“Communication is everything” says Tom Peters.
Do you agree with him on the form? You should on the substance. It’s true that “perception is reality” and that (perception) comes from the communication that goes along with the underlying matter. Be that an idea, a solution, a product or even yourself. Since today we are over exposed to messages the quality of communication is even more important to speak out from the average noise. Presentations are great for that because they are still scarce (compared to mass communication) and human. So what do you need for an effective presentation? Not much more than a good presenter. Well prepared I would add.
But let’s stop for a second and go back to communication, business and social interaction. They always happen between two human beings. You may have some devices in the middle, like a telephone or mail, but at the far ends you will always find people. When you sit through a sales course you are told that there’s no such thing as company sales. It is always people selling into people, or people buying from other people if you prefer it that way. It’s the natural consequence of communication happening between people.
Now presentations are a form of communication where someone is trying to send a message to a wide or small public. When this happens? When the audience gets a message out of a presentation? Always. If that messages is the desired one of the speaker, or close to it, then we have an effective presentation. Otherwise we have a waste of lot of time in most of the cases.
Speaking before a group is nowadays very common in business environments as in social ones or during the education years. From an historical perspective we have notion of it since the ancient times, just think of Corace and Tisia: they were the first supporters of the Sicilian rhetoric and around 465 BC they wrote a sort of rhetoric manual to help whoever had lost their land to Syracuse’s tyrannous Trasibulo, and wanted to claim it back through prosecution. It’s easy to think the the art of (good) public speaking dates back to the ancient times, even before writing appeared. The world changed a lot since then, the question is how different are the skills required today to effectively have an impact on an audience? Not much. In the past it was a matter of getting the listeners involved, interested, informed by delivering them a message in a way that should be comprehensible at somehow agreeable upon. With the end result of changing their way of thinking or acting (persuasion or motivation to an action). Exactly the same principles stand strong today. Things have changed though. Your average audience is nowadays much more prepared but, more than anything else, over exposed to messages (being that news, marketing, social media, or else). Second issue, definitely in business but catching up elsewhere, is the (ab)use of computer based visuals. The latter has driven some people to believe that visual aids are the communication. Nothing could be more wrong that that.
Visual aids are a tremendous tool to help (hence they are called aids, not medium) the audience to visualise and focus (visual) ideas, data and concepts. Not to replace human communication. Actually since there are so many visual stimulus around us, almost all the presentation sport above average graphic quality (not necessarily correctly design) bringing up the “visual impact bar”, it’s really the human factor that can make the difference.
As the great communication expert, former Ronald Reagan consultant, Roger Aisles puts it: “You are the message”. Who’s talking is the first building block of the message. She/he has the task to deliver it and make it effective and credible. But also because her/his effectiveness and credibility are intrinsic with the message itself.
Authority, respectability and integrity of the speaker have a tremendous impact on the given message and on audience evaluation of itself. Explicitly and implicitly, whether those listed speaker qualities are common knowledge for the public (explicitly) or are not known but his credibility relies on his delivering (implicitly). A practical example would be the general higher returns of TV sales where those are presented by a well known celebrity likeable by the broader audience.
Does that mean that being popular is the crucial factor? No, a speaker not confident, monotone, who avoids eye contact, maybe even clumsy could easily destroy the best presentation. On the other side a confident tone, an energetic and enthusiastic delivery can always wake-up the auditory making the message more credible and thus communication becomes more efficient.
No visual aid (slide) can really excite, involve the public or infuse enthusiasm though some of them seem to induce sleepiness. When I started public speaking training, more than fifteen years ago, most of us used overhead projector with hand written visual aids.
I remember a corporate presentation aimed at showing different nationalities, different traits and different ways of conducting business. Every country had a stereotype funny story. For Germany it was about a son who had never spoken a single word in his whole life. One day, at the age of ten he is sitting at the dinner table and addresses his parents quietly: “Salt please”. The astonished janitors answer back: “But if you could talk what hadn’t you spoke before?”. His seraphic reply is: “Up to now everything was fine!”. The joke is not generous towards German people and it is a good example of non-communication. Where in reality children tend to be quite effective.
When my daughter was around six months old she could not speak English or Italian. She had no visual aids or slide to project. Nonetheless she always managed to be understood. Crying is communication. There are different ones for every little one and the parents soon learn to recognise them and give them the proper meaning. And their smiles are even more powerful in triggering emotions and obtaining something or as a reward. Cry and smile share some common points. I would like here to highlight two of them: they send non-verbal messages and they can motivate audience to an action.
What is non-verbal? It means transmit meaning not through the words themselves but appealing to other senses. In presentations those tend to be vocal communication (tone, volume, rhythm, pauses) or visual (gestures, facial expressions, posture). Those two, vocal e visual, have an astonishing impact on communication. An over-quoted study from Ph.D Albert Morabian from UCLA shows that together they account for a whopping 93% on credibility in communication. Put it in a funny way, infants are missing just the 7%, the words. So what’s the good news? Since our birth we are used to communicate without strictly using written words or spoken ones, using other skills like the voice (crying being the ultimate use), facial expressions and gesticulation. Of course that doesn’t discount the benefits of languages. Thanks to them we can simplify and communicate quickly and more precisely. Going back to the infants at times it may take a full minute to realise that all they want is to be seated. And a simple “sit me” would have been way faster (if they could talk). Words are a terrific tool to exchange information between humans efficiently. If properly chosen, before the right audience, they can testify our subject knowledge and add credibility. But the rest of our body is just communicating even more. Way more then our visual aids that go along our presentation. This is why is so important to look at the communication process in all its aspects: what do we say but even more how we say it.
But infants not only are very good in non-verbal communication: they excel in creating emotions in their audiences, not only their parents. This is a massive feature of effective communication. Emotions have the capability of involving the listeners, interest and arouse them with the final benefit of motivating them to an action. Emotions are a tremendous factor in ever decision opportunity.
I have been facilitating Public Speaking Training for 15 years and at this point frequently a question comes out: “OK but how can I communicate with emotions?”. Obviously there is not a single schoolbook answer. Or a step by step guide. Nonetheless incorporating positive emotional factors in our presentations is not complicated at all. We can start with our language, our choice of words. The first step is picking tangible ideas versus abstract ones, in many cases “1 out of 3 people” resonate a lot better than 33%. Analogies can help people connect with the meaning, sport is a classical example though not the only one possible. We just need to make sure that our analogy is really something familiar for our audience (and not only for us). Next is try to stand in our audience shoes and try to understand what is really interesting for them and what could be emotional. Talking about a product or a solution is likely not to do it. But maybe what it (they) can do for them may have an emotional appeal. Bus most of all, as we have just seen, is how we deliver our message. Let’s be passionate about it. The excitement of the people we speak before will never be higher than ours. The speaker should feel the emotions to be able to put them through the audience. An energetic voice and a sensible use of pauses are perfect to involve the pubic and bring them alive with our message. The presenter excitement is brought out with the vocal modulation, posture, gestures and, very important, with the smile. The good news is those are all things we are born with. Infants are there to remind us of that. We come to world ready for an emotional communication. We just need to avoid the common pitfalls like focusing too much on visual aids or trying to come across as too professional (as in less human). Those are what separate a successful presentation from just another bunch of words and slides. Training may help but it’s mainly about focusing on the right stuff. Remember: you are the message! Use your voice, your body, your preparation and your passion to speak before a group. Raise emotions and your audience will listen to you and to your message.