"An unfortunate thing about this world is that
the good habits are much easier to give up than the bad ones."
W. Somerset Maugham
If I had a nickel for every time participants in my presentation skills classes are surprised when they see themselves doing something annoying or distracting on videotape, I'd be writing this blog from my villa on a South Pacific island.
The annoying behavior videotape exposes may be avoiding eye contact with the audience, clenching hands into fists, using an abundance of filler words [um, ah, like, you know], putting hands in and out of pockets, absentmindedly fidgeting with glasses, hair or jewelry. Whatever it is, it's done without conscious thought.
And whatever it is, it's turned into a bad habit, often as a reaction to nervousness or fear.
Since habits are simply actions that are done so frequently they become involuntary, they don't have to be inherently bad. Luckily, the same pattern of frequent repetition can lead to good habits.
Exchanging bad presentation habits for good ones is hard work, but perfectly do-able.
Here are some steps to get you started:
- First of all, make the bad habits conscious. Watch yourself on videotape and become aware of what habits you've acquired that are distracting to an audience. By becoming conscious of what have been involuntary actions, you gain more control over them. Try and determine when and why you do these things -- in other words, look for triggers that produce the undesirable behavior.
- Clearly determine the desired replacement behavior. For most bad speaking habits, the replacement behavior should be quite obvious. But if you're not sure, consult with a public speaking coach or research the many books on effective presentations to determine the exact behavior you want to acquire.
- Pick one habit to work on. If there are multiple things you'd like to change, prioritize, picking the behavior you feel will have the most positive impact on your presentations if you change it. If, for example, you're not making frequent and meaningful eye contact with the audience, choose to work on this before you move on to eradicating ums and ahs.
- Write down a description of the bad habit and your commitment to changing it into a good habit. This creates accountability. Depending on the situation, you might make a public commitment and enlist the support of others to help keep you accountable.
- Give up your rationalizations. This is really another way of saying, "stop making excuses." Just because your peers and colleagues all say 'you know' in every sentence doesn't mean you should embrace that behavior.
- Engage in positive self-talk and visualization. Every time a negative thought comes into your head telling you this isn't worth it or you can't do it, replace that thought with a positive statement..."Once I eliminate those annoying ums and ahs from my presentations, I will sound more professional, confident and credible." Visualize yourself giving a presentation without all those filler words and having people come up after your talk to say how clearly they understood your message.
- Be consistent. The bad speaking habit you're working to change may be prevalent in meetings and conversations as well as in formal presentations. Keep focus on it in all these situations.
- Reward yourself when you successfully demonstrate the desired behavior and frequently thereafter as you work to make it involuntary. For example, when you've given a presentation and kept your hands out of your pockets the whole time, give yourself the reward of a movie, a day off exercise or whatever would seem like a treat.
- If you relapse and have a presentation where the bad habit comes back, don't beat yourself up. Acknowledge that this is a progression and sometimes you will revert to the old behavior until the new habit is firmly entrenched. The important thing is not to let this discourage you, but keep going in pursuit of your goal.
What other techniques have you used to change a bad speaking habit into a good one?