The 4 Bad Habits of Highly Ineffective Speakers

Prague Leaders Magazine, July 2011

Though I speak for a living, and regularly hear people speak professionally, I seldom have the good fortune to hear someone I consider to be an outstanding speaker. In fact, the occasion is rare enough to deserve mention.

So, with great pleasure, I relate to you an experience I had recently at the European Coaching Conference, in Paris. There, David Whyte, an English poet and author of several books about expressing ourselves through the fulfillment of work, captivated an international audience of more than six hundred coaches and human resources consultants.

Whyte’s speech, entitled “Life at the Frontier: The Art & Science of Courageous Conversation”, argued the importance of real and open conversation in the corporate world. The subject matter isn’t new, but how Whyte managed to blend his message with personal experiences, poems and even biblical references was striking.

Watching him keep a multicultural crowd engaged for ninety minutes, I couldn’t help thinking how enjoyable it was to be mesmerized by an inspirational speaker, in comparison with the many disappointing ones I had encountered in the past few months.

While assessing Whyte’s speaking style and characteristics, and trying to figure out what made him such an efficient and attractive speaker, it dawned on me that few people are aware of their speaking idiosyncrasies. Even fewer are aware of their ineffective speaking habits.

Although most speakers participating in business roundtables and conferences are competent professionals and experts in their fields, many make the same speaking mistakes. Despite the plethora of books, articles, blogs and speakers’ associations available to learn how to become a better speaker, most people stick to the patterns of behavior they have acquired over the course of years, without realizing the damaging impact of their ineffective habits.

From my experiences, the four most common bad habits of ineffective speakers are the following:

Bad Habit #1: No Respect for Time

In May, I attended a business presentation in Prague, organized by a British company. On the program, which was sent by email a couple of weeks prior to the event, the first speaker was scheduled to start at 6 pm.

At 7 pm, the moderator opened the conference by apologizing for starting late. His excuse? That he was still on London time, hence the one hour delay.

Though he promised to make up for some of the delay, each speaker used his originally allotted time, and more. By 10 pm, feeling tired and annoyed by the lack of respect for my time, I walked out of a poorly-managed event.

Tip: Make sure to start your presentation on time and keep within the allocated time schedule

Bad Habit #2: Lack of Focus.

While public speaking remains a challenging task for many people, a growing number of professionals are embracing the challenge. But while many seek the chance to express themselves publicly, they often fail to identify their purpose and message. 

According to Ralph C. Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International, “A speech without a purpose is like a journey without a destination – it doesn’t go anywhere.”

When putting together a speech or a presentation, try to summarize your ideas early in one simple sentence that the audience can understand and remember. The more specific you can be about what you want to achieve, the easier it is to structure a message that will be memorable and relevant for the audience.

Once you have this structure, stick to it. Make sure that all the information you provide and any stories or examples you use support and illustrate your core message. Anything that doesn’t should be cut away.

Tip: Keep it focused, keep it short and keep it relevant.

Bad Habit #3: Lack of Vocal Engagement

Many people associate a strong voice with self-confidence and a weak voice with lack of conviction and credibility. So though some very self-assured people do speak in a quiet manner, their communication is not always effective.

When I cannot hear what a person is saying, my brain disconnects and I stop listening. To engage listeners, you need to speak loud enough for everyone to be able to hear what you have to say.

A lack of vocal range and variety also hinders attention. A monotonous voice conveys a lack of passion. If you don’t sound interested and passionate about your topic, you will have hard time engaging and convincing your audience.

Some will argue that, as a sign of respect, people should listen regardless of the speaker’s tonality and vocal variety. Unfortunately, I cannot. While I am more than willing to stretch my brain and attention to follow a speaker’s ideas and arguments even if I don’t like the topic or don’t agree with what is being said, sitting through a monotonous and inaudible presentation is a painful experience for me.

Tip:Make sure to speak loudly enough to be heard and with enough vocal variety for the audience to engage with you.

Bad Habit #4: Crutch Words

Crutch words, also known as verbal graffiti, are the sounds or words you say to fill gaps while speaking. The most common crutch words are “uh” or “um”.

Either I’m noticing it more or this habit has become the most frequent of all. Given the number of people I now hear using crutch words while speaking, I am tempted to believe that this habit is contagious.

While most of us do use recurrent words or phrases in a sentence or paragraph, or will resort to fillers when we are searching for a word or trying to remember what we wanted to say, using verbal graffiti is an unconscious speaking habit for too many people.

The most extreme case I ever heard happened a couple of weeks ago when a young manager said “uh” more than eighty times during his twenty minutes presentation – an average of four per minute! I was so distracted by his repetitive “uh” that all I could do to focus on what he was saying was to count them.

The easiest way to eliminate crutch words from your speaking is to simply pause. Don’t be afraid of the silence. Pauses help you emphasize the points you are making, and also give your audience a chance to process the information you are delivering.

Tip: Eliminate crutch words from your speaking, and use pauses instead.

For historical reasons, many Czechs lack the brio American speakers seem to be born with. The Communist regime favored endless tirades over interactive communication, forcing a generation or two of Czechs into reticence. But there is the occasional surprise.

Recently, at one of the many business roundtables organized in Prague, the most effective and eloquent speaker of the four panelists was a Czech lady. When I complimented her on her presentation and her eloquence, she generously attributed her efficiency to her in-house presentation skills trainer.

Top presenters become better by taking the time to sharpen their skills and to practice regularly. They understand the power and impact of efficient speaking skills and the consequences of ineffective habits. To measure your proficiency, you need to assess your skills, identify your effective and ineffective habits, and then work diligently to improve. 

By identifying and then eliminating your ineffective speaking habits, your communication and speaking ability will improve significantly.