By Gavin Meikle, Head of Learning and Founder of inter-activ

It’s natural to be a little anxious when you start speaking but your nervous gestures can give the game away to your audience. Here are the most common and most distracting ones along with some preventative tips on how to reduce or eliminate them.

1 ) The soft shoe shuffler

Dancing, rocking and pacing as you speak can all be very distracting for your audience. Awareness is the starting point so get some feedback on your stance and movement. If it needs work try the following tips. Start with a strong confident stance with your feet hip width apart, toes pointing slightly out, head up and shoulders back. When you move, move with purpose rather than randomly.

2 ) The pen clicker

Ever been driven mad by the presenter who continuously clicks the top of a ballpoint pen or who “pops” the top of a flipchart marker on and off? It’s just a little thing but it can be soooo distracting. Again with this nervous gesture awareness is the first step. It can be easily prevented by reminding yourself not to hold a pen in your hand. If you have to write on a flip chart, consciously practice putting the pen down when you have finished writing.

3 ) The sloucher

Over the years I have come across some pretty bizzare postures from inexperienced speakers. Some people perch on one leg with their other crossed in front of them and look like they are about to fall over at any moment. But the worst is the hands in pockets, leaning back on one leg slouching stance. It immediately makes me think that the presenter doesn’t care about their subject. And if they don’t care, why should I? Always start your presentation with a confident, well-balanced, open stance. Before you speak go through a quick mental checklist. Feet hip width apart, weight evenly distributed between both feet, feet flat on the floor, soft knees, shoulders back, head up and arms relaxed by your sides. You don’t have to stay in this posture throughout your presentation but it is a great place to start and to come back to if you need to pause and think.

4 ) The pacer

I always remember an army careers speaker who came to my school when I was about 16. Throughout his 45 minute presentation he paced back and forwards in front of us as if he was marching up and down the parade ground. This pacing served no useful purpose and was extremely distracting. Always aim to make your movement purposeful. For example use different areas of the floor to “anchor” different parts of your speech or move closer to your audience when you want to ask a particular person a question.

5 ) The coin or key jingler

Usually a male trait, the habit of putting a hand in trouser pocket and playing with keys or loose change is a big no-no. Always check your pockets before speaking and remove any loose change or anything else that might distract your audience.

6 ) The face toucher

Random touching of your face or playing with your hair is an all to common tell tale that the presenter is nervous of feeling uncomfortable. It reduces your credibility massively and should be avoided at all costs, especially if speaking to a more senior audience.

7 ) The hand clasper

Many novice presenters struggle to know what to do with their hands. Typically they will either clasp their hands in front of their stomach or grasp them behind their back in the posture made famous by Prince Charles. Both these options tend to reduce your credibility and also restrict your ability to gesture effectively. Ideally I recommend that, when not gesturing, your arms should hang loosely by your sides. If this is a step too far for you then an acceptable alternative is to lightly rest your finger tips together but don’t interlace the fingers.

So there you have it, my list of the 7 most distracting nervous gestures. Which are you guilty of?
If you don’t know, get some feedback. Getting someone to video your presentations can be really useful and this is getting easier and easier as so many mobile phones can now record reasonable quality video.

Gavin Meikle is the owner of inter-activ learning and development, a Southampton based consultancy specialising in effective face to face interpersonal communication and presentations. He can be contacted at gmeikle@inter-activ.co.uk or by phone on 07810 645309.

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