It’s an annoying quirk of nature that it’s exactly at the times we’re most concerned to appear smooth and in control (making a speech, being interviewed for a job, delivering a training course) that we’re in most danger of undermining our impact with distracting mannerisms. As I said in my spotlight post, whether verbal or physical, repeated mannerisms can eclipse your message and set your audience on edge.
So how can you eliminate your mannerisms? The first step is to recognise them, which is not always as easy as it sounds, since they are often said or done unconsciously. There are broadly three ways you can go about identifying any potentially annoying habits you may have – and which one will work best for you depends mainly on your temperament.
Identifying Your Mannerisms
If you’re pretty robust and confident, by all means record yourself on video. This is a reliable method for revealing your mannerisms but, if you’re feeling self-conscious already, it can end up making you more nervous than you were before. I would not recommend rehearsing in front of a mirror, for the reasons outlined on my Learn Public Speaking blog.
Another approach is to ask someone else to observe you and give you feedback. Choose someone you trust to support you but who will also be diligent and honest in the task of highlighting the little things you say and do that could irritate an audience. This is an integral part of the service I provide.
If you’re already tuned into choosing your words and being aware of what your body is doing all the time, you can probably identify your mannerisms for yourself. As you prepare for the event in question (interview, debate, presentation), be extra vigilant and make sure no mannerisms are slipping under your radar.
Beware of Clichés and Jargon
As part of your drive to become aware of your verbal mannerisms, keep an ear out for how often you use clichés, jargon, management-speak and any other potentially annoying form of language. As this article emphasises, overused clichés can be infuriating. And, as can be seen from this Guardian article, there is a fine line between an illuminating metaphor and a hackneyed, ridiculous phrase that makes the utterer sound like a parody.
In my opinion, you can probably get away with saying any of these, on two conditions: 1) you use them very sparingly, and 2) when you choose to use one, you deliver it in such a way that everyone knows you know it’s a naff thing to say.
If you resort to this kind of phrase regularly, you’re in danger of torpedoing your credibility. Assess what it is you’re really trying to say, then say that instead.
Eliminating Physical Mannerisms
Once you’re aware of your physical mannerisms, the next step is to ask yourself why you do them.
If the answer is external, get the thing fixed. What I mean is, if you’re constantly brushing your hair out of your eyes, tie it back or have it cut. If you adjust your glasses and wrinkle your nose every time you look at something, is this because you can’t see properly and need new lenses?
One of the benefits of a dress rehearsal before the event is to check no mannerisms are going to stem from anything you’re wearing. For example, I have a tendency to keep tipping my feet out sideways when my shoes are too tight. Don’t wear anything you’re not sure about: it’s more important to be comfortable, secure and free to focus on the audience.
If the answer is not practical but to do with nerves and self-consciousness, take some quiet time and really make yourself understand how counter-productive this behaviour is. Don’t fool yourself that nobody notices it. Everybody notices, even in everyday life, and under the spotlight your mannerisms will be magnified. You may find it soothing to tug on your ear or rub your hands together but by indulging this impulse in public you are doing yourself a disservice. It’s distracting and it telegraphs nerves.
Playing with a pen or a paperclip, jangling keys or coins in your pocket, all these things are displacement activities, ways to help you avoid engaging fully with what’s going on. Again, this behaviour is counter-productive, because what’s going on becomes a roomful of people wishing you would stop doing that! Instead of fiddling and fidgeting, focus on the people in front of you and on communicating with them. Thorough preparation and rehearsal will facilitate this.
Eliminating Verbal Mannerisms
Verbal mannerisms, particularly under the spotlight, are almost always a function of not being able to find the right words quickly enough, combined with a perceived need to fill the space with a constant barrage of sound.
To combat a tendency to sprinkle your narrative with “um”, “er”, “like”, “you know”, “sort of thing” and other fillers, rehearse what you plan to say. For a speech, presentation, lecture or other talk that you can prepare completely and expect not to be interrupted, you would be foolish to waste the opportunity to hone your message so as to deliver it in the smoothest way possible. For a meeting, debate, interview or other occasion where you’ll be answering questions and responding to others’ comments and input, you can still rehearse the points you want to make and the answers to foreseeable questions. Articulate out loud what you want to say enough times in advance that, when you come to do it for real, the words you need are at the front of your mind.
This process offers many benefits:
- When you know exactly what you want to say and how you want to say it, you won’t have to fall back on fillers to buy you time.
- When you’ve focused your thoughts in advance, you can give the audience the distilled version and not have to ‘show your working’ (which inevitably includes some padding and meandering).
- When you don’t have to worry what you’re going to say next, this has a calming effect that reduces the impulse to reach for fillers.
If you speak more slowly, it will give you more time to think without your needing to say anything extraneous. Far from making you sound boring, slowing down will make it much easier for your audience to follow what you’re saying.
Instead of filling the space with the first words that come into your head, take a couple of seconds to find worthier ones. As with speaking more slowly, people often assume this is going to go down badly with the audience, when nothing could be further from the truth! If you give those listening time to digest what you’ve said, they are far more likely to remember it.
Silence is your friend and it can be powerful. Use it.
Kick the Mannerisms Habit
Weaning yourself off a mannerism can be quite a challenge. Just as the morning of an interview or important meeting may not be the best time to give up smoking or coffee, it’s not the moment to give up your mannerisms either. It takes weeks, even months, to get a mannerism out of your system and you need to start the process as soon as you become aware of its presence in your repertoire of movements or vocabulary. Get your friends involved, put sanctions in place – whatever it takes – and do the psychological work to ground yourself and build your self-esteem. Do not permit physical or verbal mannerisms to overshadow you or your message: you owe it to yourself to let the authentic, original you shine through and connect with the people in front of you. You owe it to them too.