Will Your “Tells” Derail Your Presentation or Media Interview?

Even after more than 50 years, political pundits still talk about the “tells” that derailed Richard Nixon’s bid for the Presidency in 1960.

“Tells” are subtle changes in a person’s behavior or demeanor that are dead giveaways that the person is nervous and uncomfortable during a presentation or media interview. If you’ve ever watched The World Series of Poker on TV, then you know about the “tells” that expose the strength or weakness of a player’s hand.

See if you can spot the “tells” in just the first two minutes of this first ever televised Presidential debate, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy.


Did you notice the shine on Richard Nixon’s face that became more apparent as the minutes ticked away? By the end of the debate he was sweating profusely. He shifted his eyes, licked his lips and occasionally stumbled over words.

Nixon gripped the lectern as if his life depended upon it. Pundits felt that his demeanor and poor performance doomed his first bid for the presidency.

Should You Worry About “Tells?”

Many speakers worry unnecessarily about “tells.” It’s natural to experience dry mouth, or for you to perspire when you address a large audience. It’s unlikely that they will derail you like they did Richard Nixon. He was running for the Presidency. It’s hard to think any of us will ever have that kind of real-life pressure.

Worry about tells So, relax. You may give away your nervousness with “tells” but you can learn to manage them. Involuntary things happen, like your legs start to shake. If that’s the case, plant your feet firmly about a foot apart so you feel grounded.

If your neck and face flush when you speak to people, you can camouflage it by wearing  a turtleneck or a silk scarf. You need to get it out of your head that everyone will notice that your hands are shaking. Even if they did and said something, you could reply, “Yes, they are as I’ve worked really hard on this project and want to do a good job. I’m a little nervous, but I can’t wait to show you how you will save money on this product launch.”

Turn your “tells” into a positive. No one will feel negatively about you or question your ability.

In one case, we coached an executive who was so high energy that he found it difficult not to talk too much during meetings. Also, every part of his body was in constant motion. Being quiet or still wasn’t in his genes. He spoke so rapidly that it was often difficult to understand him. That kind of energy can be unnerving to others.

We suggested that when he met with or addressed groups who did not know him that he begin by acknowledging his “tells” and to let the audience know that it was him and not them.  He learned to be upfront about his tics and say something like, “I have a lot of energy and I tend to get overly excited when something is going great. So please bear with me.” This worked to get his audience on his side right at the start.

Meeting with Reporters

If you’re having an interview with a reporter from a top-tier media outlet, you may be nervous even if you’re prepared. You could say, “You may notice that I’m perspiring. That happens when I really care and want to get all the facts in the story straight. I’m a little nervous because you’re with The New York Times and this is really important.” Throw a little flattery their way.

Be courteous if a reporter is coming to your office to meet with you and other senior executives. Ask if you can get her coffee and if she would be more comfortable sitting on the couch.

Small talk is important at the beginning of an interview to put everyone at ease, especially you. Do your homework and try to find some common interest with the reporter. Possibly you went to the same college, or have mutual friends.

When meeting in the reporter’s office, notice the environment. Comment on his beautiful family in the photo on his desk. Relax and don’t jump right into the interview without these important preliminaries. Build a personal connection. Reporters are people too.

Know your grabber and how you’re going to start. Even bring your notes with you. The reporter will respect you because you’re prepared.

Tamping Down the “Tells”

You can minimize your “tells” by following a few simple rules:

Young woman looking vexed

  • Practice. Nothing will get your “tells” acting up more than not being prepared. Practice your opening statement and your presentation or talking points so that you have them down pat. If you start fumbling around with what you’re going to say, you will bring on a case of nerves and the “tells” that expose them.
  • Use anecdotes.” People love stories. Get them so enthused they forget all about your nervousness.
  • Move around.  Step away from behind the lectern or be animated and use hand gestures during an interview. There’s a more informal atmosphere in business nowadays so it’s easy – and even expected – that you won’t be rooted to the lectern. Just be sure that you have the necessary amplification if you’re speaking in a large event space. For TV, be sure and keep your gestures close to your body so they stay within the frame of the camera.
  • Lower your voice. By that, we mean women need to make an effort to start speaking in a lower pitch. This will keep them from sounding like Betty Boop who always spoke in a high squeaky voice.
  • Suck it up. You can focus your nervous energy before you start to speak by clenching all your muscles and holding that position for a few seconds. Then release the tightness and you’ll have released some of your nervous energy. Yoga breathing can also help.
  • Use productive gestures.  Emphasize key points with hand gestures. Be careful if you’re seated that you don’t continuously swivel around in your chair while gesturing. Instead, anchor one foot on the floor. Swiveling is a big “tell,” as is twirling your hair with your fingers.

Do yourself a favor and make an effort to stop obsessing about your “tells.” Get it out of your head that “OMG, they’ll find out that I sweat.” This is human. It happens to everyone. Stay in control and don’t allow your “tells” to derail your presentation or interview.

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