Even the most confident and compelling speakers can work against themselves by allowing certain credibility-killing words and vocal habits to creep into their presentations. As a presentation skills coach and teacher, I often hear presenters chip away at their command of the room with three common speaking habits: hedges, tag questions and up-talking. These verbal and vocal habits cause an audience to pause and question the assertiveness and commitment of a presenter. Here's what they are--and how to stop them.
These are soft word choices such as "I think," "sort of," or "kind of" that litter many a presentation. In some interpersonal conversation situations, phrases such as these can actually help by allowing you to appear less dogmatic and more open to collaboration. But in presentations, hedges have the effect of softening your position, reducing your authority and making you seem wishy-washy and unsure of what you are saying.
The best way to address hedging? Substitution. Find stronger, more powerful words to replace these less assertive ones. For example, "I think" becomes "I believe" or "I know." "Kind of" and "sort of" can be replaced with "one way." Finding more assertive substitutions affords you a way to make your point more clearly and definitively.
2. Tag questions
These occur when you add a question to the end of a phrase, such as "This is a good hamburger, isn't it?" Again, in interpersonal situations tag questions can work in your favor, in this case by inviting participation from your interlocutor.
But when speaking before an audience, tag questions diminish your potential impact, and should be eliminated. The first step to ridding yourself of tag questions--or any verbal tic for that matter--is to become aware of when you are speaking them. To raise your awareness, you can have a colleague notify when you have asked a tag question or you can record yourself speaking and note them yourself. In either case, you are moving an unconscious speech act into consciousness. Eventually, you will transition from recognizing that you just asked a tag question to noticing that you are about to ask a tag. When this anticipatory awareness exists, you will be able to eliminate asking these superfluous questions. Removing them will take practice for those in the habit of using them, but the benefit to you is a stronger, more assertive speaking style.
This centers not on the words you choose but rather on how you speak your words--specifically at the end of your sentences. If you are an up-talker, then the ending of your sentences rises in pitch, essentially making your declarative sentences sound like questions. Nothing can be more confusing (and annoying) to an audience as when a speaker makes an important point like "our profits are expanding," yet it sounds like "our profits are expanding?" Your goal as a speaker is to use your voice--its volume, cadence, and tone--to help your audience understand your message, not to confuse them.
The best way to correct up-talking is to focus on your breathing. If you are an up-talker, then you likely take a quick inhalation prior to the end of your sentences because feel you are running out of air to support the remainder of your spoken thought. This inhalation is often followed by a rise in pitch. To address this, you need to practice what I term "landing" your sentences and phrases. Rather than inhale close to the end of your sentences, focus on exhaling completely as you finish your thought. (Note: This does not mean lower your voice volume, but instead empty out your breath while maintaining your volume.)
A useful way to practice this is to read out loud while placing a hand on your belly. When you up-talk, your belly will contract inward as you end your sentence (this results from your inhalation). If you land your phrase, your belly will extend with your exhalation at the end of your sentence.
When you're giving a presentation, it's critical to command the room--if your audience doesn't believe you're confident and credible, they won't even consider what you're actually saying. Among the many ways to do this are smart word choice and speaking your words powerfully. Bad habits like hedges, tag questions, and up-talking distract your audience and undermine your impact. But with awareness and practice, you can eliminate them so that you appear more commanding and your message seems clearer and stronger.