How to Annoy an Audience

Many people who give presentations have habits that are innocent but that can annoy the audience. In this week's column, Naomi Karten identifies some of the potential annoyances she's seen among the technical professionals she's coached or observed.

Both nervous novices and experienced speakers are occasionally guilty of one or more of the annoyances described below. They can arise whether you are presenting to large audiences, such as at a conference; or to small audiences, such as your team; and whether you are presenting to management, customers, co-workers, or others. Whether you present regularly or are yet to give your first presentation, the starting point in avoiding possible annoyances is to become aware of them.

Twist, Twirl, and Tap
We all have mannerisms-things we say or do during a presentation that are harmless but potentially annoying. For example, some people sway as they speak, as if they're on a boat being rocked by the waves. I was in the audience for one such presentation at a software conference, and after a while, I felt like we were all swaying side to side in sync with the presenter. It's not often that an audience becomes seasick while listening!

Other physical mannerisms include twisting your hair, rubbing your hands together, twirling a pencil, gesticulating wildly as if you're on fire, pushing your glasses up, scratching your nose, tap-tap-tapping on a table, and jiggling coins in your pocket.

Try to reserve a portion of your awareness to monitor your presentation as you give it. If you notice you're using a potentially annoying mannerism, simply stop doing it. After a while, not doing it will become a habit.

Um ... Uh ... Er ...
I once coached a fellow named Max, OK, who had the bad habit, OK, of interspersing every few words, OK, with an irrelevant word, OK, until after a while, all I heard was his repeated OKs, OK? Max was a technical genius, but would you have enjoyed listening to him for an hour?

"OK," as Max used it, is a pause filler, a pattern of speech that includes such favorites as "ya'know" and the ever popular "um" and its cousin "uh." In the book Um: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What they Mean , author Michael Erard points out that we each have our own pattern of "um" frequency and usage. Some people um within a sentence, some between sentences, some a little, some a lot, and some not at all.

Complex sentences sometimes result in um-filled pauses, as you figure out what you're going to say next. If that's your experience, use short sentences and slow down so you can think ahead. Whatever you do, don't let um be the first word of your presentation.

If you use pause fillers frequently, you'll sound unprepared and unprofessional. But, don't go crazy trying to avoid them. Pause fillers are part of everyday conversation and they sometimes seep into a presentation. Just keep them to a minimum.

Race to the Finish
I recall a presenter, Sasha, whose speaking speed made my brain hurt. During the break, the meeting sponsor asked her to slow down. When she resumed, she joked about her rapid pace and said she'd speak more slowly. And she did. For about three minutes. Then, she raced through the rest of her presentation. She had excellent material-and a disappointed audience.

Why do some people turn speaking into a speedathon? It might be due to the fear of not getting through all their material in the time allotted or having too much material for the time allotted. Or, it might be due to presentation anxiety and the subconscious thought that "the faster I speak, the faster I can get out of here." For some people, though, it's just a bad habit.

When you give a presentation, speak at

User Comments

1 comment
Mauricio Orozco's picture
Mauricio Orozco

This article is way too primitive; I'm sure you can find more sophisticated ways to annoy an audience and more useful advice than this well-known mistakes.

June 16, 2011 - 3:40pm

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