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This Public Speaking Habit Is Annoying Your Audience

What looks cool in a TED Talk video might not work so well in person.

This Public Speaking Habit Is Annoying Your Audience
[Photo: kasto80/iStock]

I was watching a private-equity exec speak, but it wasn’t easy—imagine following a ping-pong ball with your eyes as it bounced back and forth for three minutes straight.

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When he finally stopped, I asked him, “Why do you pace?”

“Pacing helps me control my anxiety,” he said. “And it really works! As long as I keep moving, I feel good.”

While feeling good is important, if you’re a constant (or even occasional) pacer, you might be undercutting the impact of your talk. It’s true that moving around can add some energy to your presentation and make things feel looser and more dynamic. But moving and gesturing strategically isn’t the same as just pacing back and forth. Here are four downsides to that habit that you’ll want to avoid.

You Lose The Power Of The Pause

When you pace too much, you’ll lose out on the opportunity to use your movement to punctuate what you’re saying. In writing, you use spacing to separate paragraphs on a page, and punctuation to build pauses into a sentence. Movement can do the same thing when you speak.

For example, suppose you said, “We have to move in new directions. We have to innovate.” If you stood still and delivered those two lines non-stop, they’d land with little impact. If added a short pause between the sentences yet remained still the whole time, you’d have a bit more impact. But if you paused and also moved between delivering the first line and the second, you’d have the most impact.

In other words, movement really amplifies the power of the pause. But if you’re constantly pacing, you’re letting your anxiety override these opportunities.

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Related: How To Master The Power Of The Pause In Public Speaking


Your Audience Focuses On Your Body, Not Your Message

Keeping the audience’s attention is a top challenge for any speaker. You may not relish that spotlight feeling, and pacing might relieve some of that stress. By striding back and forth, you can tune out a bit so you feel a little less under the microscope.

However, this approach usually backfires. You might feel a little less anxious, but your audience will begin tuning into you even more, but not for the right reasons. They’ll begin diverting their attention away from your message and start focusing on your physical presence. Why? Because our brains are wired to focus our eyesight on movement.

I once worked with a client who was originally from what was once called Rhodesia (the state became modern-day Zimbabwe in 1979). He told me that when he was younger, his father would give him a single arrow and send him off to hunt. He went on to become a military sniper. When I asked his secret to success, he told me, “Whether you are a hunter or a sniper, the key is to be absolutely still. Movement is a giveaway that could cost you your dinner—or worse, your life.”

So while you shouldn’t stand stock-still when you speak, it’s important to remember that wherever you move, your audience’s eyes will follow you. They can’t help it! Move too much, and they’ll focus on watching you, rather than listening to what you’re saying.

You Flatten Your Delivery

When you were in kindergarten, you might’ve played some version of a game where you all held hands and sang “Ring Around the Roses” or “London Bridges” (here in Canada it was “Frère Jacques”). Everyone sang in sync with each other and moved around the room in a way that matched your singing cadence.

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You’ve come a long way since kindergarten, but you’ve likely held onto that habit of connecting your speaking rhythm to your stepping rhythm. So when you pace, you’re letting your movement dictate your speaking patterns. You may not get into a singsong rhythm, but you’ll probably adopt a redundant tone and inflections. Pacing reduces your delivery bandwidth.

You Might Be Creating Sight-Line Issues

Finally, as a practical matter, pacing often causes line-of-sight issues for certain audience members. While that will depend on the shape of the room, the last thing you want to do is move around so much that some people need to lean over or crane their necks to see you—or just can’t see you at all. In general, the rule is, “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.” So before you start your presentation, make a mental note of the sight lines in the space, and decide how and whether you’ll want to move around.

Whether you’re trying to relieve your anxiety or make a statement, pacing is the wrong strategy to deploy. That doesn’t mean standing in one spot the whole time, of course, but it does mean moving and gesturing a little more thoughtfully—and possibly just less altogether.

About the author

Anett Grant is the CEO of Executive Speaking, Inc. and the author of the new e-book, CEO Speaking: The 6-Minute Guide. Since 1979, Executive Speaking has pioneered breakthrough approaches to helping leaders from all over the world--including leaders from 61 of the Fortune 100 companies--develop leadership presence, communicate complexity, and speak with precision and power.

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