Public Speaking Anxiety – 7 Nervous Gestures And How To Tame Them

Presentation Anxiety

How To Keep Your Public Speaking Anxiety Under Wraps

Public speaking anxiety is common when you start speaking, but your nervous gestures can give the game away to your audience. Here are the most common and most distracting ones along with preventative tips on how to reduce or eliminate them.
Updated May 2017

signs of presentation anxiety - foot shuffling1 ) The Soft Shoe Shuffler

Dancing, rocking and pacing as you speak can all be very distracting for your audience. Awareness is the starting point so get some feedback on your stance and movement. If it needs work try the following tips. Start with a strong, confident stance with your feet hip-width apart, toes pointing slightly out, head up and shoulders back. When you move, move with purpose and not randomly.

 

2 ) The Pen Clicker

signs of presentation anxiety - pen clickingEver been driven mad by the presenter who continuously clicks the top of a ballpoint pen or who “pops” the top of a flip chart marker on and off? It’s just a little thing, but it is incredibly distracting.

The first step in fixing nervous behaviours like this is awareness. After all, how can you fix a problem that you don’t know you have?  Ask friends or colleagues for feedback and, if it is one of your public speaking anxiety tells, here’s what you do next.

You can easily prevent it by reminding yourself not to hold a pen in your hand. If you have to write on a flip chart, practice putting the pen down when you are not writing.

3 ) The Sloucher

Over the years I have come across some strange postures from nervous speakers.   Some signs of presentation anxiety -hands in pocketspeople perch on one leg with their other crossed in front of them and look like they are about to fall over at any moment.  But the worst is the hands in pockets, leaning back on one leg slouching stance.  It immediately makes me think that the presenter doesn’t care about their subject, and if they don’t care, why should I.

Always start your presentation with a confident, well-balanced, open stance.

Before you speak, go through a quick mental checklist:

  • Feet hip width apart,
  • Weight evenly distributed between both feet,
  • Feet flat on the floor,
  • Soft knees,
  • Shoulders back
  • Head up,  looking out at your audience
  • Arms relaxed at your sides (when not gesturing)

You don’t have to stay in this posture throughout your presentation, but it is a great place to start and to come back to if you need to pause and think.

4 ) The Pacer

I always remember an Army Careers speaker who came to my school when I was about 16. Tsigns or presentation anxiety - pacinghroughout his 45 minute presentation, he paced back and forwards in front of us as if he was marching up and down the parade ground. His hands were stuck in his pockets and his back was slightly stooped. This is repetitive pacing served no useful purpose and was very distracting. In fact, I thought he looked a bit like Groucho Marx and this made me take him even less seriously.

Always aim to make your movement purposeful.  For example, use different areas of the floor to “anchor” different parts of your speech or move closer to your audience when you want to ask a particular person a question.

Signs of presentation anxiety - jingling coins5 ) The Coin or Key Jingler

Usually, a male trait, the habit of putting a hand in a trouser pocket and playing with keys or loose change is a big no-no.  Many presenters donb’t even realise that they have this problem until they get feedback or see themselves on video.  To make sure that you never suffer from this problem, always check your pockets before speaking and remove any loose change or anything else that might distract your audience.

 

6 ) The Face Toucher

signs of presentation anxiety - face touchingRandom touching of your face or playing with your hair is a universal sign that the presenter is suffering from public speaking anxiety and is feeling uncomfortable. Face touching, playing with hair or jewellery lowers your perceived status and reduces your credibility massively. If this is one of the ways that your nervousness leaks out, you should avoid it at all costs, especially if you are speaking to a more senior audience and look confident and knowledgeable.  If you catch yourself doing it, don’t beat yourself up about it as this new level of awareness is the first step to fixing it.  Instead, simply move your hands away from your face and redirect your nervous energy outwards, turning it

If this is one of the ways that your nervousness leaks out, you should avoid it at all costs, especially if you are speaking to a more senior audience and look confident and knowledgeable.  If you catch yourself doing it, don’t beat yourself up about it as this new level of awareness is the first step to fixing it.  Instead, simply move your hands away from your face and redirect your nervous energy outwards, turning it into a source of power.

7 ) The Hand Clasper

Signs of Public Speaking Anxiety - Hand ClaspingMany novice presenters struggle to know what to do with their hands. Typically they will either clasp their hands in front of their stomach or grasp them behind their back in the posture made famous by Prince Charles.  Both these options tend to lower your credibility, in the eyes of your audience, and restrict your ability to gesture. Ideally, I recommend that, when not gesturing, your arms should hang loosely by your sides. If this is a step too far for you, then an acceptable alternative is to rest your fingertips together lightly but don’t interlace the fingers.

In Conclusion

So there you have it, my list of the seven most distracting physical signs of public speaking anxiety. Are you guilty of any of these non-verbal faux pas’?

If you don’t know, get some feedback. Ideally, ask a friend or colleague to video your presentation on their smartphone and then send it to you. That way, you can get an accurate picture of how you look from your audience’s viewpoint and will be able to judge if you have any nervous gestures that need attention.

The Presenter's Edge

Have I left any out anything that other speakers do that drives you mad?  Share your comments and views below, and I’ll respond directly you.

Gavin Meikle
The Presentation Doctor

P.S. If you’d like more tips like these, check out my new book The Presenter’s Edge. It’s available now in paperback and Kindle from Amazon

  1. Tom Mahoney on 01/07/2011 at 15:10

    I’m often guilty of #4 and #7 even though I feel quite at ease in front of an audience. In order to overcome these bad habits we must be acutely aware of them.

    One of the best ways to see any of the bad gestures you mentioned is to have someone video your presentation. Then watch it at double speed with the sound off. You’ll be able to see those nervous or distracting gestures very quickly!

    • Gavin Meikle on 01/07/2011 at 15:30

      Thanks for your useful observation and suggestion Tom. I still remember the first time I saw myself on video and I was amazed at some of the mannerisms I had at that time that I was completely unaware of. Video is a really useful tool as it allows us to “see ourselves as others see us”. Keep in touch and keep sharing.

  2. Fred E. Miller on 23/06/2011 at 03:32

    Good suggestions here, Gavin.

    One other to throw in is: “No Fig Leaf!”

    Covering your privates gives the audience all kinds of messages and distracts from your presentation.

    Thanks for the Post!

    • Gavin Meikle on 23/06/2011 at 08:12

      Great suggestion Fred. I’ll add it to my list

  3. Dorothy on 22/06/2011 at 19:19

    How about the speaker’s facial tic, hand in the pocket, and the suit adjustment. Or can these distractions be deliberately used to make points in a presentation!

    • Gavin Meikle on 23/06/2011 at 08:15

      Thanks for your contribution Dorothy. I am intrigued by your suggestion that distractions could be deliberately used to make a point and would like to understand what you meant. Perhaps you could share an example to help me understand. Best Wishes, The Presentation Doctor

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