Lesson 15 Avoiding Distraction

throughout our lessons, we have frequently touched upon the danger of distractions. A distraction is anything that turns your audience’s attention—or your own—away from your words toward something else. Distractions can come from the environment, as we discussed briefy in Lesson 2. They can come from your presentation, as mentioned regarding visual aids in Lesson 14. And what’s most dangerous of all, they can come directly from you!

Your job as a public speaker is to help your audience learn something they can apply in their own lives. To do this, you need to be on guard against anything that will interfere with your listeners’ learning process. In a sense, you are more than a speaker; you are both a teacher and a guard. You want to teach your listeners about something that is important to you, but you also need to stand guard against outside factors that may prevent their learning.



–aVoiding diStractionS–

um. . . ah. . . like. . . You know. . . See what i Mean?

Most speakers are not even aware of one of the most prominent sources of distraction: verbal mannerisms. I generally fnd this topic the most diffcult to convey to my students, yet it is so pervasive that it cannot be ignored.

Everyone has certain habits of speech that crop up continually in casual conversation. We all tend to say“well…”and“ah…”whenwe’retryingtofndthe right words. Yet even in casual conversation, this habit can become distracting. You’ve probably known some- one who says “like” constantly: “I was like walking out of the store, ya know? And she was like standing in my way, like all upset, and I like tried to walk past. . . .” Friends will sometimes tease a person who does this, counting the number of times the fller word is used in a given sentence. This demonstrates the basic fact of such mannerisms: If your audience is counting how many times you say “like,” they are not listening to the rest of your words!

Filler words are not the only distracting element of speech. Simple intonation of one’s voice can become irritating after a while. Perhaps you’ve had a teacher who droned in monotone throughout his or her lec- tures; if so, you know how dull and distracting it can be to listen to poor intonation.

A very common problem in this area is known as upspeak. Upspeak is the habit of ending sentences— even small phrases—in an upward intonation. To understand this, read the following sentences aloud, noticing how you sound:

n I was walking down the street, when I passed a yellow dog.

n I was walking? Down the street? When I passed? A yellow dog?

Did you hear the upward intonation in your voice as you read the questions? That’s the sound of upspeak, ending phrases or sentences on an upward infection as though you were asking a question, rather than stating a simple fact.

The danger of upspeak is that it conveys to your audience the notion that you are not at all sure of the truth of what you’re saying! If you state your informa- tion to sound like a question, then the audience feels compelled to wonder what the answer is.

Filler words and vocal intonations convey more to your audience than the words themselves. These habits can be hard to break, but they must be broken if you hope to speak well. The best way to discover your own vocal mannerisms is to video yourself during speech practice. Pay attention to these elements, and then rehearse your speech in front of the camera again, deliberately avoiding those mannerisms. With practice, this avoidance will become a habit.

that twitch

Physical mannerisms can also be very distracting to your audience. I had a college professor who always had a coffee cup in her hand, which she would rub through- out her lecture as though her hands were freezing cold. When she got excited, she would clink her rings against it. At frst, this seemed like a casual approach to teaching—but before long it was simply a distrac- tion. I found myself rubbing my hands together to warm them up, while longing for a steaming cup of java!

There are as many physical mannerisms as there are people in the world, and the best way to discover yours is to watch for them in your practice video, which we discussed previously. Here are some things to be on guard against:

n Fiddling with clothing or jewelry n Touching your face



an object: I lay the baby down in the crib. In the following examples, the subjects are in bold and the objects are underlined.

Why don’t we sit down and talk this over? He will set the record straight.

rise: to go up (intransitive—subject only)
raise: to move something up (transitive—needs an object)

The sun will rise at 5:48 a.m. tomorrow. He raised the rent to $750 per month.

The basic forms of these verbs can also be a bit tricky. The following table shows how each verb is conjugated.

past partiCiple
past (With HAVE, HAS, HAD)

lay lain laid laid sat sat set set rose risen raised raised

actions that happened before the story started). Oth- erwise, you will leave your audience wondering whether actions are taking place in the present or took place in the past.

lie: lay:

sit: set:

to rest or recline (intransitive—subject only) to put or place (transitive—needs an object)

I will lie down for a while.
Will you please lay the papers down on the table?

to rest (intransitive—subject only)
to put or place (transitive—needs an object)


lie, lies
lay, lays
sit, sits sets, sets rise, rises raise, raises

present partiCiple (With AM, IS, ARE)

lying laying sitting setting rising raising

Now that you have reviewed verb conjugation and tense formation, it’s time to talk about two key issues with verb usage: consistent tense and subject-verb agreement.

Consistent Tense

One of the quickest ways to confuse people, especially if you are telling a story or describing an event, is to shift verb tenses. To help listeners be clear about when actions occur, make sure verbs are consistent in tense. If you begin telling the story in the present tense, for example, keep the story in the present tense; do not inadvertently mix tenses. Be clear about changing tense, and make sure that it makes sense in the context of the story (for example, a story that takes place in the present tense might use the past tense to talk about

Incorrect: Correct: Incorrect: Correct:

She left the house and forgets her keys again.
She left the house and forgot her keys again.

When we work together, we got better results.
When we work together, we get better results. OR

When we worked together, we got better results.


There are a million things that can go wrong dur- ing a speech, and the only thing you can do is to take it in stride and not lose your composure. Here are a few suggestions on how to handle the unexpected:

n Ask for help. You drop your notes or your overhead transparencies, and they scatter across the foor. Don’t panic! Calmly ask some- one in the front to collect them while you begin or continue speaking.

n Improvise. You did memorize your outline, right? Just continue discussing whatever point you were on, using part of your brain to calmly collect your thoughts on where you’ll go next.

n Make a joke at your own expense. The audi- ence is actually not hostile, and they’re not sit- ting there hoping that you’ll fall on your face. They empathize with the stress of public speaking, and they’ll quickly join you in a good laugh—provided that it’s at your expense! Never lose your cool and blame someone else. I actually did trip on a step going up to the stage once, and dropped my notes to boot. I collected my papers, walked to the podium, caught my


breath, and then said, “I meant to do that.” It wasn’t the greatest witticism ever recorded, but it was suffcient.

n Carry on and ignore technical problems. You can always summarize the slide that you’d intended to show if the projector isn’t working. The visual aids were only intended to assist your speech anyway, so keep going with the main purpose of your being there—your speech.

n Act like Abe Lincoln. He didn’t have a micro- phone, yet he riveted his audience’s attention by projecting his voice. You can do the same.

n Adjust. Some microphones, for example, are very sensitive to popping, such as when you voice the letter p. If you’re hearing strange feedback, move back from the microphone or stop using it altogether.

n Plan ahead. As already stated, this is not fool- proof, but it defnitely does help. Arrive early at the speech location and get to know the room and equipment you’ll be using. See Lesson 2 for more suggestions. The more you troubleshoot in advance, the fewer surprises you’ll encounter.

–aVoiding diStractionS–