5 mistakes you make in the first 30 seconds of public speaking

Research has found that audience members make snap judgements about speakers' trustworthiness and leadership abilities within the first 30 seconds of a presentation, argues Carmine Gallo, a communications coach, Harvard University instructor, and former journalist.

These judgements are instinctive and can stem from unconsciously held stereotypes, says Alexander Todorov, a psychology professor at Princeton University. During a presentation, leaders only have a few seconds to win—or lose—the trust of their audience.

Based on advice from Gallo, Todorov, and other public speaking experts, here are some of the most common ways that speakers fail to make a good first impression.  

Mistake 1: Your smile doesn't seem genuine

Research shows that happy expressions are more likely to inspire trust, Sue Shellenbarger writes for the Wall Street Journal. However, if you notice that you've forgotten to smile, be careful about how you adjust your expression, says Judson Vaughn, chief executive of First Impressions HQ and former character actor. Suddenly flipping your frown into a megawatt smile can make you seem less trustworthy.

Instead, allow your natural passion or enthusiasm for your topic shine through, recommend Mark Bonchek, a business speaker, and Mandy Gonzalez, a Broadway actress who performs in Hamilton. They encourage speakers to think of their presentation as an opportunity to share an insight or inspire their audience.

Mistake 2: You talk too fast

If you rush through your words, you may come off as frazzled. Bryan Stevenson, a speaker who received the longest standing ovation ever given at a TED talk, says that he speaks to his audience as if he's talking to a friend over dinner. Stevenson's pace clocks in at about 190 words per minute, writes Gallo.

But if you're leading an online presentation where people can only hear your voice, take extra care to speak slowly. When your audience doesn't have facial cues to follow, they need more time to process your words, writes Gallo.

Mistake 3: You use too much jargon

People adopt buzzwords to signal their insider status—but that strategy can backfire, argues James Sudakow, a communication expert and leadership coach. Jargon can get in the way of coming across as authentic and relatable, warns Sudakow.

"If you care about being thought credible and intelligent, do not use complex language where simpler language will do," writes Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow. When you articulate complex ideas into simple language, you'll earn your audience's respect.

Mistake 4: You haven't practiced correctly

Neuroscientists who study high-performing athletes have found that the most successful practice happens under mild stress. Before a big presentation, practice in front of friends who can simulate worst-case scenarios and offer honest feedback.

And get comfortable with the space you plan to present in. Every detail of the stage and its environment should be familiar to you before delivering your speech there, says Keith Yamashita, a leadership consultant. This includes things like the seating configuration, microphone, and how to plug in a laptop and start your presentation, if applicable.

Mistake 5: You're sending the wrong hand signals

When you present to a room of new faces, keep your hands visible and relaxed at your sides to seem genuine and warm, says Hilary Blair, a professional actor and chief executive of Articulate Real & Clear. Showing open palms signals that you've got nothing to hide, says Mark Bowden, president of a communications training firm. And don't be afraid to step away from the podium and work the stage; it'll show you're a confident speaker, writes Gallo.

(Yamashita, Unstuck, accessed 8/24/17; Shellenbarger, Wall Street Journal, 2/28/18; Bonchek/Gonzalez, Harvard Business Review, 3/15/18; Latson, Rice Business Wisdom, 3/27/18; Gallo, Harvard Business Review, 6/13/18).

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