Most presenters know success depends on effective communication, but how many realize good communication relies on more than voice, visuals and hand gestures? Although it's normal to be nervous at the podium, sometimes we subconsciously express our anxiety through habits that distract or even ruin an otherwise solid presentation.
Regardless of whether we are explaining a technical process or talking about a pet topic, controlling nervous habits is crucial to success. Many presenters are not aware how their entire anatomy, particularly facial features and hands, plays a significant role in any presentation -- just as it does for a performer.
What's written on your face?
An old saying, "It was written all over his face," bears out the importance of facial expressions when you make a presentation. Some-times a presenter begins with a frown or grimaces when faced with a question. If you frown, you'll receive the same expression from your listeners. At the very least, they will notice your discomfort and begin to question your credibility.
Also pay attention to your eye movements. A long-held speaker's rule stresses the importance of eye contact, but some of us, especially when anxious, scan the audience rather than make definite eye contact. As a result, the presenter can look as though he is watching a tennis match. Looking over the audience members' heads rather than in their eyes is another problem. Again, the audience senses your discomfort, which detracts from your message's effectiveness. Good eye contact makes listeners feel comfortable and lets them know you are talking to them. It is a key to building credibility that one cannot overlook.
Without realizing it, many presenters touch their faces during speeches. Most are gestures a person does unconsciously, but when you're nervous, they can be more pronounced. Such gestures include fingering the nose on one side or the other, or worse, squeezing both nostrils. Other speakers rub or pull their ears and do not remember doing it. For men, another bad habit is stroking a beard, mustache or goatee while speaking. All these distracting habits can be broken with a little practice.
Fix your hair beforehand
If your hairstyle is unconventional or prone to falling out of place, you could have a problem. If you have a hairstyle with long bangs, for example, the constant brushing of bangs out of your eyes will be a big distraction from the presentation. I've also seen instances in which the speaker is so nervous that she is constantly combing her hair behind her ears or twirling it on her finger. If you catch yourself doing this while speaking, it's a good time to break your habit or get a new hairstyle.
Hands down, feet on the floor
Keeping your hands out of your pockets is a golden rule in presenting, but it's amazing how often it's broken. It's even worse when the speaker has coins or keys in his pocket and begins to jingle them while speaking. Anyone who has been in an audience when this happens knows it's impossible to ignore. Make a point to keep your hands comfortably at your sides and use them only to gesture properly to emphasize your message. Doing so, you will also avoid touching your face or hair.
Finally, pay attention to what your feet may be saying to the audience. Some speakers tend to rock from side to side while they present. If the person uses a microphone, the rocking motion can sometimes affect her voice volume. It's difficult to hear the full message when the presenter's voice is loud as she rocks forward but fades slightly as she rocks back. Also, if you like to move around during your presentations, take care not to pace or to turn away from the audience. Both habits send a nonverbal cue that you are not as interested in the audience as you should be.
Break the bad habits
A good way to become more cognizant of your physical actions is to videotape your speeches and practice sessions. Or practice in front of a group of trusted friends who can give you pointers.
The more you are aware of your negative nonverbal communication habits, the more easily you can break them. Take the opportunity to put that nervous energy to good use - by channeling it into delivering the strong presentation your audience deserves.
Samuel McKenzie, president of McKenzie Enterprises in Baton Rouge, La., specializes in speaking, training and consulting in communication and leadership. Contact him at 225.924.7901 or firstname.lastname@example.org.