How to spot a nervous speaker

We tend to do funny things with our bodies when we get up in front of a group of people to talk. Our adrenaline flow drives behavior that our audience may find odd or irritating or even suspicious.  All of which, of course, undermines our message and does damage to our credibility.

It’s important to be aware that we communicate with more than just our words. Along with the content that we’ve created our non-verbal cues will either support or undermine our ability to achieve our presentation objective.

Once you know what to look for it is relatively easy to identify a speaker who is either uncomfortable with speaking or who is unsure of the content they are delivering. While conducting a workshop I was observing a participant who was doing a good job delivering a presentation and then hit a rough patch. He came to a point in the presentation that he either had not practiced sufficiently or maybe he didn’t really believe in the content he was delivering. Either way his body cues let everyone know that something was wrong.

It began subtly enough with a crossing of the legs at the ankles. This is, in my opinion, the most common non-verbal cue that will tell you something is bothering your speaker. It was quickly followed by a rubbing of the hands, reminiscent of the evil scientist in a 1950’s horror movie. Along with this he began talking to the floor and doing whatever possible to avoid making eye contact with the audience.

These non-verbal cues destroyed the remainder of his presentation. They were such a source of distraction that he rendered his content almost irrelevant. In addition to the physical quirks mentioned in this example I’ve seen people fold their arms in front of them, put their hands in their pockets, click the plunger on their pen incessantly, jingle the change in their pocket, fiddle with buttons on their shirts, I once saw a college professor nearly choke himself from pulling at both ends of the scarf he was wearing.

These idiosyncrasies seem absurd but they happen because people aren’t aware that they are doing the absurd. The behavior is unconscious and so we must establish new unconscious behavior. We must cultivate different habits, non-verbal habits that will communicate confidence and certainty to our prospects.

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