How to Become a Better Presenter

How do you become a better presenter? Avoid these top 10 annoying speaker habits

Written by Eric Romero, PhD for Speaker Magazine. Reprinted with permission.

You don’t have to be perfect every time you’re on stage. But you definitely want to avoid traits and habits that prevent effective communication.

Some of our biggest mistakes as speakers are a function of blindly following “conventional speaker wisdom,” while others result from simply not paying attention to audience perceptions. You already know that speakers need to pay very close attention to the words they use and how they communicate messages.

But you may not realize just how much annoying speaking habits can distract from your message and alienate audiences. Here are 10 most annoying habits, with constructive replacements for each.

1. Umm, you know, ahh, I mean

These filler words and sounds – sometimes known as verbal commas – are maddening! If you can’t make a simple statement without such crutches, the audience will quite likely stop paying attention or, if it’s bad enough, they will leave. A better bet? Silence. Well-placed pauses can be a powerful message enhancer, focusing more attention on key ideas and allowing the audience to think about them. Audiences will love it if you just allow silence to exist between your thoughts and sentences.

2. Kind of, kinda, sort of, sorta

I recently heard a speaker say, “I sort of sorted out the mess” and “I kind of came to work” during a presentation. Oh? Either you did it or you didn’t. This undermines your authority. You appear uncertain about making even the simplest statement. Do you want to be perceived as a credible speaker? Eliminate these useless phrases from everyday speech, as well as your formal engagements.

3. Trendy words and cute catch-phrases

In the business world, you want to sound authoritative. Start by knocking these words and phrases out of your vocabulary:

  • Absolutely!“Did you get the job?” “Absolutely!” Many questions require a simple yes or no answer, not an enthusiasm contest. Think about it: “Partially” doesn’t equal “no,” and “absolutely” doesn’t equal “yes.”
  • Chime in. “Let me chime in.” Unless you’re a grandfather clock, why not just say “I’d like to add”?
  • The good news is.This is trite and not impactful. Start using “fortunately,” “positive outcomes include,” etc.
  • Pluralizing a name.For example, “…the Enrons of the world.” If there’s only one entity like it, just say, “companies like Enron.”
  • Push back.“We are getting a lot of push back on that idea.” This sounds too much like a gastrointestinal issue. A better, more accurate choice is “resistance.”
  • I’m here to tell you.It’s a good thing you told me why you are here – I was starting to wonder. The audience already knows why you are there, so why state the obvious?
  • Let me.“Let me tell you something.” You don’t need my permission to speak, particularly if I’m paying you to do it.
  • Go ahead.“Go ahead and call him.” Similar problem to “let me,” but for the opposite reason – you’re giving permission when it wasn’t requested.

4. Up-speak

This is another way to undermine credibility – ending each sentence with a rising tone, so it sounds like a question. It makes it pretty hard to convince anyone that you know what you’re talking about, and the audience tunes out. Moreover, because of its repetitive nature, this habit makes everything you say sound the same. The fix is simple: If you’re asking a question, the rising tone is fine. If you’re uncertain about saying something, don’t say it… or reword it. Distinguish between the two, speak with conviction, and you’ll influence the masses.

5. Being fake

Speakers are nothing without authenticity. You cannot communicate with someone if they’re not real. It would be like trying to have a conversation with an actor in a play: You can talk, but you can’t really know the person, because they’re acting like someone else. This is vital to becoming a better presenter. The audience wants the real you, not a carbon-copy of a professional speaker. Your dress, language, content, and demeanor should all reflect the real you, not what most other speakers do and certainly not what is politically correct.

6. PowerPoint slides with tons of words

Some speakers insist on having their audience read too much during much of their presentations. Text on the screen means I pay attention to it rather than you, which makes no sense since you are speaking. If the slides don’t make you more convincing, eliminate them. There should be no paragraphs, sentences, or more than a few words on any one slide. The words should focus the audience’s attention on what you are discussing, not consume their focus.

7. Endless thanking

You see this mistake every year at the Oscars, and it’s excruciating – yet many speakers start their presentations by thanking everyone imaginable: “I would like to thank my mom for giving birth to me.” It’s a buzz-killer for famous Hollywood actors, and it’s no way to make people like you. Get on with your show! Your content is the only thing that will make them genuinely like you.

8. Stories, stories, stories!

This is a classic example of blindly following conventional speaker wisdom: the more stories, the better. Realistically, not everyone has good stories or is a skilled storyteller, nor do all topics lend themselves to tales. When an audience hears a story that isn’t directly applicable to your message or their lives, they start to think:

  • Who cares?
  • What’s the point?
  • Why such a long trip for such a little crumb?

You don’t have to use stories to emphasize your points. You can yell, dance, use video, pictures, art, or do a million other things to make a presentation memorable. Don’t be a commodity-based story factory – do something different to make yourself stand out.

9. Raise hands

I may be dating myself here, but you’re not in an episode of Welcome Back Kotter, with an over-eager student shouting “Oo! Oo!” from the front row. Have audiences do an activity, debate, take notes, or tweet answers to your questions that appear on a super-duper, high-tech slide. But the raising-hands game gets a big thumbs-down.

10. Asking too many questions

People came to your speech to get answers, not to give them to you. Asking a few thought-provoking queries can be a good practice, but some speakers make an endless list of questions the main focus of their presentation. Before you ask a question, ask yourself if there’s a better way to provoke a reaction. Limit your questions to one per main point, which could lead to participation and/or a discussion.

Get in the habit

While you’re dumping your bad or annoying habits, it’s essential to replace them with a good habit: Critically evaluate what you say and do on a regular basis. The best way to do this is to videotape and critique yourself. To get the most valuable perspective, ask the audience, not other speakers, to give you honest feedback. The harsher their critiques, the more you can improve. Keep in mind that other speakers and coaches are usually the strongest advocates of conventional speaker wisdom, so absorb their advice with a healthy measure of skepticism. Observing other speakers, within moderation, is also a great way to identify and learn from their good and bad habits. How do you become a better presenter? Think about what you say and how you say it, so the audience can believe you are worth hearing. Most of all, don’t do what everyone else does. Be different and be real.


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