It was May 2005 in the conference room of a major corporation. I was listening to an acquaintance giving a presentation. She was well dressed and had a charming demeanor. I had heard her speak before, and was impressed with the thought provoking subject matter and humor that she would typically deliver. Within a few minutes of her presentation, I noticed that she had put her hands in her dress pockets and as she continued her presentation. I noticed her hands appeared to be fidgeting in there. Her facial expression gave a clear indication that she was troubled by something. I became distracted and curious. Was she scratching? Did she have a rash? My concentration on her presentation continued to diminish as I envisioned what was happening. My imagination started to kick in and I considered the possibility that she had acquired some Texas fire ants prior to the meeting. I also considered that maybe she had somehow come into contact with some poison oak, or even that she needed a bathroom in a hurry.
As someone who has a passion for training technical people to deliver exceptional presentations, I tend to look out for any distracting mannerisms that diminish the quality of a presentation or give an indication of nervousness. I knew the woman very well, and after her presentation I discreetly asked her what was going on. Her answer completely took me by surprise. She laughed and said, “Women sometimes wear pantyhose that do not fit very well, and as I was delivering my presentation, I could feel them sliding down and down and down.” She then added, “They slid down to the point that my brain was telling me that a major wardrobe malfunction was about to happen, and I could not focus on my presentation.”
What are some common visual distractions to avoid while presenting?
1. People leaning on the lectern or a table.
2. Speakers holding their hands in front of their crotch, behind their backs, or putting them into their pockets.
3. Most novice speakers have difficulty determining what to do with their hands, it takes them time to learn instinctively to keep the hands by the sides and raise them only to provide natural gestures that will illuminate the point.
4. Holding a pen or other object that does not provide value to the presentation.
5. People holding notes that they do not use and do not need.
6. Playing with your hair (as a bald man, I have not done that in years!).
7. Some women lean backwards and pivot a shoe on the heel with the toe pointed in the air. Sometimes the point of the shoe even oscillates backwards and forwards keeping some imaginary “beat”.
8. Nervous speakers sometimes hold their hands at chest height like a kangaroo or Tyrannosaurus Rex
9. When speakers are trying to improve hand gestures, sometimes they become too “mechanical” at first, but get smoother as experience builds. Aim for natural gestures.
10. Have you ever noticed a presenter unconsciously fiddling with their cufflinks or rings? Prince Charles is the notable expert on that!
11. Nervous presenters sometimes pace backwards and forwards without any purposeful reason. The movement does not compliment the content of the presentation.
12. Next to pantyhose mishaps, the only other very unusual gesture I have come across is someone who had a “monkey arm”; it swung backwards and forwards as if a chimpanzee was speaking passionately about bananas.
How can you improve your gestures and eliminate distracting ones?
1. Video yourself when you present and analyze yourself or get a competent speaker to coach you.
2. When you are scheduled to deliver a presentation, ask people to give you feedback and suggestions for improvement.
3. Some public speaking training clubs have a “Posture Monitor”. This is someone who looks out for distracting gestures and they have a small bell (or other device) to audibly let you know that you have some distracting mannerism going on. An enhancement of this is the bell combined with the Posture Monitor stating what body part they have noticed is distracting (e.g. “Ding” – hands…).
Learning about public speaking gestures is a very important step, but the most important thing is to practice, practice, practice, and get feedback from people who have expertise. Remember, most people do not even know that they have gestures that need improvement. The goal is to eliminate distracting gestures and to build ones that will enhance your presentation and illuminate your points and stories.