Distracting Mannerisms to Avoid When Giving a Speech

Make sure the audience only remembers your message.

Nothing can ruin an otherwise good speech quicker than poor delivery.

Public speaking anxiety can often manifest itself as distracting habits that draw the audience’s attention away from your presentation.

Your gestures and movements should complement your message, not distract from it.

Below are some tips to help recognize and fix these problems.

Find more tips on public speaking from MBS here


In an earlier article entitled, “10 Tricks to Stop Saying Um While Speaking,” I talked about one of the most common distractions in public speaking, the verbal pause.

While probably the most common, ums and ahs aren’t the only distractions worth talking about.

Distracting gestures, sounds, and movements can be just as damaging to an otherwise well written speech as verbal pauses.

Here are some of the more common distracting mannerisms to avoid when giving a speech.

Playing Body Music

Besides the words leaving your mouth, speakers manage to create any number of distracting sounds without even realizing they’re doing it.

Speakers are always amazed when they’re told by a friend or see a video of themselves jingling, slapping, clicking, and otherwise destroying a perfectly good speech with these distractions.

Jingly Pants

We’ll often will put our hands in our pockets to help hid our nervousness. While this in itself should be avoided just because it looks unprofessional, this can get very distracting if we find anything jingly to fidget with.

Change and keys can easily become makeshift tambourines during your speech, and these high pitched sounds carry very well in the largest rooms.

One of the best pieces of advice that I still follow today is to remove everything from my front pockets before walking up to the lectern.

The Leg Slapper

I don’t see this very often, but when I do, it’s memorable.

Just the other day, I saw an otherwise professional presentation ruined as the speaker punctuated every point by slapping his thigh…loudly.

Every time he pointed to the screen to highlight his point, the hand came down and struck his leg.

Looking around the room, I saw that I wasn’t the only audience member focusing on this distraction; in fact, I could see some of them wincing as they anticipated the next slap.

The Heel Clicker

Oddly, I saw this distraction by a presenter that followed the ‘Leg Slapper’ above. This person was very senior, and otherwise a very well-polished speaker.

As good speakers do, this gentleman would walk around during his speech, stop and make a point. Then he’d move on.

Unfortunately, every time he stopped, he had the habit of bringing his heels together much like a military officer coming to attention.

As he was wearing dress shoes, the noise was quite loud…perhaps a pair of ruby slippers would have made more sense…

Distracting Movements

As mentioned above, more polished speakers (those that don’t click their heels) will move about during their speech.

Movement during a speech helps burn off nervous energy, and helps you make contact with the entire audience. It’s important, as you grow as a speaker, to get out from behind the lectern now and then.

This movement, however, should be with purpose and flow naturally as part of your speech. Unnatural movement, like the ‘Body Music’ mentioned above, can easily become a major distraction for the audience.

The Dancer

Some speakers will try to move during the speech, but unfortunately just remain in a small box. They just can’t take that extra step out of their comfort zone.

One step forward, one step back, repeat. Or side, front, side, back. Save the dance moves for the ballroom, and try to actually walk around.

The Caged Tiger

While movement is good, movement without purpose is bad. Furthermore, constant movement is terrible. This type of speaker just can’t stop. He needs to constantly move from side to side of the room.

Whether he’s trying to burn off energy, or avoiding a sniper attack, this is a major distraction for the audience trying to keep up with him.

Remember, move a bit, stop, make your point, and then move on. Stop prowling!

The Heel Rocker

Finally, it’s amazing how much movement we can do without actually moving.

Some will constantly rock back and forth from heel to toe. Others will sway side to side. It’s almost as if they’re trying to hypnotize the audience with their seductive swaying.

The problem is they do in a way. The audience members are watching the gentle movement, and realize they’ve missed an entire main point while distracted.

Handheld Distractions

Pick it up, use it, put it down. This is the mantra you should quote when carrying around anything during your speech.

If you continue to carry it after you no longer need it, it becomes a toy. Then it becomes a distraction to the audience.

The Pointer

For some reason, we just feel safer in front of an audience when we have a large stick in our hand…

While they serve their purpose when used correctly, most presenters don’t use them correctly. Ideally, these are used to identify key areas of a picture or diagram.

Pointers become a problem once they’ve been used for this purpose. Then we’re pointing at every bullet on the screen for no good reason…now it’s a cane, now it’s a back scratcher. Put it down already…

The Laser Pointer

The more modern version of the pointer keeps all of the bad habits and adds a few more.

Again, used appropriately as mentioned above, these can easily highlight key components of a complex picture.

However, we never turn to things off once they’re used. Now we’re lasing key words, now we’re circling the words as we speak.

The Pen

We’ve saved the best for last…why in the world do we need to be carrying a pen or pencil around during the speech?

If we have to jot down a note, walk to the lectern, write it down, and then leave the pen there and walk away.

Of course, the worst case scenario is the clicker pen. No one can possibly hold a clicker pen in there hand during a speech and not click it…over, and over, and over.

Beyond ‘Jingly Pants’ above, this is probably the most common distraction you’ll see.

Okay, so how do we fix this?

As much fun as it is to rant about this stuff, I’d be remiss if I’d brought you all this way without offering some pointers on how to stop the madness.

Of course, now that you can recognize them, chances are you’ll catch them early on.

Many of these distracting mannerisms are born of nervousness and will go away once you’re more comfortable in front of an audience.

Practicing your skills, knowing the topic, and understanding your audience will help in all aspects of public speaking.

Practicing your speech in front of a mirror is always a good way to point out problems with your delivery, but in the case of distractions, you probably won’t be able to pick them out real-time.

Ideally, you need to videotape yourself during actual speeches. While painful to watch, this will pinpoint most of the problems above. Another tact is to invite a friend who is willing to give you an honest evaluation afterward.


Like any other skill, public speaking is learned, practiced, and improved upon.

Understanding these distracting mannerisms exist and taking steps to remove them will put you well on your way to becoming an outstanding speaker.



  • Lynette

    Great article Rick!   All who read this should also read 10 Tricks to Stop Saying “Um” while Speaking”  Very good information from a real funny guy!
    Lynette from Springfield

    • Rick

       Glad you liked it Lynette!

Previous post:

Next post: