Don’t Fidget

Some years back, Ellen was teaching a two-day presentation skills class and one of her students had a big moustache. A really big, “handlebar” moustache. A lighter-hued version of this:

Now, the moustache itself was not a problem. The problem was that the student (let’s call him Snidely Whiplash) liked to twirl the ends of his moustache (too many Dudley Do-right cartoons in his youth?) obsessively. Twirl, twirl. Twirl, twirl. Distracting enough if you were simply having a conversation with him. But INCREDIBLY distracting if you were watching him make a presentation. “I’ll bet he doesn’t even realize how much he’s twiddling,” Ellen thought. And so she videotaped him and played it back to him. Snidely was shocked. His twiddling had become such an ingrained habit that he truly had no idea how often he did it. So Ellen gave him a little pep talk about how to overcome a distracting gesture, stressing that it would take time, but that just being aware of it would help lessen the distractions. Snidely nodded.

The next day, he returned for the second day of class without his moustache. Appalled at what he had seen, he had shaved it off.

But then there was a second go-round of videotaping. And Snidely gave another presentation, and all through it he continually raised his hands to his mouth and twirled an imaginary moustache. He had removed the moustache; he had not overcome the habit. (And of course without the moustache, it looked like he was constantly picking his nose.)

We were reminded of this story after recently watching a “How to Make a Good Presentation” video of an otherwise very skilled presentation skills trainer. He, too, had the distracting habit of touching his nose so frequently that viewers mentioned it in the comments section. Was his nose itchy? Had he just used cocaine? A presentation skills trainer MUST be a role model for his/her students. Any kind of distracting gesture will always undercut a trainer’s credibility.

There are many kinds of physical distractions that superior presenters must overcome. Some women, for example, like to play with their pearls or twist their bracelets. Men are sometimes guilty of playing with their keys in their pocket or adjusting their ties. (Rodney Dangerfield did so for comic effect; only he is allowed to get away with it.) Playing with hair. Wringing hands. Cracking knuckles. Flailing arms. Conducting an imaginary orchestra. Clicking a pen. Listing back and forth or side to side.

And then there are the most annoying distractions of them all: speech disfluencies. “Like, um, er . . . what I was going to say . . . .” These filler words do nothing to advance your speech or add value to your talk’s content. They merely buy you a (very little) time to think about your next word. Used once or twice in a presentation, nobody notices. Used once or twice every sentence, and you’ve got a bad speaking habit that you need to break.

So how do you stop distracting your audience from your own presentation? The first step, of course, is simply to become aware of it. You can’t break a bad habit if you don’t know you have one in the first place. This is where videotaping comes in—there’s nothing better than seeing yourself as others see you to help you identify any gestures or vocalizations that are interfering with the message you’re trying to get across to your audience. Then you need to videotape yourself regularly, so you can see what progress you’re making. (Audio taping yourself is also good for recognizing and eliminating any verbal distractions; without the visual element, you can really concentrate on identifying—and eliminating—any annoying ers or ums or likes.)

This will all be a gradual process. Some say it takes 21 days to break a bad habit. Be patient, be persistent. Just stop fidgeting.

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