By Bill Hellkamp
Recently I attended a presentation given by a well-recognized speaker in my city. I was interested in the topic and had been looking forward to the talk. As he got started I noticed that I became disinterested and distracted. Before he was fifteen minutes in, I was eager for him to end. The curious thing was that from a technical standpoint, he was doing everything right. He told good stories and had a strong, confident delivery. His topic was thought-provoking and he stayed on point. If he had been one of my students, I would have said that his style was excellent. So why wasn’t I connecting with him, or rather, why wasn’t he connecting with me? Even a few weeks later, it is still hard for me to clearly identify why I felt so apathetic about his talk. I believe that it was not what he communicated with his words, but what he communicated with his actions. Most likely I was indifferent to this speaker because he seemed indifferent to the audience. With his words he communicated creative and thoughtful ideas, but his nonverbals showed someone who was just going through the motions.
Depending on your sensitivity to such nonverbal cues, you will have found yourself uncomfortable or confused when communicating with someone whose words don’t match their actions or attitudes. In 1966 Dr. Albert Mehrabain conducted studies on how we interpret words and how they are delivered. It is this research that is so often quoted when we are told that 93% of communications is nonverbal. While Dr. Mehrabain has stated that his research has been misinterpreted (at least in the way the numbers are used), there is consensus that our nonverbal messaging has a powerful impact on our audience. Current studies are showing that our posture can even affect chemical levels in our body, making us feel more confident and assured. If we agree that in addition to our overt message, we want to communicate feelings of confidence, competence, friendliness and empathy then here are some ways to improve our nonverbal messages.
Posture – The first message we send to our listeners is through our posture. How we hold ourselves can communicate interest or boredom, confidence or timidity. In order to project a feeling of self-assurance and competence, you must stand tall and move with assurance. Make strong eye contact with the audience (or the individual) and be open with your gestures. There have been some interesting studies done on how our posture can improve our confidence. Social scientist, Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School, has an interesting TED talk that you might enjoy. Watch the video.
Positioning – Where we stand as we give a presentation or have a conversation can affect the way that we are perceived by our listeners. Standing behind a lectern or a table can put distance between you and the audience whereas moving into the group can make the talk more intimate and conversational. Often you will find that the screen showing your PowerPoint slides can limit where you can position yourself in a room. In these cases, consider turning off the slides periodically so that you can reconnect with your listeners by moving to a different location in the room.
Attitude – A student of my Technical Presentations Course once stated, “It doesn’t matter how I say it, as long as my information is correct!” Well, we all know how wrong he is! The attitude with which we make a comment can communicate much more powerfully than the words alone. Whenever I speak to a group I am trying to express some of the following attitudes:
Respect – They are smart and knowledgeable and I enjoy speaking to them.
Enthusiasm – This is an exciting topic and I want you to feel my energy.
Empathy – I understand where you are coming from and will communicate accordingly.
Tone – The tone of your voice is in one sense connected to attitude which we just discussed but it provides other clues to the audience as well. Whenever I mention that I am a presentation coach, people will usually tell me about a boring speaker they recently saw. Often they will say, “He was so monotone!” This shows us how important it is to use variety in our vocal tones and patterns. Many presenters find that they become more monotone when reading, either from a script or from their slides. It is much easier to have an interesting voice when we are having conversations with our audience. Another way to use more variety is in the volume at which you speak. You always want to project sufficiently (but not yell) so that everyone in the room can hear you. But there are times when you want to talk louder (for emphasis) or softer (for intimacy). Merely by changing the tone and volume used when speaking you can recapture the attention of a lagging audience member.
Facial Expression – Finally we come to the face, our most interesting and expressive nonverbal tool. Since we have been reading and deciphering facial expressions since birth, we are pretty good at it, and your listeners are as well. They are looking for confirmation and consistency between what you are saying and if they can believe and trust you. Here are some things you can do to convey a coherent message.
Eye Contact – Trust is built through eye contact. If you don’t look me in the eyes, I think you have something to hide or are avoiding telling me the full story. Learn to make solid eye contact with your listeners, but be willing to look away if they signal that they need a break.
Smiling – When we smile we express friendliness and openness to the other person’s ideas and opinions. Personally I had to learn to smile more when giving presentations but over time I find that I enjoy myself and feel more confident when I smile.
Energy – Overall, your face should radiate energy and confidence. Animate your face, raise your eyebrows, wrinkle your nose, or purse your lips. Give the audience an expression to read!
Through effective use of nonverbal body language and expression, you can portray confidence, competence, friendliness and empathy to any audience on any topic.