitive to popping, such as when you voice the letter p. If you're hearing strange feedback, move back from the microphone or stop using it altogether.
- Plan ahead. As already stated, this is not foolproof, but it definitely does help. Arrive early at the speech location and get to know the room and equipment you'll be using. See Lesson 2 for more suggestions. The more you troubleshoot in advance, the fewer surprises you'll encounter.
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