My family was sitting in the vacation trailer overlooking a scenic Irish beach and the Atlantic Ocean, with mountains in the distance. It was July 1971, and I was 11. Looking back at that eventful time in my life, I recognize that I had the early traits and signs of becoming an engineer: I enjoyed finding solutions to problems.
My parents were chain smokers, and I grew up with long Sunday drives in our Ford “ashtray on wheels” with the windows cracked open to provide just enough air for children and the family dog.
During that fateful July morning, I formulated a brilliant plan to get my mother to stop smoking. I removed most of the tobacco from a cigarette in her pack and replaced it with match heads from a box of safety matches. A bit of tobacco at the outer end disguised my plan. I put the doctored cigarette on top of the others in the pack and stuck it out a bit so it would be the next choice. With my foot nervously tapping in anticipation, I knew this was going to be successful: the match heads would ignite causing a blinding flash, which would scare my mother into giving up smoking!! At least, that was the plan.
I watched nervously as my mother reached for her cigarettes. She put the re-engineered one firmly between her lips with that look of focus that smokers have when they need that nicotine fix. She struck the match on the matchbox and brought the steady flame to the end of the cigarette, sucking on the cigarette, making the tobacco at the end glow red.
A microsecond later, all hell broke loose — literally. The hidden match heads provided the blinding light (mission accomplished), my mother was scared (mission accomplished); however, the still-burning match heads continued to fall, burning their way through my mother’s polyester dress and laying to rest on her chest. There was a scream, a quick removal of clothes, and water was poured on my mother’s chest. I watched in silence in the corner of the trailer with an ever-reddening face, contemplating that I was soon to experience “death by wooden-spoon beatings.”
My dad closely examined the other cigarettes in the pack, even removing the tobacco to see what could have happened. At some stage he glanced at me, scowled, and asked, “Are you responsible for this?” A sense of uneasiness prevented me from making eye contact. I stared at my shoes and my nervous response went something like this:
“OK…I… AH…was…UM…playing with the matches, and I…AH…decided to help Mum give up smoking…SO…I…UM…put match heads in one of her cigarettes. I…AH…thought she would be frightened into…UM…giving up smoking. BUT…YOU KNOW…I was…LIKE…not thinking clearly…OK.”
The fact that I am telling this story reveals that I did in fact survive the wooden-spoon beating, although, more than 40 years later, I believe I still have splinters in my rear end.
Poor eye contact and the use of filler words did not end in the trailer; they followed me for many years. They were the traits I had to focus on first when I took on my quest for public speaking excellence.
AVOID FILLER WORDS AND RUN-ON SENTENCES
Filler words make you seem nervous, unsure and unprepared and can erode your credibility. We use them because we become uncomfortable with the silence of pauses. Listening to someone who uses filler words can be frustrating and annoying. Eliminating filler words may seem a daunting task, but here are some easy ways to make quick progress:
- Join a public-speaking club such as Toastmasters, where you can practice getting rid of filler words in a supportive environment (in many Toastmasters clubs someone called an “ah counter” is assigned to listen for filler words and give an indication when one has been used).
- Practice with a short speech or presentation (just a few minutes of material) that you know well. Practice it out loud while listening for filler words. Stop every time you hear a filler word, then start over from the beginning. Keep practicing until it is flawless.
- If the occasion allows it, have someone listen for the use of filler words and activate a device that will immediately let you know that you have just used one (bell, hand signal, etc.). This is quite annoying at first, but it works extremely well in training your brain to provide a pause (thinking moment) rather than a filler word.
- Use a video or audio recording device to allow you to review your speech and identify progress and further opportunities for improvement.
- Write down a list of filler words and ask someone to listen to your presentation and count them.
- Mentally focus on using pauses instead of filler words. Get comfortable utilizing pauses. Use the moment to gather your thoughts before starting the next sentence.
CONNECT THROUGH EYE CONTACT
One of the most common signs of nervousness for public speakers is the inability to hold eye contact with their audience. Eyes dart from person to person, or they focus on something other than the audience (visualize the PowerPoint presenter who looks at the screen and reads the presentation word for word). The audience usually interprets this in a negative way and may think you are untrustworthy or unprepared. The good news is that you can develop eye contact relatively quickly.
- Before your presentation, get an understanding of the room layout so you can envision how you will maximize audience eye contact.
- Use a video recording device to allow you to review your speech and analyze the quality of your eye contact.
- Mentally focus on using longer eye contact even though your brain is telling you to do otherwise.
- When telling a story, your eye contact is an essential component for effectiveness — particularly when you are conveying emotional material
- A success strategy for delivering humor is to continuously observe your audience to determine who will most likely laugh out loud at a funny remark or punch line. I call these people my “humor friends.” When I am landing my punch line, I make sure to make powerful eye contact with them, as their spontaneous laughter will encourage others to join in.