It’s All About The Nonverbal, Presenter

by drjim on January 26, 2009

What A Presenter Says Nonverbally Is Just As Important As His Words

What A Presenter Says Nonverbally Is Just As Important As His Words

So we stand up, walk to the front of the room, and start our presentation. All too often, we seem to think that we are the only conversation going on in the room at any given time. It turns out that we’re wrong – there’s a whole lot of nonverbal stuff going on between us and our audience. Maybe we should take a look at what we are saying…

Dr. Alex “Sandy” Pentland is a researcher who works at MIT’s Media Lab. He’s been working on trying to use technology to capture the nonverbal signals that we are giving off so that we can better understand what we are “saying”. He’s a recognized expert in this field and is the author of a new book called Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World

Dr. Pentland’s approach to answering these questions has been to invent something that he calls a “sociometer”. This is a wearable badge-like device that uses technology to constantly measure all sorts of nonverbal aspects of how people communicate.

What Dr. Pentland has discovered is valuable stuff for us presenters. One discovery that he’s made is that you can measure how interested people are in something by measuring the timing between two people who are having a conversation. If they are anticipating when the other one will pause and then jumping in right then and leaving no gaps in the conversation, then you know that they are paying a lot of attention to each other.

From a presenter’s point-of-view, since we are really having a one-way conversation with our audience, we need to create this anticipation. You need to be having a dialog with your audience and you need to be asking them a lot of questions. As they anticipate your questions and mentally prepare answers, they will become more and more engaged in what you are saying.

Dr. Pentland has also been able to measure that part of us that “mirrors” another person. When we watch someone move, the part of our brain that corresponds to that action fires up – this is called mirroring. When we mimic each other’s gestures during a conversation, this causes feelings of trust and empathy to occur.

As a presenter we can use this knowledge in two different ways. First, by moving around during our presentations we can keep our audience more mentally awake because their brains will constantly be firing trying to mirror our actions. Secondly, if when we are making a key point we take the time to physically mirror our audience (stop moving, stand straight up, hands at our sides), they will accept what we have to say more readily.

Dr. Pentland’s last area of observation has been in fluency or consistency. The best example of this these days is Tiger Wood’s golf swing – smooth and fluid. It turns out that when you are consistent in your tone or your motions, then this tells your audience that you really know what you’re doing (or at least have really practiced it!)

For a presenter, this means that we really do have practice our speeches before we give them. Every time we practice saying the words, we become just a little bit more fluid and just a bit smoother.

Finally, Dr. Pentland took some time and studied people who were presenting business cases in order to get funding. What he found is that it really didn’t matter WHAT they said, the same ones would always get funded. These were the ones who were the most excited about their plans.

The final note for us presenters is that we ALWAYS have to find a way to get excited about what we are presenting. We may not realize it, but our excitement level is a key nonverbal message that comes through loud and clear every time we present.

When you give a presentation, do you ask your audience a lot of questions in order to keep them engaged in what you are saying? Do you try to mirror your audience during your presentation? How many times do you pratice your speech before you give it? Leave me a comment and let me know what you are thinking.

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