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 a normal conversational pace. Pause periodically, especially after making a key point, to give listeners a chance to absorb your message. Record your presentations and notice your pace. If you find you're speaking too fast, try to s-l-o-w down.

And Now, Page 24
Vince, a software developer, read his presentation word by dreary, monotonic word. In short order, several people tiptoed out. Then, a few more left and a few more until the room was half empty. An optimist might say it was half full, but when half the once-occupied chairs become vacant, I assure you the room is half empty.

Thankfully, Vince finished twenty minutes early. Ignoring his opportunity to leave and avoid any further humiliation, he asked if anyone had questions. Someone asked a question and he answered adroitly. More questions followed; he responded skillfully. Clearly, he was capable of speaking without a script.

As Vince demonstrated, when you read your presentation, it's difficult to sound conversational or make eye contact with listeners. Practice your material until you know it without needing to read it. If, for legal or other reasons, you're required to read your presentation, practice reading it until you no longer have to keep your eyes permanently fixed on your text.

I'm So Terribly, Terribly Sorry
It's not difficult to empathize with Alfred, an IT manager whose luggage had gone astray en route to the event. He opened his presentation by apologizing and explaining his grungy attire. Then, as he spoke, he apologized again and again. The first apology was appropriate; it let the audience know that he knew he wasn't in professional garb. After that, his apologies became annoying.

Clearly, Alfred's plight was uncomfortable for him. But, to the audience, there was no plight. He'd become the victim of circumstances over which he had no control and everyone could relate. By repeatedly calling attention to the situation, he risked ruining an otherwise good presentation.

If you face a situation in which circumstances are other than you would have liked, mention it once, apologize and provide an explanation if appropriate, and then proceed. Don't belabor the point.

Being Human
Being human means occasionally doing things in a presentation that might annoy audience members. By becoming aware of your own annoying habits, whether these five or any others, you can purge them from your presentation repertoire. The result: your audiences will be able to focus on your valuable content. And you, in turn, can look forward to your presentations knowing you can engage your audiences and present with confidence.

This article is adapted from Naomi's new book, Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals: Achieving Excellence. IT Governance Ltd., 2010.

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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