Stanford Business School recently hosted a presentation by Noah Zandan, founder and CEO of Quantified Communications, which may be the first company to apply big data analytics to evaluate presentation effectiveness. They have a data bank of over 100,000 presentations delivered by business executives, politicians, and professional speakers and are doing ground-breaking work in the communications field.
Quantified Communications uses a framework developed by Albert Mehrabian, a professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, who is well known for his communication research. Professor Mehrabian found that words, tone of voice, and nonverbal behavior (like facial gestures) impact face-to-face communication. Quantified’s data scientists label these behaviors Verbal, Vocal, and Visual. They add a fourth measurement called Vitals – a measurement of authenticity determined by a presenter’s passion and warmth.
So what are the findings? Matt Abrahams captures all the details in his article “A Big Data Approach to Public Speaking”, but here are the highlights:
The words that you use – whether spoken or written – matter.
- Word choice should be appropriate for your audience and conform to the context (formality) of your communication. Stay away from jargon unless you define it up-front.
- Avoid hedging language such as ‘kind of’ and hesitant language like ‘I think’. These may be effective in your interpersonal conversation but they destroy your credibility in front of an audience.
- Speak clearly and concisely. The research suggests that succinct messages are more memorable. One trap to avoid is speaking the way you write – complex sentences may work in your written language but are confusing and wordy when spoken.
Vocal elements include volume, rate, and cadence. Use them to keep your audience engaged.
- Humans are wired to detect changes in sound and motion, so make sure you engage your listener’s senses by varying your volume and speaking cadence. Just a 10% increase in vocal variety has an impact on your audience’s attention and message retention.
- Interruptions in the smooth flow of your speech (disfluency) like umms and ahhs can also be a problem, particularly when they occur between thoughts and phrases. One trick that can help is to exhale at the end of your sentences and major points. This forces you to start your next sentence on an inhalation. When you are inhaling it’s simply not possible to utter any sound.
Visual elements are those related to your body. Non-verbal cues such as stance, gestures, and eye contact are critical for conveying and supporting your message, and are how your audience will judge your confidence. This is very important – humans equate confidence to competence in study after study.
- Your stance should be big and balanced. Stand or sit tall with squared shoulders and a straight head. This helps you feel and appear more confident.
- Gestures need to be broad and extended. When gesturing with your hands, extend to your sides versus in front of your chest. When not gesturing, place your arms loosely at your sides or clasp them loosely in front of your belly button.
- Use eye contact to connect with your audience. In North American culture we expect eye contact, and you need to spread your gaze around the room. You may find it easiest to break the room into quadrants and address different parts of the audience during your presentation. If you are presenting online, position your camera so that you can look directly at it, rather than at your monitor or keyboard.
Vital elements capture your authenticity, which is a combination of your passion and warmth. Authenticity is associated with presenters that are 1.3 times more trustworthy and 1.3 times more persuasive than your average communicator.
- Passion is determined by your energy and enthusiasm. Before delivering your presentation it can help to reflect on what you love about your topic and how your message will help your audience learn, grow, or change. This gets you excited about delivering your presentation.
- Warmth is related to empathy, which is an understanding and acknowledgement of your audience needs. You can demonstrate empathy by sharing stories that your audience will relate with and by reflecting back your understanding of their thoughts and experiences. Your body language also can convey warmth; lean forward when listening to others and walk toward those who are asking questions.
Not sure where to start? I encourage you to review a recording of one of your presentations, or even make a webcam recording and view it with these tips in mind. Through focused practice you can incorporate these elements into your presentation – whether in front of a live audience or a remote video conference – to improve your presentation effectiveness.