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There's Much More to Presenting Than the Words We Say
by Chris King

When we are preparing a presentation, we should focus on the words we plan to say – shouldn’t we? Yes, but more than 60 percent of the impact we make on our audience and our listeners doesn’t come from our words. In studies of face-to-face communication, Dr. Albert Mehrabian found that words are far less crucial to a message than most people would expect.

His findings revealed the following: 55% of impact comes from visual clues, 38% comes from sounds and tone, and only 7% comes from the verbal (result of words). More recent studies have questioned Dr. Mehrabian and indicate that words count for 35% and the non-verbal for 65% when we are communicating. I was strongly reminded of the power of the non-verbal recently when I served for three weeks on a jury. I had a great deal of time to observe and learn again the power of expressions, body movement, posture, and tone.

The eyes have it. I know that you have probably heard people say, “I see it in your eyes,” and I can’t stress enough that our eyes are definitely the windows to what we are thinking and feeling, no matter what we are saying. If we are confident, positive and truthful – or wish to give that appearance – we should establish eye contact with our listeners. Scanning a room with your eyes above the heads of audience members is almost as much of a turnoff as looking down or away from them throughout the presentation. By taking time to look into eyes, you establish a bond and the impression that you know what you are talking about. In the trial that I mentioned, each of the lawyers gained our confidence by looking directly into our eyes and the eyes of the witnesses. When we started deliberating, I was struck by the fact that we all agreed about the personalities of those involved by the way they “rolled their eyes,” “couldn’t look the lawyer in the eye,” and “looked insincere.”

Facial expressions say it all. I know that some people work hard at hiding their true feelings, but most people’s faces give them away. If we are nervous, angry, happy, or insincere it usually shows on our faces. One of my favorite professional storytellers, Donald Davis, uses his face to engage his listeners as he relates personal stories that combine humor and pathos. He doesn’t need to move around or use props – his face is so expressive. During the trial, we got to know the lawyers well through their expressions. It wasn’t the questions they were asking, it was their expressions when listening to the answers. We could easily tell when they thought a witness was lying, when a witness was dodging a question, when they had succeeded in making an excellent point, and when they were exasperated. The defendant had been well schooled in what to say and how to act, which was clearly evident by observation of his whole demeanor – his expression rather than his answers.

The cliché, “Actions speak louder than words,” works during our presentations. Yes, at the risk of sounding trite, I suggest paying attention to the way you hold yourself, your posture, and the way you move. Our bodies, whether we like it or not, portray our attitudes. If we slump or hang our head, we look depressed and ineffective. If we hold ourselves erect and with pride, we carry a sense of dignity about us. Also, if we rush around without seeming to have purpose, whether we are on the way to presenting, or just arriving at our destination, we can give the impression of being disorganized. You would be amazed how quickly others can pick up our moods and feelings just by the way we walk. And people listen more readily to the words of someone who projects a confident and controlled stature. I remember the youngest lawyer in the trial “losing it” when he became disgruntled by several “objections” in a row. He was intelligent and sharp, but tended to show his emotions without complete control. The other jurors felt he was “abrasive” because of his actions – not because of anything he said.

Our tone of voice will overrule our words every time. No matter how pleasing or positive our words are, if our tone sounds angry or negative, our listeners will relate what they hear to our tone, not our words. And, while I am speaking about tone, I want to mention the sound of your voice. Is it pleasing or is it jarring? We have all had trouble listening to someone whose voice is nasal, high-pitched, scratchy, breathy, or monotone. A way to check your vocal delivery (remember the tone and sound affect your impact) is to tape yourself, either while presenting, talking on the telephone, or just carrying on a conversation with a friend. Then, be brutally honest with yourself. Is this a voice that you would enjoy listening to?

How do you rate in the areas of expression? Have a trusted friend video tape one of your presentations. This can always prove to being a bit of a surprise, but if you are serious about becoming the most powerful presenter you can be, you will quickly find the areas that need work. And, then, you will make the kind of impact that both you and your listeners will benefit from.

Everyone will win!

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