"Dear God, he's right behind me, isn't he?"

If you have a speaking habit that gets in the way, you can obsess it, or you can fix it.


Vicious dog, aka Tinkerbell

I’ve been fighting a situation in my house for months. I have a chihuahua and two cats. (The picture above isn’t my chihuahua, but she’s very close. The one to the left is my chihuahua.) They don’t like each other. As far as the dog is concerned, the main use for the cats is exercise. The only things on earth that the dog isn’t afraid of are the cats.

Whenever one of the cats ventures near, Tinkerbell nips at it. The cats are always nimble enough to avoid her. One cat, Angel, the classic “fraidy cat” stays as far from the dog as possible. The other older cat, Annie, tolerates the dog, humors her mostly, although she weighs twice what the dog does, and will shred Tinkerbell if she is ever so foolish as to actually push it.

But Tinkerbell has developed a bad habit regarding food. If she attended a 12-step meeting for dogs, she would introduce herself this way: “Hi, I’m Tinkerbell, and I’m addicted to cat food.”

When I get the dog food out, she dances around like the cast of Pee Wee’s Playhouse when someone says the secret word. But she ignores it, waits until I have fed the cats, then tries to sneak in and eat their food. I don’t know if she just likes their better, or if she figures she can eat theirs and save her own for later. But this has gone on morning after morning for at least two months.

I watch for her to trot back to the laundry room, because she has no business back there at all. She just goes back there for the cat food. As soon as I see her cross the threshold, I fuss at her, remind her she has her own food, point to her food, and tell her she needs to leave the cat food alone. She obviously knows she’s being reprimanded. No matter. She goes back to bed and waits until I am busy doing something else, and then sneaks in and eats the cat food.

At least, she did until today. This morning, I put the cat food on a foot stool. Even Annie, the fat cat, can jump up there to eat when she’s ready, but Tinkerbell can’t (or she’s afraid to). When she trotted back there for her usual routine, I just kept quiet. She looked back and forth a couple of times from the floor to the bowl on the stool, sighed, and went to bed. About midday, she ate her own food. Both Annie and Angel have made a couple of trips back there, eating at their leisure.

Problem solved.

What’s the takeaway?

I realized 20 years ago, based on audience feedback, that I had a habit of jiggling coins in my pocket while speaking. I tried to change the habit through sheer will power. It was a fruitless, frustrating effort. What’s more, my obsession with breaking the habit sometimes took me off message and away from my connection to the audience. But I really needed to stop the habit, since it’s both annoying and distracting.

Coin purse

Not dad's, but very similar.

Ultimately, I just sprung a buck and bought a coin purse like my dad used to use. He had a habit of pulling it out and tossing it up and down while he talked. I managed to resist that part of it, and having the coins contained in this little squeezable bit of plastic corralled it so I wasn’t tempted to jiggle it.

The plastic on mine cracked after a couple of years so that it ultimately came apart, but by that time it didn’t matter. The habit was broken.

Is there something you annoy yourself or even your audience with that you could easily fix, but you try to “gut it out”? Get creative and think of some action you can take that will change the circumstances so you don’t have to think about it. The more you can do to automate something like this, the more you’ll free up brainpower that you can then apply to something else.

Your value to your audience doesn’t come from your ability to control yourself the way you might control a car. Look around and see where you can find a way a put a bowl up on a footstool. It’s easier to dissolve a problem than to solve it.

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