Top 5 Public Speaking Behaviors that Can Make You Appear Dishonest

by | Jul 23, 2018

By Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

The world of speaking opportunities keeps expanding, and that’s good for authors. Speaking to live audiences is one of the best platform-building activities available for both fiction writers and subject matter experts.

But how to make the connection with a live audience? What gets in the way? In this article author Betsy Graziani Fasbinder looks at how to avoid the appearance of dishonesty and be an authentic voice for your readers and listeners.

When I think of speakers whom I admire I rank one quality above all others. The speakers can vary in skill and message. They can demonstrate different styles of delivery from funny to inspiring. They can be subdued and thoughtful or outlandish and shocking. They can make flubs and lose their trains of thought now and then. And I don’t care about their PowerPoint slides.

Whatever their age or appearance, whatever their topic or point of view, it’s a speaker’s authenticity that keeps me listening. Add sincere passion to the mix, and I’m in. But the moment it feels as though I’m being deceived, or worked, or manipulated, I’m out. And I think that a lot of other people are just like me.

In coaching public speakers over the last two decades, I’ve found that even the most honest and sincere people can appear deceitful, just because of a few ill-advised habits and behaviors. Making a few simple adjustments can instantly increase their credibility.

So let’s look at it in reverse: how can you look like a liar, even if you’re not?

Deceitful Behavior #1: Scan, Dart and Avoid Eye Contact

If you’d like to appear as though you’re lying, I strongly suggest avoiding eye contact or scanning the crowd and having your eyes dart Ping-Pong style as you speak. It works every time.

You’ve likely heard the term “shifty-eyed.” Whenever I think of that phrase, I recall the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoon with Boris and Natasha, the oddly misplaced Russian criminals in pursuit of Moose and Squirrel. If you watch that old cartoon, or even more modern ones, you’ll notice whenever a villainous character is doing something sneaky or deceitful, their eyes shift back and forth. Animators know that this implies furtiveness and deceit. The same is true for us as speakers.

If your eyes dart, scan or avoid the eyes of your audience, you’ll come across as dishonest. It can be nerves or shyness that causes us to use poor eye contact technique.

If you think of public speaking not as talking to a crowd, but as having a series of genuine conversations with other people, it’ll make all the difference. Linger in the eyes of a listener for a few seconds, for a whole sentence or two—about three-to-six seconds. Then, randomly find another listener and share a second idea.

Deceitful Behavior #2: Display Contradiction

If you’re aiming to undermine your credibility with an audience, make sure that your body, voice and facial expression contradict your words. Mixed messages imply deceit.

If you observe a speaker wearing a scowl while saying that they’re excited about an idea, which do you tend to register, the words or the expression? If a speaker stands with her arms across her chest or packing up her wares while she’s saying she welcomes feedback and questions, what’s your impression? You’re right; she really doesn’t want feedback or questions. If she invites questions with a relaxed body posture and a pleasant facial expression, she’s much more likely to invite interaction.

The power in public speaking comes from congruence. When your facial expression, your tone of voice, your body position AND your words all say the same thing, you come across as honest, sincere and even passionate about your topic.

Deceitful Behavior #3: Be Sure to “Um” and other “Non-Words” A Lot

If you, um, you know, you, well…well, you use a lot of um, sounds, and um, y’know, like meaningless words, your um, well, your point sounds as though you’re um y’know, like lying, even if you’re like, y’know telling the truth.

That was hard to write, much less read. But I hear people speak like this all the time. Non-words like um, er, like, y’know, okay, right and so (there are hundreds of them) are simply the sounds we make when we’re not yet sure of what we’re going to say. Too nervous to take a second or two of silence to form our words, our lips just keep moving until the idea finally arrives. What often comes out of our mouths is nonsense. These ums and ers, in addition to being a bad habit for you and a distraction to your listeners, can also imply that your statement isn’t truthful.

By inserting pauses (likely many more and longer ones than you imagine) you can get rid of those weedy non-words and increase the impact and believability of what you’re saying to an audience of any size.

Deceitful Behavior #4: By All Means, Hide Your Point of View

Too many speakers try to take a middle-of-the-road stance rather than overtly stating their point of view (POV) and asking directly for what they want from their listeners. Rather than stating their POV in no uncertain terms: I believe strongly that… or My experience has convinced me… or I know in my heart…too many try to take a neutral stance: Some people think… or, It seems that… This neutrality comes off as people-pleasing behavior and implies that you’ll say anything to please anyone—not exactly honest.

Be bold. Start your POV with passion and commitment. Even if people disagree with you, they’ll believe you to be sincere. Disagreement is far better than distrust. That’s my bold POV.

Deceitful Behavior #5: Lie, Exaggerate, and Obfuscate

Every suggestion I’ve made prior to this one is made with the assumption that you, a speaker I’m coaching or to whom I’m writing, are telling the truth when you’re talking. The rotten truth of it is that people do lie and that skilled liars know how to appear as though they’re telling the truth, even when they’re not.

Assuming you’re an honest person of integrity, I will say this. Avoid resorting to unfounded exaggerations or fictional stories to make your point. When a questioner pushes hard, don’t be intimidated into obfuscating. Be candid. Give it to them straight. Don’t let nervousness or your desire to convince people of an issue important to you push you into diluting your truth. Check your facts. Make sure there from trusted sources. Tell it as you know it to be, with passion, conviction and authenticity.

Authenticity is crucial if you want intelligent, open-minded people to believe what you’re saying and especially if you want them to think or behave differently because of it. If your face, hands, voice, body and words are all saying the same thing, at the same time, that’s when your truth shows best. Your authentic self is the very best tool of influence that you have.

What signals authenticity to you, when listening to a speaker, either live or online? Let me know in the comments!

speakingBetsy Graziani Fasbinder is an award-winning novelist and memoirist as well as a public speaking coach. She now shares her expertise in coaching public speaking in her new book, From Page to Stage: Inspiration, Tools, and Public Speaking Tips for Writers. Reach her at

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  1. Pete @ What is Charisma

    Thanks for the interesting read. Not often you see a post like this about how you appear dishonest when speaking. For me the eye contact is a big one. Of course it could just be lack of confidence, but it definitely does create a sense of dishonesty and is one of the big ones you see with poor speakers.

    Some great points though, many thanks for taking the time to write it.

  2. Joan Stewart

    It drives me nuts when speakers are constantly asking the audience questions like “How many of you have ever…” Audience members raise their hands in the affirmative. But the speaker never comments or even asks anyone in the audience to share their experience. Once or twice, OK. But some speakers do this repeatedly throughout the entire presentation. This is NOT audience participation.

    • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

      I agree! This is what I like to call “mock participation”. And you’re right; if the speaker asks once or twice, that can work. More than that and it seems insincere and a way to have listeners “feel” as though they’re participating, but they’re not doing so in any meaningful way. I prefer authentic exchange. Yes, sometimes this can be the occasional rhetorical question or raise-the-hands type fun “survey” to add to the talk. But it’s better to engage emotionally than to feign participation.

  3. John Maberry

    I can see where #1 and #3 might be shifty or deceitful. They also might simply be poor technique. Or nerves. Or lack of experience at public speaking. Or lack of preparation with #3. All of which could be cured with practice and preparation. But unless one tends to cynicism, mistrust or unduly critical perspectives, I think it’s a bit much to jump to the conclusion that examples of #1 or #3 are proof of deceit.

    • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

      I think we’re in more agreement than you might guess, John. What I meant to imply is that these behaviors can APPEAR deceitful, even when one is being fully honest, and nerves simply get the better of them. I’ve often witnessed honest speakers in my workshops and trainings, who display these behaviors out of nerves. When the audience offers feedback, they will often say something like, “I’m sure you’re telling the truth, but it looks as though you’re not.” Fascinating.

  4. Chris Graham

    Betsy, just got the following comment from Patty, one of the blind authors who uses JAWS software to ‘read’ posts.
    It’s under my linking post to your article (at: )
    Tried to comment on the blogger’s site but as is the norm these days they had a caption requirement and as is also the norm these days there was no audio caption thus making it non-accessible for screen reader users.
    So you can pass this along.
    First, I thought this was a well-written post.
    Next, Something to add is this€¦
    When I’€™m scheduling someone for guest speaking there’€™s nothing that screams fake more than references that cannot be verified.
    Email addresses that no longer work, companies that have gone out of business and websites that do not work are a dead give-away that the person you’€™re trying to have speak at an event for you or an organization you‒re promoting is a great big NO!

    • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

      Thanks for passing this on, Cris. I’ll zip over to your post to reply directly to Patty. But for this trail, I’ll say this: Amen. If you’re presenting yourself as any kind of subject matter expert, and you expect your audience to see you as credible, confirming your facts (including references, websites, etc.) is essential. If you say 10 important things that you want people to take to heart, then give one unverifiable reference, or cite a less than credible source, it can undo all 10 of those important, and true things in the eyes of your audience.

  5. Michael W. Perry

    I’d add “Deceitful Behavior #6. Have a voice that drips with fake sentimentally.” It fools some, but is a dead giveaway for others.

    I experienced that when Bill Clinton was ran for president in 1992. When I discovered that the news media was gah-gah over his campaign, I thought, “If they like him, he must be corrupt or incompetent or both.” He proved corrupt. He hadn’t finished the first sentence I’d ever heard him say before I thought “con man.” Listen to him even today and you’ll hear that same exaggerated ‘ah feel yore pain’ voice that marks the con man. He’s a stranger addressing you in the same voice your dearest friend might use when you’re diagnosed with cancer. Some fall for it. Some don’t.

    The news media later came to claim that Bill Clinton was a “really good liar.” The opposite is true. If the only words many of us heard Clinton speak were “Two plus two equals four,” we’d still know his was a con man. And he’s used that voice so long, he does not seem to be able to turn it off.

    • Betsy Graziani Fasbinder

      Hi Michael,
      While I’ll steer clear of the political content of your post (that exchange is for another forum) I’ll admit to the same reaction to insincerity…particularly when it drips. It disgusts me, right along with straight-up lies and skim-the-edges deceit and obfuscation. The point of this particular article is to help people who ARE telling the truth to appear as though they are. Sometimes nerves cause us to exhibit behaviors or have physical habits that can make them appear dishonest, when we’re not.

      I’ve coached politicians. But I’m not a typical political speaking coach. I won’t allow my tutees to obfuscate, avoid, deflect, or not answer a question by jamming through with their talking point that has nothing to do with the question. At least not while I’m coaching them. I can’t stand this, and I feel that if you want my vote, I deserve to hear your authentic answers, regardless of party or ideology. I’d vote for a truthful person with whom I have some disagreements philosophically, over a charming liar who agrees with me ANY day.

      As to those who are deceitful, liars, deceptive, or plain old cons…well, I’ve got nothing for them other than to urge them to develop an ethical core.



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