Author Tony Husted coach
Dr. Forrest Inslee
Effectively transferring information to an audience during a presentation can be a challenge. Looking at a presentation through the lens of a basic communication model will identify some key factors to be considered. A very basic model consists of a sender, receiver, message and noise. The presenter is the sender, the receiver is the audience, the message is verbal and non-verbal communication that is being sent and the noise is all the possible outside influences that may change how the message is perceived.
The message is sent from the presenter through the noise to the receiver. In this model the area the presenter has the most control over is the sender. There are three major areas of focus when thinking about the sender presenting information. According to major research in this area the three areas are Body Language, Voice Tonality and Words (Mehrabrian, 1971).
In his research Professor Mehrabrian found that 55% of the communication actually comes from body language of the presenter, closely followed by Voice Tonality at 38%. The most amazing finding of the study is that the actual words used only account for 7% of the actual communication that takes place.
This research does not discount the value of the actual words being conveyed but it does shine a light on the outcome of material presented. When preparing a presentation the words used should be preplanned and well thought out. However in light of Mehrabrian’s research, just as much or more time should be spent on the physical aspects of how the presentation will be given.
A good rule of thumb is to go for quality not quantity. More often than not, you will have a limited time to present your material; you will be probably be constrained by the time allotted to you or your audience’s attention span. Make sentences short, concise and to the point. Imagine that you are presenting an executive summary. Give the audience the essential details, preview the main points, tell them know what you will be covering, explain your outcomes, and make a recommendation.
One of the most powerful uses of words is telling a story. Through story telling you can explain complicated material, keep the audiences attention and One of the most easily distracted audiences in the world are children. How do you keep a child’s attention? By telling them a story you can hold a child’s attention for hours as well as convey a message in a non-confrontational manner. This can be an important skill with a high-context audience (see Receiver below).
Jesus is one of the greatest presenters in history. His use of stories as a presentation tool is still relevant today. He used parables to convey moral stories and communicate values. He used everyday stories that the audience could relate to and understand to engage his audience in thought.
The second largest amount of information the audience will receive according to Mehrabrian is from voice tonality. People pick up a wide range of information from the quality of our voice. Keep in mind your audience and use proper vocabulary and pronunciation. Don’t use complicated jargon in an attempt to sound smart, instead use terminology that the entire audience will know and understand. Be aware that you may be nervous and this may cause you to speak rapidly. Take brief pauses in your speech and monitor your speech rate. Be sure that your voice reflects the energy of the topic; a professional speaker like Tony Robbins will definitely use a different amount of verbal energy when speaking at a large motivational rally than with a smaller group of people at a fund raising event.
One of the most effective ways to improve your voice quality is to tape record yourself. Have you ever heard your own voice on a voice-mail recording and think to yourself, “that doesn’t sound like me!” When we speak and hear our own voice it resonates in our head and what we hear is not what others hear.
O’Connor and Seymour (1994) suggest listening to and modeling radio announcers. They only have the auditory realm to work with which makes them very effective with their voices. They also suggest watching presenters you like and some who you don’t like to get a model of what makes a good presentation versus what makes a poor one.
The importance of your appearance is summed up in the common saying, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” How you appear before your audience is a communication in itself. Is it what you want to communicate? Make sure that what you are wearing is comfortable and appropriate. When considering appropriate attire look at yourself from the audience’s perspective. If you were in the audience what kind of first impression would you make if the roles were reversed? It is also a good idea to get feedback from someone you trust, how do they see your hair, clothing, and watch/jewelry?
Your posture makes a fundamental assertion about yourself. An upright stance with good posture communicates ease and confidence. Imagine that someone is pulling a string that is attached to the top of your spinal column straight up, pull your shoulders slightly back and tuck your chin straight back a little. Now look at yourself in a mirror, how different does this look as compared to when you slouch? Stand comfortably on both feet equally. Swaying back and forth, rocking forward and back, shifting from one leg to the other, and going back on one hip can be very distracting.
Once in front of your audience eye contact with the group is very important. Imagine having a conversation with a person who never made eye contact. Would you trust the information that individual gave you? If the audience is large, mentally divide the room up into four to six areas. Pick one or two of the friendliest people you see in each area and make eye contact with them in turn, to get started. As you continue to speak continue rotating through the sections making direct eye contact with different individuals. Practice holding eye contact for five seconds. This practice will keep your eyes from darting around the room and making the audience feel like you are not looking at anyone in particular.
Gestures are one non-verbal way in which we communicate meaning. They can either add to or detract from our presentation. The gesture that will change your speaking presentations the most is often referred to as the nervous gesture. This is the habitual and often unconscious movements that we make when speaking in front of a group of people. It may be twisting the hair, reaching into a pocket, clicking a retractable pen or any other number of ‘ticks’. Video taping yourself and watching the tape is often the quickest way to identify a nervous habit like this. Once you have removed this habit, find the next one and remove it as well. Doing so will remove a large amount of the unintended gestures that may distract from your message.
Use the space that is given to you as a tool. If the space permits try to move around in a meaningful manner. When asking rhetorical questions or trying to gain agreement move towards the audience. Like gestures use this movement intentionally. Don’t pace back and forth across the stage but do get out from behind the lectern if possible.
James and Shepard (2001) suggest that you designate certain areas of the stage for certain kinds of activities. For example, by moving to Down Stage Left each time you answer questions, and moving Down Stage Right when are about to present new material the audience will unconsciously associate what is coming next. Over time when you move Down Stage Right the audience will automatically pick up their notebooks because new information is coming and by simply stepping away from Down Stage Left, the audience will know that you are moving on and to hold their questions.
The audience or receiver of your presentation must also be considered when giving a presentation. The most important factor is considering who the receiver is and how that might affect the way in which they receive your presentation.
Is the audience mainly male or female? Keep in mind that men are more content oriented and women are more relationally oriented. Unless the audience is completely male or completely female, be sure to address both sexes. If you are a male presenter remember to address the relational needs of the female audience members if you want them to connect with your material. If you are a female presenter and your audience is male be sure that you have hard data and that you use this information logically.
A good generalization to keep in mind is that Men focus on facts, reason and logic while women focus on feelings, senses and meaning. Women thrive on harmony and relating while men thrive on competing and achieving.
If presenting to an audience from other ethnic or cultural backgrounds do some research and find out how this may affect the information you present. North Americans and Europeans tend to be low context and linear thinking. Communication tends to be very direct with the importance placed on what is being said and not how it is being said. North Americans and Europeans are more likely to be linear thinkers and look at ideas one step at a time. They like complex tasks broken down into smaller, more manageable chunks. A possible downfall of this style of thinking is losing sight of the big picture.
In contrast Latin Americans and Asians communicate in a high context manner and are often systematic thinkers. High context cultures place emphasis on relationships, and business is often built on personal connection. Trust is an essential part of doing business and conflict is not handled head on like in low context cultures. Systematic thinking analyses individual parts to reveal their connection and emphasis is placed not on the parts but on the whole.
A good example of how different cultures interact with others differently is the French. If you have ever visited France you may have experienced this. The French have their social defenses up and let you know they are there, right after you cross the border. Asking a Parisian for directions can be daunting task because of this cultural norm. This cultural norm started with the thinking of French military strategist and Minister of War, André Maginot who sponsored the erection of an “impenetrable” fortification between France and Nazi Germany, in the late 1920’s. The Maginot defense was designed to keep the enemy as far away as possible from your strategic center with a one time, formidable defense.
Noise is anything in the environment that might influence the transfer of information from the sender to the receiver during a presentation. It can be physical or mental, and can be managed by being prepared.
Some physical noise can be limited. Ask participants to turn off cell phones and pagers. If time permits let the audience know that there will be a time at the end for asking questions, this will keep the presentation on track, since often questions lead of on a tangent.
Mental noise is often the conversation the audience is having with themselves. Members of the audience may be distracted by and number of items, such as being hungry, needing to use the restroom, thinking about a project they are working on, or any other number of internal dialogs that may pull their attention from your material. By using engaging speech, practicing good eye contact and asking rhetorical questions you can keep the audience more involved mentally in your presentation.
Noise in a presentation is common, there are bound to be distractions of some kind. To help you prepare for the unexpected, the noise that will inevitably come, vary your practice. Start at different points in the presentation (e.g. the introduction, at each major pint, and the conclusion). Varying your practice teaches you how to jump back into your presentation easily even after distractions, or interruptions. Presenters who only practice from start to finish are left hanging when a distraction or other noise gets their presentation off track.
Careful consideration of the four parts of the basic communication model: Sender, Receiver, Message and Noise, creates more effective and powerful presentations. Each area of the model can be dissected and analyzed to create a thoughtful and meaningful presentation that will have a much greater effect on the audience. There are many more aspects of each area that could be explored and developed. It is up to you to decide which areas will have the most impact for you and your presentations.
James, T., & Shepard, D. (2001). Presenting Magically: Transforming Your Stage Presence with NLP. Glasgow: Crown House Publishing Limited.
Mehrabian, A. (1971) Silent Messages: Implicit Communication of Emotions and Attitudes. Belmont, CA:
Wadsworth O’Connor, J & Seymour, J. (1994). Training with NLP: Skills for Trainers, Managers and Communicators. London: Harper Collins.