Free Markets, Free People

Top five public speaking tics that are annoying as Hell

I spend a lot of time in front of an audience. It’s a major source of my income, and if I suck at it, my bank account will feel it.

Since I’m rather fond of my bank account, I try to listen to others who do public speaking, and pick up do’s and don’ts from them. It’s mostly don’ts, I’m afraid, especially from politicians. Our generation has very few good public speakers, and no genuine orators of consequence as far as I know. 

The worst things I see are tics that speakers fall into. They annoy the heck out of me, and probably you too. I try to observe and remember those annoyances, so that I can avoid them in my own delivery.

Here, then are the top five things I notice in public speakers that grate on my nerves. Any of you that need to get in front of a group should try hard to avoid having a single one of these tics even one time in your presentation.


1. "…you know…" This is the one I see the most right now. Politicians seem to particularly susceptible to this one, including Obama. Here are a couple of examples from Senator Mark Warner in an interview published just a couple of days ago.

You know, there’s ideas, for example, that I’ve found a tremendous response on that says, you know, we’ve got thousands of schools in our country that are energy inefficient. Why not take folks, particularly young people, 18 to 30 year olds, who’ve been on unemployment for more than 10 or 15 weeks and say, you know, we’re going to continue…

Well, you know, the – I wish I’d say that, you know, I’m extraordinarily optimistic, but, you know, the alternative becomes, you know, if we’re going to look at gridlock, candidly, the whole Congress ought to get fired, because the American people ought to expect us to do our job.

…there are a whole series of things that we could do that, frankly, you know, we do need folks – particularly in the House – to simply stop saying “no” and kind of roll up their sleeves and, you know, try to work together in a bipartisan way.

I doubt Warner even knows he does this, but I find it incredibly annoying when someone speaks like this. You probably do too, so make sure, you know, you’re not doing it.

2. "…like…" Another well known tic is the gratuitous use of "like". Example: "This problem is like really hard to solve. You should like give us some extra time to like figure it out."

Conversational tics go in cycles, and this one is (hopefully) on the decline. At its height five or so years ago, I used to sit in audiences and calculate the "like index", which was the number of times the speaker gratuitously stuck in "like" per minute.

Younger female speakers were and are by far the worst offenders, and for some reason this tic seems to be worse in California. I heard a young lady speak in front of a group a couple of years ago with a "like index" of about fifteen.

Because this one has been around a while, people notice it, and therefore it’s especially important to avoid it. It also has a connotation of youthful cluelessness, which is another very good reason to, like, keep your presentations "like"-free.

3. "…, right?" This one’s fairly recent. I first noticed it about two years ago. Presenters began the tic of inserting the question-tone "right" at the end of about every other sentence. Even some quite good presenters I know picked this up, and I suspect it’s because it became a conversation tic inside Microsoft – the culture there has a tendency towards such tics.

A presentation with the "right?" tic sounds something like this:

"The turboencabulator uses a CPU to encarphalize the singlial signal, right? And that minimizes energy drain by the gristocentrum, right? Compare that to an agilomodelizer. It connects garphal entities to anthrocentic viewlicanters, right?"

Unlike "like" or "you know", I think perhaps one or two "right?" insertions per hour for emphasis might not be too bad. But as a tic inserted in every paragraph, not only is it irritating, after a while the audience begins to wonder if you’re not trying to convince yourself. Right?

4. "…frankly, …" and its relatives. This one has been a favored tic from politicians for years. They like to insert "frankly" every so often in whatever they are trying to get across. You can get as many examples as you like with simple searches. Here’s one for “senator frankly”.

I think they are striving for the implication that they’re being honest with us, which of course for a politician is always an open question. I find it insulting, though. Are they not being honest if they don’t keep inserting "frankly" in every other sentence?

There are variations on "frankly", and some are far worse. Sometimes politicians realize they have used "frankly" too much, and switch to "candidly", which is just as bad. An even worse variant is "To be honest with you…". A really bad variation is the insertion of "trust me", which almost any audience member will interpret as "don’t trust me".

If you believe in what you’re saying, it should come through in your tone and body language. You don’t need to keep reassuring your audience that you’re telling the truth. Unless you’re lying, of course.

5. Overuse or misuse of "literally". I’ve been guilty of this in my writing on occasion, probably because I’m trying to emphasize that I’m really not kidding about something that sounds outrageous. However, I recommend that you never use it in public speaking.

First, it has some of the same problem as "frankly", in that your tone and demeanor should make it unnecessary. Second, there is a bad tendency in present day communication for it to be used naively. Some people apparently don’t understand what the word really means, and they just use it for general emphasis. If you use it, you risk being dumped into the bucket with those folks.

There are others: "a going-forward basis", "incentivize" and other verbicized nouns, switching out perfectly clear terms such as "spending" to something that isn’t really accurate but has a better connotation ("investment"), and other forms of drone-speak. However, it’s the tics that really bother me. I can’t really seen any excuse for them whatsoever in someone who speaks as part of their profession.

If you have to get in front of a group more than once or twice a month, these tics will bother your audiences too. So do your best to banish them from anything you say in front of a crowd or on camera.

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29 Responses to Top five public speaking tics that are annoying as Hell

  • Well, you know, it’s like, frankly driving me up a wall, literally, right?

  • Literally, “Clueless” was frankly a management-speak training movie. Like, you know.

  • Ah….a perfect time to recommend  Toastmasters.  Helped out several of us in my office.

  • You’re, ya’ know, just bitterly, ya’ know, clinging to your bank account, ‘ya know.

  • It’s like totally disgusting
    I’m like so sure
    It’s like barf me out…
    Gag me with a spoon!

  • I knew the media was on Obama’s side the first time I watched a bit of a speech of his when he was still in his primary run, and then saw the media react like it was one of the greatest speeches ever, when in fact it was full of things that you’d ding a high school freshman for. He’s a worse orator than GW Bush. Not a lot worse, but he uses a lot more cliche, and as we now know, the same cliches over and over, along with several verbal tics that have rendered him nearly unlistenable to me now. Neither of them have anything on Reagan or Clinton.

    • Those are well-taken criticisms, but the biggest thing I’d ding him for is that repetitious, hokey delivery: Da, Dah… da, da Dah… da Dah… da da DAH.

      Every… time he talks… he sticks in… a pause… every few words… with a small… downtone for each… and then… he finishes… the sentence… with a large… downtone.

      Like you, I never considered his oratory to be even above average, and certainly not anywhere near the territory his tingle-thighed acolytes in the media claim. And I don’t think you’re alone in finding him to become unlistenable over time. That may be a larger factor than we realize in 2012, because it may be impossible for him to reach a lot of centrists. They may well be simply tuning him out because they don’t want to listen to those same cliches delivered with that grating delivery.

      • Yeah, that’s the one I was sort of half-thinking of, I think. GW Bush really only had one cadence too, but it was much less grating. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve heard a political speechmaker who isn’t stuck on one cadence. Perhaps in some way it’s actually some sort of disadvantage; given the amount of money poured into this matter one imagines that anything this widespread seems unlikely to be accidental.

        • I think it’s their lame way of trying to sound serious. It’s a mirror of what they say, which in general is nothing much. That’s been a survival skill for politicians for several decades: say nothing, and say it in a fairly droning, serious way. That way you are less likely to say something that will go viral as a flub. It’s especially important if you’re not thoughtful enough to have interesting things to say.

          It’s even worse if they realize their dullness and try to break out. Exhibit A: Al Gore.

          Not all politicians are that bad, though. You mentioned Clinton. Dick Cheney has a nice delivery, a conversational tone, and generally thoughful prose. Alan West is pretty good. But you are correct; line up GW Bush, Harry Reid, Lamar Alexander (our senator), and a dozen other typical pols, and it would be a contest on who you could stand the longest. 

      • “Every… time he talks… he sticks in… a pause… every few words… with a small… downtone for each… and then… he finishes… the sentence… with a large… downtone.”
        He got the idea from watching the original Star Trek.
        another idiosyncrasy in his case is his catchall phrases so we know he means business  (which he’ll get to, soon as his vacation is over)– such as “let me be clear”.

        • He got the idea from watching the original Star Trek.

          I hadn’t noticed, but you’re right. There’s something Shatnerian about Obama’s delivery. Call it “limited-tone Shatnerian”.

    • You need a heavy-duty teleprompter when you’re a SCOAMF

  • And Billy, you CAN use ‘right’ as often as you like, IF you’re giving a presentation on the Rockwell Retro Encabulator.

  • You left out Rick Perry’s use of “if you will.” See:

  • 1. No I don’t know. If I did, I would not be listening to you.
    2. I don’t want to know what it is like, I want to know what it is.
    3. If you need to ask me if your statement is right (correct), then why are you the one doing the talking?
    4. If you are now speaking frankly, what were you doing previously?
    5. I can figure out literally vs figuratively from the context

    I could go on but I need a nap now.

  • Omit the adjective “very” whenever possible. This is mostly a writing tic, but it ruins any presentation. “I was very pleased to see the very fine work of an involved, interested, and very effective group.” The adjective “very” has no meaning except in a direct comparison with something else that has just been described.

  • You left out “basically.”  Listen to anyone getting ready to explain anything and it is always prefaced by “basically.”  Frankly, it like drives me bonkers – literally!

  • The new annoyance is “..let me be clear”, not sure who started it but obumble says it often and it’s extended into far to many speeches. It assumes the listener is a f*cking idiot that can only understand the idea when the speaker dumbs it down for them. Of course that is probably necessary when they speak to the left (sorry couldn’t resist).

  • They’re basically higher grade ’ems’, ‘ers’ and ‘ahs’. Sounds used to cover up stutters in speech and thinking.

  • One tic I dislike is “appreciative of” in place of “grateful”.

  • Whenever a speaker uses the word “honestly” I know he’s a liar.  When he says “literally” I know what he’s telling me isn’t literally true, or literally false.