You’ve done everything you can to understand your audience, craft the conversation you wish to have, you know your story inside out and have envisioned what success looks like.
Having spent several days or perhaps even weeks preparing your presentation the time has come to unveil the considerable effort and energy you have invested in getting ready to make a real and lasting impact on your audience.
Effective communication involves both verbal and non-verbal interaction. The words we use in delivering our message are critical but how we say them is also important.
As a professional presentation skills coach I am often disturbed by the way so many presentation training companies misunderstand and misquote a very important piece of research when it comes to communication dynamics.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I have heard presentation trainers refer to a study by Professor Albert Mehrabiam where they tell delegates he said that in terms of the impact and importance of communication,
7 % is verbal
38% is vocal
55% is body language
That’s not what he said.
Professor Mehrabian’s study did not conclude that 93 % of what we communicate is non-verbal meaning that it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you look or how you say it that’s important.
What he actually concluded was that when it comes to the expression of feelings when words and non-verbal messages are in conflict, people believe the non-verbal every time.
In other words it’s all about congruence.
If there’s a mismatch between what we are saying and how we are saying it then the impact of the words we use is significantly diminished; people won’t trust what you say.
The relevance of Mehrabian’s research to presenting and public speaking is important because it reinforces the need for sincerity, belief and congruence in what the speaker presents to their audience.
Content is king – Words are very important
I recently attended a very high profile digital technology conference where some high status and well respected executives representing a global brand were presenting. They were passionate, energetic, colourful and animated to the degree that I had absolutely no doubt that they totally believed and felt what they were presenting.
The problem was the message was meaningless; it was weak, ill- considered and nothing more than an ego trip for the speakers which cost me hundreds of pounds for the privilege, or rather the misfortune of listening to.
In short, the way they said what they said was brilliant in terms of body language, vocal variety and visuals but the words were actually quite pointless.
That’s where many presenters go wrong.
In our experience that’s the common mistake that many speakers make, they focus on one aspect of presenting at the expense and detriment of the others.
It has to be about what we say, the way we say it and how we say it and inattention to either one of these will result in failure.
So for simplicities sake let’s assume we have done our homework, we have followed each of the steps suggested so far in the previous 8 episodes and we have some exceptionally rich content we wish to share. That content must contain ideas or information that will offer some tangible benefit to either the professional or personal lives of your audience. Now it’s about trust and the best way to gain trust is to get your audience to feel what you feel.
You’re very confident about the ‘verbal’ element which is all about the content and the words so now it’s time to consider how you use your voice and your body.
Using your voice
One of the greatest gifts any presenter has is their voice yet unfortunately many business presenters are either unaware of or dismissive of the power they have in the way they actually speak. We have all sat through presentations where the speaker has appeared totally detached from their message purely through the monotone and lusterless use of their voice.
With your voice you can enthuse, excite, inspire, motivate, concern, anger, assert or even depress you audience, and that’s just a fraction of the power you have. Your audience will make judgments about you personally and the ideas you’re presenting simply through the sound of your voice. They’ll judge your sincerity, passion and credibility which can have a serious effect on how they receive and act on your message.
Use it purposefully
The mindful presenter considers very carefully and consciously how they want their audience to feel during each specific element of their presentation.
Firstly, it goes without saying that the first challenge is to speak loudly enough so everyone can hear you, especially in a large audience. It may sound painfully obvious but you’d be surprised how significant an issue it is.
If you don’t vary your volume your audience will fall asleep or at least fall into a hypnotic trance. You can draw your audience’s attention even closer to you either by raising your voice or even lowering it to bring them in to emphasise a key point.
The main idea is to lower or raise your voice when you are changing an idea, theme or simply want a point to stand out. What works really well is if you raise your volume gradually as you build up towards a point.
Imagine trying to express passion for an idea when your tone is soft, monotone and somber or how about trying to show the audience you’re in control yet you speak with a desperate tone. They key is congruence whatever you want your audience to feel you have to internalize and feel it for yourself first. If you’re sharing a story don’t just tell it, re-live it.
Great speakers connect with their listeners by modulating their tone effectively, and emphasising key words.
Just like your volume and tone you have to vary your pace and change it up and down from time to time. Try speaking more slowly for emphasis and then faster to convey energy and excitement. Many presenters tell us that they consider one of their ‘bad habits’ is that they often speak too fast.
If that sounds like you then try building in a few timely and meaningful pauses into your structure. Another great tip for the speaker who thinks they speak to fast is to practice reading out loud. Take a few pages from a book and practice reading them out at different speeds and different volumes and see how it feels.
You also don’t want to speak too slowly as that could tire and even bore your audience so practise speeding up and down and find the right balance for you and your listeners.
We’ve touched on this briefly already however given its power and impact it is worthy of its own space. Not only can a well-positioned pause help to slow down it can be used to:
- Build curiosity and impact
- Give your audience time to think and absorb what you just said
- Give you time to think, breathe and stay present
The pause really is one of your best friends when it comes to speaking as it adds gravitas, helps you to create a little drama and suspense and gives more meaning to words.
Imagine listening to a piece of music where the pitch, rhythm and melody never change. You wouldn’t be listening to it for too long that’s for sure and the same goes for presenters who don’t vary their pitch. Another great way to engage and connect with your audience is by varying the highs and lows within your vocal range.
Every presenter has the range in vocal pitch to sound like a commander, motivator, facilitator, analyst or any other type of speaker they wish to be.
Record your voice
Most speakers have never actually heard their own voice.
The next time you rehearse a presentation do yourself a favour and record just the sound and then play it back to yourself and listen to it very carefully.
Could you listen to you?
How do you make you feel?
Does your volume, tone, pace and pitch work for you in a way that will help or hinder your audience to feel the way you want them to feel?
Watch out for Episode 10 of The Art and Science of Presenting where we will look at the non-verbal side of presenting.
Image: Courtesy of flickr.com
Excellent article, Maurice!
As you point out, if all the elements of vocal communication are not used correctly, the audience will never GET IT!
“We believe what we see and non-verbal trumps verbal communication.”