The Successful Presenter

Communicate When It Counts

Next Version of PowerPoint Should Contain ...

I have been watching a conversation unfold on LinkedIn under the heading: “What would you most like to see in presentation software that isn’t available now?”

I have two suggestions.

First, the software should not allow a font size smaller than 72-point. If you use slides, this would pretty much guarantee that everyone in the room can read what’s on the slide.

My second suggestion is that the program be linked to your bank account. For every slide you use over five slides, $50 would be removed from your bank account and donated to the charity of your choice.

This would ensure that every slide you use has value, and would eliminate ‘Death by PowerPoint’ worldwide in a heartbeat.

PowerPoint is a Tool

When people complain about ‘Death by PowerPoint’, someone often counters with: “Don’t blame the tool. PowerPoint is not the problem. It’s the person using the tool who’s at fault.”

I disagree.

Yes, PowerPoint is a tool. But it’s not the only tool available with which to communicate ideas. The problem is that it has become the universal tool used by everyone.

If you attend any presentation in a meeting room, boardroom, training room or classroom in our modern world, how many different tools will you see? In most of those venues, you won’t even find a whiteboard, which is another visual tool that can and should be used when appropriate.

Imagine that the mechanic where you get your vehicle serviced only has one tool with which to complete the job. Would that person be able to complete repairs using only a crescent wrench or screwdriver?

Possibly, but probably not.

If PowerPoint is the only tool you use, you’ve limited the size of your toolbox. If you limit your toolbox, be prepared to limit your results.

Ditch the Progress Bar & Buy an Alarm Clock

I saw an interesting online discussion recently that started with:

“We are preparing a long presentation to introduce Windows 7 and Office 2010 features. We are using PPT 2010. We would like our slides to have a progress bar to indicate the progress of our show.”

I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that, instead of a progress bar, an alarm clock might be more valuable.

What do you think? Good idea? Or not?

No Research to Support Use of Slideware

I have some bad news for the PowerPoint Rangers of the world.

There is no peer-reviewed academic research to support the extensive use of slideware like PowerPoint and Keynote as the basis for delivering effective presentations.

In preparation for a master’s thesis, author Robert Lane wrote the following in 2007:

“About a year ago, we began looking at studies in earnest, both to prepare for this book and to document upcoming grant applications. Considering digital presentation’s established history and widespread use, we expected to find that the cognitive effects of, and best practices for, PowerPoint-style communication had been well-studied. We certainly were shocked to find the opposite was true. Other than a handful of limited exceptions, researchers apparently have utterly ignored this vast slice of human communication, leaving an untold number of important issues and questions unexplored. As far as we can tell, hundreds of millions of speakers regularly follow various protocols and precedents for presentation design and delivery, with virtually no published validation of any kind to explain what works, when, why, and with whom.”

I find it somewhat ironic that there are thousands of academics the world over who deliver presentations to students, peers and others via PowerPoint while using the modern communication equivalent of “the sun revolves around the earth” or “the world is flat” as the basis for their communication.

Interestingly, not one of those academics would allow someone to make any general statement about their area of expertise without substantiating that statement with evidence. Yet they all happily lean on PowerPoint without having a shred of evidence to indicate that being slide-driven is even remotely more effective than having a structured conversation with their audience.

Food for thought, isn’t it?

Denial: More Than a River in Egypt

Over the past few years at conference presentations I’ve facilitated, I have asked people to respond to three statements:
  • Raise your hand if you use PowerPoint or Keynote to develop content for your presentations.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced ‘Death by PowerPoint’ as an audience member.
  • Raise your hand if you’ve ever evoked ‘Death by PowerPoint’ on others.
Almost everyone puts up their hand to the first two statements. In today’s topsy-turvy world, the vast majority of presenters are using PowerPoint (or Keynote or Prezi) to develop content for their presentations, and everyone has experienced ‘Death by PowerPoint’.

However, it is extremely rare when some brave soul puts their hand up to the third statement, in effect saying “yes, I have bored the daylights out of people with my presentations.”

But let’s be clear here. If you use PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi to develop content for your presentations, you almost certainly must put your hand up to the third statement.

‘Death by PowerPoint’ does not mysteriously occur when people gather to view a presentation (and notice I said “view a presentation” not “participate as an audience member”).

But let’s be absolutely clear here. If you truly wish to stop glazing the eyes of people who give up their valuable time to listen to you, you should not use PowerPoint or Keynote or Prezi to develop your content.

Use them after you’ve established your strategy—after you’ve considered the audience, established business and communication objectives, and structured your side of the conversation. Until you do that, leave your slideware program closed. That’s not the purpose for which it was designed.

Slideware (like PowerPoint or Keynote) was created to emulate the horizontal format of 35-mm slides, at a time when 35-mm computer-generated slides cost anywhere from thirty-five dollars to seventy-five dollars each on the open market.

I worked on a college field placement in late 1981, in which the director of public relations ordered slides for a series of employee meetings at seventy-five dollars apiece. Today, accounting for the change in the value of a dollar, those slides would cost at least two hundred fifty dollars each.

If someone had to find twenty-seven hundred dollars in their budget for a thirty-six slide presentation to the monthly management meeting, nobody would worry about being exposed to too many slides.

But today, with projectors and printers everywhere, slides are “free” and slideware programs have become slide factories.

But slides have never been effective at developing content; opening, pointing, clicking and typing is actually what’s killing us. The presentation itself is merely the visible result of a flawed critical thinking process.

Not One Reference to PowerPoint

I love it when irony comes calling.

The video below is an interview between Mark Ragan, CEO of Ragan Communications, and Justina Chen Headley, who writes speeches for Microsoft.

They’re discussing effective speechwriting and Ms. Chen Headley certainly exudes a passion for her craft. They talk about the value of storytelling, which I have long believed is the essence of orality (spoken language) and they key to success for all presentations.

However, there is not a single reference to PowerPoint anywhere in the interview.

People engage with people, not with slides. People are motivated by anecdotes, examples and stories, not by charts, graphs or bullet points. People remember stories told by other human beings, not what’s projected onto a screen.

I have yet to see an audience lean forward and focus intently on a relentless march through a presentation deck. Like Ms. Chen Headley, however, I have seen many audiences lean forward to listen intently to effective stories told well.

The lesson (and the irony)? Minimize (or eliminate) charts, graphs and bullet points in your presentations and tell powerful stories, and you can be as effective as the Microsoft executives with whom Ms. Chen Headley works.

Presentations Killing Productivity

During a period of more than fifteen years, I have asked more than twenty thousand people at workshops, seminars and presentations to raise their hands to each of the following statements in turn:
  • Raise your hand if most of the business presentations you’ve attended in the past few years have made extensive use of visual aids.
  • Raise your hand again if you can say that 51 per or more of the presentations you attended in that period were a good use of your time.
Virtually every hand has gone up to the first statement. I think the only people who didn’t put up their hands are too tired, too skeptical or too independent.

Everyone knows that modern presentations are accompanied by slides—either projected, printed or both. We’ve been visual-ed to death since acetates first met laser printers, and overhead projectors began popping up in meeting rooms, training rooms and boardrooms the world over.

Response to the second statement has been interesting. At the workshops, presentations and seminars I’ve facilitated, about six to eight per cent of people put their hands up. With twenty thousand-plus people asked, there is no question that less than 10 per cent say that more than half the presentations they had attended were a good use of their time.

No matter how you examine them, these are poor results.

I once had a group of scientists challenge my informal results. One participant said that people could sense in my voice that I didn’t want them to put up their hands to the second statement. I countered that my persuasive skills are not that highly refined.

To quote a phrase from our son’s favorite movie, Die Hard, if my persuasive skills were that effective, I’d already “be sitting on a beach earning twenty per cent.” But let’s suppose that I convinced half the people who wanted to put up their hands to not do so, the standard would still be extremely poor.

What does this tell us?

The vast majority of people use visual aids when attempting to communicate with their fellow human beings. We know that. But the vast majority of those visuals are ultimately wasting people’s time.

The promise of technology was to improve productivity, not kill it. And that much time wasted is anything but an improvement.

Entertaining Video Takes Shot at PPT

I found this little gem on YouTube. Entitled STOP: You’re Killing Me With PowerPoint, it’s three minutes and fifteen seconds of entertaining rapping, with some interesting messages woven throughout.

Your charts and your graphs
they’re offendin’ my eyes.

Do you think you could cram
any more on that slide?

I once had a client tell me that their senior management team felt that too much PowerPoint was being used during briefings and presentations, so they limited everyone to six slides maximum. Two things happened.

First, they started getting four graphs per slide. Second, on those slides for which there were no graphs, the fonts shrank and the white space disappeared.

So if you want to increase
your influence.

Practice bullet point abstinence.

In my presentation skills training, I’ve often had people tell me they don’t use notes. They use bullet points. They put their bullets up and talk to them.

I always have to catch myself before I ask: “But do they ever talk back?”

Here’s to what we’re asking
before you waste our time.

With a deck of boring slides
just to toe the corporate line.

Think about your presentation.
What you want to say.

Then tell your story
in a compelling way.


Watch the YouTube video.

The Golden Rule of Presentations

There is one important universal rule regarding presentations. It should be obvious. But it must be said because, for some unknown reason, it keeps happening.

Under no circumstances whatsoever should you read your information aloud to your audience. Do not read your slides. Ever. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve projected them, printed them, or both. People who read slide after slide to their audience should spend eternity listening and following along while someone else reads to them. Actually, they won’t need eternity. One full weekend will usually suffice.

If you put a quote or case study up on the screen, stop talking until we read it. To ourselves. In silence. Most of us can read twice as fast as someone else can talk. And usually we can do so with high levels of comprehension, unless someone is disturbing our concentration by reading the same material to us, or even talking about or around it while we’re trying to read it. On this, the science is clear. We get less than if you simply stop talking and let us read for ourselves.

Please, in the name of all that is good, beautiful and merciful on this planet, stop reading to us. If you want us to read something, send it to us in advance. If we haven’t read it, that’s our problem. Don’t read it to us when we get together. In fact, don’t present the same information you sent in advance.

When we get together, create a conversation so we can explore your ideas further, ask about them, and relate them to our specific situation in ways that aid understanding and retention.

You benefit and we benefit, because creating conversations is what effective communication is all about.

What do audiences expect?

When it comes to audience expectations for presentations to which they are exposed, I suspect they would like to receive information that meets their need to understand. They want value from that information, the why and the how of it. Why is this important to us? How will this help us?

They want a presenter who understands them — someone who not only understands who they are on the outside, but who has insight into their beliefs, attitudes and opinions. They want the information for their presentation to be tailored to their specific needs.

Audiences want presenters to get to the point as soon as possible. They want to know how they should apply the information (informative presentation) or take action on it (persuasive presentation) early in the process. Knowing the outcome up front helps them relate the information to their personal cognitive framework. That’s when communication works.

Audiences do not attend a presentation thinking: “I hope the slides are entertaining” or “I wonder which seductive font they’ll use.” If written information is needed to move ideas along, smart audiences want to see it in advance.

In the future, my hope is that audiences will raise their expectations to the level of a structured conversation. They will want the speaker to be well prepared. They will want visuals only where needed. They will want their handouts in advance or after the presentation.

But they will also want the opportunity to probe and ask questions. During precious “face time,” they will want information put into perspective, not have data driven down their throats.

Another "Avoiding Death by PowerPoint"

Thanks to J.D. for passing along an advertisement for a webinar entitled “Avoid death by PowerPoint: Create slides that engage, entertain and persuade.”

Huh? There’s more than a bit of irony here.

Slides aren’t supposed to engage the audience. The speaker is. Slides don’t entertain an audience. If they did, the phrase ‘Death by PowerPoint’ wouldn’t exist. Slides don’t persuade. People do, but only if the audience is looking at them, not the slides.

Now, I must admit the producers of this webinar seem to acknowledge some of this when they say in the secondary headline: “In just one hour, you can learn how to make PowerPoint slides work WITH your presentation, not against it.”

If you want your PowerPoint slides to work WITH your presentation, don’t use them at all. Or, if you feel that you absolutely must use them, develop them when all of your content is complete.

If you sit down to develop your presentation using PowerPoint, you will exacerbate death by PowerPoint, not avoid it. This is the only PowerPoint pitfall to avoid.

You do not want your slides to entertain while they inform. Nor do you want to choose fonts and colors that seduce your audience. You want your audience looking at you, not the seductive traits of your slides. It’s really quite simple. If the audience’s attention is distracted, your communication success will suffer.

Charts and graphs should not command the audience’s attention. You should. Learn how to do this by telling stories and creating conversations.

And always remember that the best conversations you’ve had in your life were over a cup of coffee, not a PowerPoint deck.

Presenter Qualities Most Admired

On a discussion board at LinkedIn, a communications consultant from New York posted a question: "What ONE quality in a presenter do you MOST admire?"

Because this discussion board lies within the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) group, the people responding were communicators and public relations practitioners primarily located in North America.

Some interesting themes arose as people responded to the question.

Storytelling is near the top of the list. A number of people mentioned storytelling specifically, or as an element of explaining the "big picture." In other words, too much detail in a presentation is a bad thing.

"Be able to structure the speech in an engaging manner and always tie it to the big picture," wrote one respondent. "The presenter should deliver a 'story' that is relevant, compelling and clever," wrote another. And a third contributed: "The ability to tell a STORY! (vs a never ending slide deck where text is read from the slides...)."

Which brings us to another theme that emerged — the use of visual aids. "A presenter who uses slide text to emphasize key points" gets the "thumbs-up" from a communicator based in Cincinnati. "One of my biggest pet peeves is a presenter who crams everything onto their slides," she writes, "then just reads the slides to their audience."

Brevity was mentioned a number of times, as was being able to understand the audience's needs, and creating an interactive experience. "The ability to stop, listen and respond while staying true to the material and themselves," wrote a communicator from San Francisco. "Being able to depart from the often-memorized presentation to actually answer questions," wrote another from Lincoln, Nebraska.

If I could be so bold as to summarize: Tell stories that relate to the audience's need to understand. Be brief. Be passionate about your subject. Be interactive. Keep your use of visual aids to a minimum.

And recognize that visual aids are often less essential than we think. As one communicator from Milwaukee put it:

"incidentally, regarding death-by-powerpoint, i once saw a presentation delivered completely without slides by a guy who arguably could have been a highly successful televangelist. it was incredibly well done, and at the end of the 45-minute sermon (which happened to be about the importance of effective visual design, which one might think would REQUIRE slides), the audience stood on their chairs and gave the guy a huge ovation."

Parallels to Excellence in Negotiation

I found this gem on YouTube. It’s a short video from a consultant on the topic of negotiation, and I got two things from it.

First, I got some interesting insights into negotiating effectively. Second, I kept drawing parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in media relations.

The consultant starts by saying that “the essence of negotiation is to have something to do with results, and at the same time to build some form of relationship with your client or the person you’re purchasing from.” As a spokesperson, and from a media relations perspective, how do you build a relationship with someone who asks questions for a living?

As you watch the video, keep in the back of your mind the difference between a “stay on message” perspective and one that advocates creating win-win outcomes with journalist.

As I’ve often said, there are many parallels between excellence in negotiation and excellence in communication.


Responding to Reporters in a Timely Fashion

In mid-2009 I had the pleasure of providing a two-hour media training workshop to a group of municipal managers and professionals as part of a one day regional conference. Toward the end of the session, one of the participants asked: “Why do I have to respond to reporters when their deadlines always seem so unreasonable?”

It is an excellent question, and one that I’ve encountered numerous times before. Before I could answer, however, another participant chimed in and asked her whether she ever has to rely on others for information. When she said “yes,” he asked her how she feels when someone else doesn’t get her the information she needs when she needs it.

Good point. And I thanked him for making it.

There are a number of reasons why you should try to help reporters by providing the information they’re seeking in a timely manner.

First, it’s important to understand the world of journalists. It is driven by extremely tight deadlines. If your boss asks you to do something by 2:00 p.m., it is often ok to provide that information at 2:02 or 2:05. If an editor or news director sets a 2:00 deadline, 2:02 might be too late. After all, when was the last time you saw the 6:00 p.m. news start at 6:05?

Second, there can be a huge risk to not responding on time. All a reporter has to do is say or write “the municipality did not provide answers to our questions” or “the organization did not return our telephone calls” to get your attention next time. Human nature being what it is, most people hearing or reading a comment like that think the worst of you and/or your organization.

Third, the reporter is going to write the story with or without your input. If you didn’t help the journalist by providing correct information, you simply cannot complain about what comes out the other side.

And fourth, you want to try to create symbiotic working relationships with journalists wherever possible. If you help a journalist file a story in time to go to a son’s or daughter’s high school soccer game that afternoon, you can rest assured that the journalist will be very careful about how he or she quotes you in that story and any future stories about your organization.

Boy-o Gets a Passing Grade

I have an interesting opportunity in front of me. I get to grade the media performance of one of my children.

As a parent, I live for moments like this.

Our son Andrew plays for the University of Western Ontario baseball team. He is a pitcher, and he pitched a heckuva game over (Canada’s) Thanksgiving weekend.

After the game, he was interviewed by a journalist and an article appeared on the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) website.

When I texted him to tell him I was going to blog about his performance, he LOL’d and replied I should “blog about how (he needs) to use a thesaurus for the word ‘great’.”

Yes, he did overuse that word in his first quote. But I didn’t even notice the first time I read it. Chalk it up to an excited 22-year-old and/or the blindness of an extremely proud parent.

I was more interested in who he talked to through the interview. He complimented his opponents (some of whom he has played with or been coached by) in one quote. He paid tribute to his teammates by thanking them for putting in such a strong defensive performance.

I had two small concerns. First, he might not want to let the University of Toronto know that they are too aggressive at the plate. And, considering the final series was the following weekend, it may not be a good idea to point out to his next opponents that his team was “definitely the hottest team in the OUA going into the playoffs.”

But at least he didn’t revert to the media relations advice of one of his favorite movies of all time, Bull Durham. You remember that classic scene:
  • We gotta play ‘em one day at a time.
  • I’m just happy to be here. Hope I can help the ball club.
  • I just want to give it my best shot and, the good Lord willing, things will work out.
Overall, I give The Boy an 8 out of 10.

Now … if only the rest of the marks could be that good.

The Polarization Model at Work

The YouTube link below demonstrates how someone can use open hostility to change the opinions of others in their favour.

Within my media training program, I teach a polarization model for handling hostility that can arise during media interviews and public meetings. The goal is to help my clients understand how to use someone else’s hostility to their advantage.

Normally I’m preparing spokespeople to deal with journalists. In this case, it’s the spokesperson who gets hostile, and the journalist who manages the situation brilliantly.

The story begins with a radio interview at Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) studios with a band called The Boxmasters, who feature drummer Billy Bob Thornton. The CBC’s producers were told not to mention at any time during the interview that Mr. Thornton has had a life outside of music, most notably as a successful screenwriter and actor. Two small mentions of this previous life are made during the interviewer’s introductory comments. Mr. Thornton becomes increasingly hostile during the interview (with fireworks erupting at about the 7:00 mark for those who like to skip ahead) and basically remains hostile for the remainder, despite the best efforts of interviewer Jian Ghomeshi.

There are a couple of lessons here that all spokespeople can learn from when dealing with real or perceived hostility, whether from journalist or someone at an explosive public meeting.

First, keep your cool. Interviewer Jian Ghomeshi is brilliant. I suspect his heart was beating a mile a minute, but you’d never know it. He was able to maintain civility and politeness throughout the exchange. Pause and think before you talk.

Second, try to find common ground. Mr. Ghomeshi negotiates with Mr. Thornton a number of times in a series of attempts to get the interview back on track. “If we can call a truce,” Mr. Ghomeshi says at about the 10:00 mark, “then I can ask you about music.” This puts the interviewer on solid moral ground, which will not be lost to those observing.

Third, when all else fails, recognize that people (even those closest to the person displaying hostility) will draw their own conclusions about what they’ve witnessed. The rest of The Boxmasters looked uncomfortable with the exchange. From the looks on their faces during Mr. Ghomeshi’s introduction, they knew what was coming, and they tried to contribute to the interview early on.

However, it would have been an interesting ride to the airport. The remainder of The Boxmasters’ dates in Canada (including their opening gigs for Willie Nelson) were abruptly cancelled.

Finally, remember that the more reasonable you are, the less reasonable they become in the eyes of others. This can be a powerful force in changing opinion in your favor. It won’t always happen as quickly as in this short YouTube clip, but it will happen if you give it a chance.

Always a Call to Action

During a two-day presentation skills workshop I was conducting last week, a participant asked: “Should there always be a call to action in our presentations?”

In a business presentation, the answer is almost always “yes.”

As a general statement, there are three types of speeches or presentations: traditional, informative and persuasive.

A traditional speech or presentation would be something like an eulogy at a funeral, an acceptance speech for an award or a 25-year service awards gala for a corporation. Generally, you don’t need to have a call to action for a traditional presentation, although I have occasionally seen it to be very effective.

In an informative speech or presentation, you are informing the audience about something that should be relevant to who they are as human beings. It is important that you tell them why your information is relevant, and clearly state how you hope they will apply this information to their job, to their personal life, or to their professional life.

A persuasive presentation encourages the audience to take fairly immediate and direct action — vote for a candidate, sign a petition, or even get feedback from users by a specific date to ensure that a new software package is truly meeting the needs of the organization.

As those who have been through my workshops know, I believe the call to action in an informative or persuasive presentation should be stated up front and again at the end in clear, concise terms. In a modern business presentation, if you don’t want the audience to apply what you’re saying, or you don’t want them to take some form of action as a result, I have a critical question to ask:

Why are you there?

The moral? Listen more than you talk

I recently had a meeting with the director of strategic initiatives for a nation-wide presentation and staging company, who heard me speak at an IABC/Toronto evening event.

He was intrigued by my comments on PowerPoint, one of which is my belief that for one of the first times in human history, we have developed a communication technology that actually decreases our ability to communicate effectively.

He e-mailed me after the event to say that he sees “dozens and dozens of power point presentations every year. Much of the content (and the format) is underwhelming – even the font size,” adding that “I don’t think I will ever look at a power point presentation in the future without thinking of your comments.”

What can I say? As my kids will tell you, the quickest way to get something out of the old man is to pay him a compliment, so I suggested that we meet and chat about my perspective on the use of visual aids.

During our meeting, he showed me some of the visuals he uses for pitches to prospective clients. I must admit that the part that really intrigued me was the way they develop artist renderings to help carefully plan client events, which are then compared with photographs of the actual event.

The story here is that the company carefully works with its clients to plan events, which significantly increases the chances of achieving the success the client is seeking.

This is probably a good place for a visual aid, because it supports the company’s story; they carefully plan and execute events for their clients. But I did question the inclusion of an organizational chart. I didn’t think it added any value whatsoever.

During our conversation, he told me a story of when he worked in the broadcasting industry and three advertising companies were pitching for business. Two brought visual aids and were highly focused on delivering their message. One brought no visual aids, but focused on listening carefully and creating a meaningful conversation with a prospective client.

Guess who got the contract? The agency that listened more than it talked.

More Mehrabian Myth

I received an e-mail from Martin Shovel at Creativity Works recently with a link to the YouTube video I’ve posted below. It’s an interesting animated take on the Mehrabian Myth, which is something I’ve written here about a number of times, and something I almost always discuss during my presentation skills and media training workshops.

As I learn more about face-to-face communication, my faith in a balance of message and personality is constantly reinforced.

We need to achieve two goals whenever we communicate face-to-face. We need to convey our message; we need to convey our personality. Each of us achieves those two goals every day of our lives in relaxed conversation, which makes relaxed conversation our best possible communication style.

In a business presentation, this doesn’t mean you should be unprepared. You should set objectives for the outcomes you would like to achieve. You should have a structure. You should use notes to keep yourself on track and on time.

But you should always have a conversation that is as interactive, two-way and receiver-driven as you can make it. Be sincere and honest. Minimize your PowerPoint (if you use it at all). Encourage and answer questions throughout your presentations, especially with smaller groups of up to 50 participants.

Focus less on your “performance” and more on helping the audience understand, and your effectiveness will increase accordingly.

Enjoy the video!

Body Language: You can cross your arms!

A few years ago, I conducted media training for an organization that was potentially facing a strike. I was asked to provide one day of training for management-level employees who would manage strike sites as representatives of the organization. Prior to the start of my portion of the agenda, the company’s director of human resources spent about 45 minutes talking to the group about the logistics of managing the strike.

Later, when we discussed body language in broadcast interviews, I crossed my arms and asked if this was appropriate body language for someone delivering a presentation or being interviewed on television. Everyone said it was inappropriate; I looked closed.

I turned to the HR director and asked if she would ever stand in front of a group and present information with her arms crossed. She said she would never do that. I asked the group if she would ever do that, and they all said that she was far too professional to ever do something like that.

However, that was exactly what she did. I had been sitting at the back of the room at the time, with my video camera on a tripod, so I turned on the camera and recorded her after she crossed her arms while talking to the group. When I played back the tape, everyone was surprised that they hadn’t noticed she had committed what is often known as a body language “sin.”

The point I made to this group was that, because the HR director was communicating effectively and being herself, they did not even notice the body language. It was natural for her. Her body language was consistent with who she was and what she was saying.

Every individual is unique. Each of us has our own way of standing, talking and conveying our messages. If people express themselves with their hands when they are in conversation, they should express themselves in a similar manner when the microphone is on or the camera is rolling.

We need to “be ourselves” when engaged in a broadcast interview or presentation of any type. This is how we convey our personality, and this builds the trust that makes our message believable.

(Originally published in 2005)

Body Language: Gestures Are Essential

When seeking body language advice for presentations and television interviews (or sales calls and job interviews, for that matter), the best place to begin is with the work of psycholinguists.

Wikipedia tells us that psycholinguists study “the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use, and understand language.” It has been a recognized field for about 50 years.

In her book Hearing Gesture: How our hands help us think, psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow points out that no culture has been discovered in which people do not move their hands as they talk. In other words, if you’re reading this, there is an extremely high probability that you gesture in conversation — even if you’re not aware of it.

As Dr. Goldin-Meadow discovered, a person speaking does not even have to be sighted to use gestures. In her book, she describes an experiment in which children and teens blind from birth participated in a series of conversational tasks. All of the children used gestures. “The blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group,” she writes, “and conveyed the same information using the same range of gesture forms.”

Regardless of our culture or language, we all use gestures to help us think and communicate.

Most of us intuitively know that gestures help us communicate. “Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system,” Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. “The gestures that speakers produce along with their talk are symbolic acts that convey meaning.” This is why we get more out of face-to-face meetings than telephone conversations.

But the evidence also indicates that gestures make it easier to think. “When the act of speaking becomes difficult, speakers seem to respond by increasing their gestures,” Dr. Goldin-Meadow writes. Her hypothesis is that gesturing reduces demands on a speaker’s cognitive resources.

Attempting to reduce or eliminate gestures (i.e. being told to reduce your gestures by a psycholinguist conducting an experiment or, potentially, by a presentation or media training consultant trying to get you to convey the “right image”) adds to your cognitive burden. It makes it more difficult to think of what you’re trying to say at times when, during presentations and interviews, you don’t need the added pressure.

In other words, if you want to increase your ability to think on your feet during presentations, or in your seat during television interviews, bring your gestures with you and let them happen naturally.

Or, as Dr. Goldin-Meadow was quoted as saying on page 14 of the November 25, 2003, edition of the Chicago Sun-Times:

“At the very least, we ought to stop telling people not to move their hands when they talk.”

(Originally published in 2005)

The Mehrabian Myth

When it comes to the use of body language in presentations and broadcast interviews, most of us have seen some sort of statistic that indicates:
  • 55% of the overall message is how the person looks when delivering the message.
  • 38% of the overall message is how the person sounds when delivering the message.
  • 7% of the overall message can be attributed to the words the person uses.
If you take these numbers and explanations at face value, they seem to imply that you can watch a foreign movie without subtitles. By simply observing how two actors converse, you can listen to how the words sound, watch the actors’ gestures and get 93 percent of the message.

However, this is not the case. You will recognize emotion, but if you don’t understand what is said, you comprehend significantly less than 93 percent of what transpires between the actors.

The numbers 55, 38 and 7 first appear in a 1971 book entitled Silent Messages, written by Albert Mehrabian and based on his research at Stanford University. But the way these numbers are now commonly misused bears little resemblance to what Professor Mehrabian originally intended.

Mehrabian uses two equations (on pages 44 and 45) to describe the results of one section of his research, in a chapter titled “The Double-Edged Message”:

Total liking = 7% verbal liking + 38% vocal liking + 55% facial liking
Total feeling = 7% verbal feeling + 38% vocal feeling + 55% facial feeling
The bottom line is Professor Mehrabian’s assertion that words, voice and body language must be consistent with each other. If the receiver of information senses an inconsistency, he or she relies on more than the words spoken to get the overall message.

In other words, if you use body language to be someone other than who you are in a presentation or broadcast interview (i.e. by trying to create the right image to get as much as possible out of the 55%), the audience will sense this inconsistency and will be less likely to believe what you’re saying. As Mehrabian writes, “when actions contradict words, people rely more heavily on actions to infer another’s feelings.”

This emphasizes the importance of “be yourself” as a fundamental principle of presentations and/or broadcast interviews. You certainly want to be on your best behavior; there are certain parts of your anatomy you should not scratch or pick at when delivering a presentation or during a TV interview.

Quite frankly, if you use gestures when you’re engaged in a conversation on the telephone (and virtually all of us do), you should bring those gestures to your presentations and broadcast interviews. Let them happen naturally. They are an integral component of who you are as a human being, and therefore fundamental to the concept of “be yourself.”

Using gestures naturally is the best possible way to ensure consistency between the words spoken, how they sound when they’re spoken and how you look when they’re spoken. In that scenario, total liking and total feeling will be as close to 100 percent as possible.

And your effectiveness at influencing others will be enhanced.