The 5 Bad Habits of Experienced Speakers

by Olivia Mitchell

I’ve been through a long journey (25 years) of developing as a speaker. I started off shy, nervous and tentative. Now I’m a high energy, animated speaker and I love connecting, laughing, riffing with an audience. But along the way I’ve picked up some bad habits. Attending Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Retreat helped me identify some of these habits. So I’m starting off this list with my bad habits and then I’ll go onto list habits I’ve observed amongst other experienced speakers.

1. The Plastered-On Smile

At the Story Theater retreat, I discovered that I smile most of the time when I’m speaking. Start talking – smile, that was my pattern. This was a cringe-making discovery. I’ve observed other speakers with this habit and internally mocked them – without realising that I too, suffered from this problem.

For me the habit probably started from wanting to portray myself as warm and friendly to my audiences, but it had become so ubiquitous that I was smiling even when I was describing unpleasant events. I broke the habit by identifying the segments of my presentation when I shouldn’t smile, and then rehearsing those segments consciously keeping my face relaxed. Just before starting my presentation, I would remind myself again of the segments when I didn’t want to smile. Now that I’ve broken the habit, I just remind myself to ‘live my content’, to be in touch with the feelings behind what I’m saying and live those feelings in my speaking.

Doug has written more about this here: Beware the Phony Speaker’s Smile.

2. Relying on memory

As a beginner speaker, I scripted all my presentations word for word. As I became more comfortable and more experienced, I let go of the need for a script and trusted myself to say what needed to be said. I took on the concept that I was communicating ideas, not sentences. And that’s what I teach to most of my clients who are beginner and intermediate speakers.

Doug Stevenson advocates scripting your stories. Having eschewed a script for so long this took me a while to grasp. But here’s the paradox. At some point in your speaking career, you will reach a point where you can’t improve without going back to scripting again. That’s because you should be fine-tuning and replicating your best lines. You can’t do that consistently unless you write those lines down.

I’m lucky in that I work most of my time with my partner Tony and we listen to each other speaking and write down the great lines. They then go into our notes so that we can use them again. If you don’t have a partner to do this for you, record your speeches (it doesn’t have to be a camera, it could just be a sound recording) and then listen back noting your best lines. Now you can consistently replicate them.

3. Hamming it up

As you get more experienced and start to get in the swing of telling stories and acting them out, it gets tempting to ham it up. For example, in one of my presentations I act out the drama I have in my head about people being able to see that I’m nervous as I’m giving a presentation. The more I ham it up, the more people laugh. But there are other situations where hamming it up has no effect at all on the audience. The distinction between these two situations had eluded me. Doug Stevenson had the answer:

Humor is big, drama is small

When you want people to laugh exaggerate. But when you want to portray emotion, think Colin Firth – be subtle.

For more on Doug’s take on humor see: How to be Funnier.

4. Power corrupts

Speaking can be like a drug. Being at one with the audience, riding a wave of interaction and laughter, is a great feeling. You feel on top of the world, with this audience in the palm of your hand. You are all-powerful… and yes, power corrupts!

You start improvising, riffing, you get hyper! Most people in the audience appear to be having a great time. Problem is these manic offshoots don’t take the presentation anywhere.

Sure, play with your audience – but don’t forget the point of your presentation.

5. Throwing out random questions

And then there’s the opposite situation where you just can’t seem to make it with a particular audience. Your best lines are falling flat, you’re facing a sea of unresponsive faces.

Some speakers in this situation get desperate. They depart from their plan and start throwing out random, clichéd questions hoping for just a breadcrumb of interaction from someone… anyone in the audience.

Don’t let it happen to you. Audiences are different. Some will show their delight in the ride overtly. Others may be quieter in their appreciation.

Asking questions of the audience can  be an excellent interactive technique. But your questions should be carefully planned – in their placement, wording and implementation. For more on asking questions check out this post: The 10 steps to asking questions so you get an answer every time.

This is the second of my posts on what I learned from Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Retreat. Check out the first post: How to Turn your Story into a Movie.

To dig deeper into Doug Stevenson’s insights into advanced speaking buy his book Story Theater Method, and the audio version – which you can get as CDs or downloadable MP3s (disclosure: these are affiliate links which means that I earn a 15% commission if you buy one of Doug’s books or other products). And to go deeper still attend one of his Story Theater Retreats.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Geno Prussakov June 3, 2011 at 4:20 am

Excellent tips, Olivia. Thank you for taking the time to put together this post. Doug Stevenson’s book seems to be a must-read for every speaker.

Reply

Olivia Mitchell June 10, 2011 at 1:36 pm

The book is excellent for giving you a systematic way of crafting your stories. I found it really useful to have the mp3 to go with it, as then I could actually hear Doug giving his stories and then deconstructing them.

Olivia

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Lisa Braithwaite June 4, 2011 at 10:26 am

Thanks for sharing your experience, Olivia! It’s amazing how much there still is to learn, even when we’ve been doing this a long time.

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Olivia Mitchell June 10, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Good thing too. Otherwise it might get a little boring!

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Fred E. Miller June 9, 2011 at 12:37 am

Thanks for the Post, Olivia.

I saw Doug speak about twenty years ago and still remember his “Streaking” Story. He is the Best!

Reply

Olivia Mitchell June 10, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Yes – his streaking story is a classic.

Here’s the youtube link for those who are intrigued by Fred’s reference to the streaking story http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7019b7IdlE

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Shadeed Eleazer June 28, 2011 at 6:16 am

Excellent tips. The more that Speakers engage with an audience and experience that rush of winning over a crowd, it can become easy to get away from the fundamentals. This post is a good reminder to stay grounded and focused on the basics.

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Olivia Mitchell June 29, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Hi Shadeed

You make a very good point that accounts for some of the bad habits that experienced speakers can get into. That buzz you get from a crowd can be pretty much like a drug, and has you do stuff just to get the buzz, rather than what will really serve your audience.
Thanks
Olivia

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Jody urquhart February 23, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I had the same experience with frowning. I saw myself speaking on video and noticed I look constipated! Like I was thinking too hard or something. I took Dougs story theatre workshop and have the audios…. Really good

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Jonathan January 18, 2014 at 2:00 pm

Good post. I had trouble in public speaking too. But I finally found the system that worked for me and my friends. I have free info about this on my site at http://www.expressivedegrees.com?

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