Have a Conversation
Don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.
—AMY CUDDY, PROFESSOR, HARVARD BUSINESS SCHOOL
IT TAKES PRACTICE TO APPEAR natural—just ask Amanda Palmer, who stole the show at TED 2013. Palmer’s presentation, “The Art of Asking,” received more than one million views within days of being posted on TED.com. The week after her presentation Palmer wrote a lengthy post on her blog, thanking the many people who had helped her to craft, rehearse, and deliver the talk of her life. It really did take a village to build a TED talk. The post also confirms that giving a presentation that truly moves people takes hard work.
Secret #3: Have a Conversation
Practice relentlessly and internalize your content so that you can deliver the presentation as comfortably as having a conversation with a close friend.
Why it works: True persuasion occurs only after you have built an emotional rapport with your listeners and have gained their trust. If your voice, gestures, and body language are incongruent with your words, your listeners will distrust your message. It’s the equivalent of having a Ferrari (a magnificent story) without knowing how to drive (delivery).
THE ART OF ASKING … AND PRACTICING
Amanda Palmer delivered the most-talked-about presentation at TED 2013. Palmer is the first to admit that her punk rock/indie/cabaret music isn’t for everyone, but regardless of whether or not you’d like her music, we can all learn something from her approach to public speaking.
Palmer is a performance artist and musician. You’d think she would be comfortable giving a short presentation. The fact that she is a performer explains why she spent countless hours over a period of four months to get it just right. “I slaved over the talk, writing and writing and re-writing and timing and re-timing and tweaking and trying to fit the perfect sets of information into 12 short minutes,”1 Palmer explained on her blog.
In Palmer’s 30-page blog post on the making of her TED presentation, she thanked 105 people for their input and credits them for her success. Palmer’s first mentor was “Science” musician Thomas Dolby, who helps TED with their music programming. “Be totally authentic,” he suggested.
Authenticity doesn’t happen naturally. That’s right: authenticity doesn’t happen naturally. How can that be? After all, if you are authentic then wouldn’t it make sense just to speak from your heart, with no practice at all? Not necessarily. An authentic presentation requires hours of work—digging deeper into your soul than you ever have, choosing the right words that best represent the way you feel about your topic, delivering those words for maximum impact, and making sure that your nonverbal communication—your gestures, facial expressions, and body language—are consistent with your message.
If you don’t practice having a conversation, you’ll be thinking about a million other things instead of being focused on your story and making an emotional connection with your listener. You’ll be thinking, “Did I build an animation on this slide? What’s the next one? Why isn’t the clicker working? What story did I plan to tell now?” Your expressions and body language will reflect your uncertainty. Have you ever studied dancing? A person is taught to count steps at first. They even talk to themselves. Only after hours and hours of practice do they look effortless. The same rule applies to a presentation. It took Palmer months of hard work to make it look easy.
After meeting with Dolby, Palmer continued her journey to presentation excellence. Here are three steps Palmer took to craft and deliver the presentation of her life.
1. Help with Planning
Palmer has maintained a popular blog for years. She literally “crowdsourced” her topic by asking readers for suggestions. Ask for help from the people who know you best—be it on a blog, Twitter, or among family, friends, or colleagues. All too often you’re simply too close to the content. You might be immersed in the details when the audience might need to see the big picture first. You might assume that the audience knows exactly what you’re talking about when they could really use a simpler explanation. Research like this is pivotal to making a connection to your audience.
2. Early Feedback
Palmer read her talk out loud, and the first people who heard it were bored. She was losing them. Her old theater director and mentor from high school gave her “brutal feedback” on the early draft. Palmer reached out to TED speaker and blogger Seth Godin, who said, “Stay vulnerable.”
Asking for and receiving early feedback was just the beginning. Dozens of friends, experts, bloggers, and speakers read the content of her presentation or brainstormed ideas on how Palmer should bring her topic to life. Palmer even approached a girl sitting alone at a bar and asked, “Can I tell you a story?”
The greatest business presentations I’ve ever seen have required hundreds of hours of work crafting the narrative and the story line behind the product or company. One 20-minute product launch at Apple consumed 250 hours total time, including the work of presentation designers, technical specialists, and marketing professionals, as well as the executives who delivered the final presentation.
PRACTICE IN FRONT OF PEOPLE, RECORD IT, AND WATCH IT BACK. Ask friends and colleagues to watch your presentation and to give open, honest feedback. Use a recording device, too. Set up a smartphone on a tripod or buy a dedicated video camera. However you choose to do it, record yourself. It doesn’t have to be professional-broadcast quality. Unless you decide to show it to someone else, nobody’s going to see it except you. You might be surprised at what you catch—vocal fillers like “ums” and “ahs”; distracting hand motions like scratching your nose or flipping your hair back; lack of eye contact, etc. Pay careful attention to the pace of your speech and ask others for their opinions. Is it too fast? Too slow? The video camera is the single best tool to improve your public speaking ability.
3. Rehearse, Rehearse, and Rehearse
On her blog Palmer posted a photograph of about two dozen people at a potluck-style dinner in someone’s living room, watching her perform the TED talk. Among the people she invited: friends, musicians, engineers, a yoga teacher, a venture capitalist, a photographer, a psychology professor. This was brilliant. Creativity thrives in diverse views.
Palmer took every opportunity to practice in front of people. A few days after the potluck, she delivered the same presentation to a group of students at a fine-arts school in Boston. The teacher had invited Palmer to speak to the class on a topic unrelated to TED. She asked the instructor if she could deliver her TED talk instead, and the teacher excitedly accepted. Palmer asked the students to turn off their cameras and gave a “still not-quite-finished talk.” Palmer refined the presentation based on the students’ input and continued to perform it for any small group she could cobble together.
Three days ahead of the talk, Palmer sketched the outline of the presentation on a long, long piece of paper and scrolled it across the floor. This was a great memory tool, allowing Palmer to “see” the flow of the entire presentation. On the plane trip to California, Palmer continued to rehearse out loud, warning the person sitting next to her that she wasn’t schizophrenic, just practicing.
Still, Palmer wasn’t finished.
Once she arrived in Long Beach she had a friend listen to her presentation over Skype. She also performed the presentation twice for the TED team, once on Skype and once onstage for the dress rehearsal.
Palmer’s talk was titled “The Art of Asking.” It could have been titled “The Art of Connecting” because that’s what Palmer did. A winning presentation like Palmer’s doesn’t happen without hours and hours of practice and a huge amount of input. “If I’d done this alone it probably would not have been a good talk. All these people made it a brilliant talk,” said Palmer.
When I work with spokespeople who want to improve their body language and delivery, I preach the importance of what I call the three Ps (Passion, Practice, Presence) so that they can learn to deliver their presentations in a genuine, conversational way. The first step requires the spokesperson to identify what she is passionate about and how it connects to her message. The next step is to practice, practice, practice. Only until these first two needs have been met will true presence come to the surface. Palmer is passionate about the topic because it’s core to her identity, she practiced for hours, and, as a result, she commanded the stage.
Steve Jobs and the 10,000-Hour Rule
It’s a well-known theory that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a particular skill—playing a piano, shooting baskets, hitting a tennis ball, etc. I strongly believe it applies to the skill of public speaking, too. A lot of people tell me they’ll never be as polished as Steve Jobs or other great business speakers because they’re simply “not good at it.” Well, neither was Steve Jobs at one point. He worked at it.
A video of Steve Jobs’s first television interview, in the mid-1970s, appeared on YouTube. It showed him in the chair before the interview began. He was visibly nervous before the interview and asked for directions to the bathroom because he thought he’d be sick. “I’m not kidding,” he said emphatically. In his early presentations, including the 1984 launch of Macintosh, Jobs was pretty stiff, holding on to the lectern and reading from prepared notes. He got better every year. In fact, every decade saw a significant improvement in his style and delivery. Jobs built a reputation for practicing relentlessly for a presentation—many, many hours over many, many weeks. Eventually Jobs was considered among the most charismatic business leaders on the world stage. What many people fail to realize is that Jobs made it look effortless because he worked at it!
Nobody is born with a PowerPoint clicker in his hands. People are generally not born with the innate ability to distill the essence of a story in a short amount of time, visualize it, bring it to life, and speak comfortably about it without a lot of practice. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I hear, “Carmine, public speaking doesn’t come naturally to me like it does to other people.” I’ve got news for you—it doesn’t come naturally to those others, either. Put in the time. Your ideas are worth the effort.
If your goal is to deliver a memorable presentation that will leave your audience in awe, then you have to practice. During your practice sessions you must pay attention to how you sound (verbal delivery) and how you look (body language). Let’s examine both components of a winning package.
HOW TO SAY IT SO PEOPLE LISTEN
The four elements of verbal delivery are: rate, volume, pitch, and pauses.
RATE: Speed at which you speak
VOLUME: Loudness or softness
PITCH: High or low inflections
PAUSES: Short pauses to punch key words
When you read printed text, it would be natural to use a highlighter to emphasize an important word or phrase. The verbal equivalent of a highlighter is to raise or lower the volume of your voice, change the speed at which you deliver the words, and/or set aside the key word or phrase with a pause before or after voicing it. Each of these four elements is important and I’ll give you examples of each one in this chapter, but if you don’t have the rate of speech right, nothing else matters.
The Ideal Pace of Public Speaking
Studies show that 150 to 160 words per minute is the ideal rate of speech for audio books. It seems to be the rate at which most listeners can comfortably hear, absorb, and recall the information.2 Having read my own text for audio books, I can tell you that the ideal pace of dictation is slightly slower than the rate of speech in normal conversation.
When I was asked to read the audio version of my book The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs, I sat in a sound production studio in Berkeley for four days, carefully reading every sentence of the book in between frequent sips of warm tea and honey. The publisher had assigned me a professional voice-over coach to help with the dictation. According to the vocal coach, my biggest problem was that I was speaking too fast.
“But I’m speaking the way I always talk in casual conversations,” I said.
“This isn’t a ‘casual conversation,’” the vocal coach said. “Audio books should be read at a slightly slower pace because people are listening to it, often in their cars. They don’t have the added sensory input of seeing your lips move and your facial expressions.”
People who make money as voice-over artists and who read books professionally say that audio books should be read at a slightly slower rate of speech than face-to-face conversation. So it stands to reason that if an audio book is read at 150 words per minute, then the ideal rate of speech for an in-person presentation would be slightly faster because of the added sensory inputs of hand gestures, eye contact, and facial expressions.
I tested this theory by examining the vocal pacing of Bryan Stevenson, the civil rights attorney you met earlier in this book. As you’ll recall, Stevenson is a speaker who has successfully argued cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. After reviewing hundreds of TED presentations as well as thousands of others presentations in my career as a journalist and communications coach, I’m convinced that Stevenson has the most comfortable pacing of any public speaker I’ve seen. He’s not reading to you; he’s having a conversation with you.
When I asked Stevenson about his speaking style, he told me that he likes to sound like he’s talking to a friend over dinner in a restaurant. If my theory was correct—that a great presenter speaks slightly faster than the ideal audio-book narration of 150 words per minute—then Stevenson should reflect it. Sure enough, in his now famous TED talk, Stevenson speaks at the slightly faster pace of 190 words a minute.
I wanted to test the theory further. If Stevenson reflects the Goldilocks zone of public presentations—not too fast and not too slow—a super-high-energy motivational speaker should speak much, much faster than Stevenson. I turned to motivational guru Tony Robbins, who gave a TED talk in 2006. In that talk Robbins spoke 240 words per minute. That’s fast. For comparison, an auctioneer speaks at 250 words per minute. That speed works very effectively for Robbins, who leaps on stage, waves his arms wildly, jumps up and down, and is there to pump up his audience. The audience expects ultra-high energy from Robbins’s delivery in both nonverbal body language and verbal pace.
If the theory holds, a person on the opposite end of Robbins on the vocal-pacing spectrum should speak much, much more slowly than even an audio book. To test the theory, I analyzed the rate of speech of Henry Kissinger, secretary of state in the Richard Nixon administration. Kissinger was brilliant, but was hardly considered a charismatic public speaker. He even mocked his own reputation when he said, “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”
Kissinger spoke very, very s-l-o-w-l-y and in a monotone that, if you weren’t glued to his every word, might lull you to sleep. In his public interviews—the most casual and conversational of his appearances—Kissinger spoke at the rate of only 90 words per minute!
If the ideal rate of speech for a face-to-face pitch or conversation is 190 words per minute then it would reasonable to assume that some of the most popular TED speakers communicate 3,400 words in 18 minutes, or very close to that number. Recall popular TED presenter Sir Ken Robinson. He delivered his talk in 3,200 words. Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor delivers about 2,700 words, not too far off (part of the reason her words fall under 3,000 is that she builds in long pauses for dramatic impact that fill in time). Finally, what about Bryan Stevenson, the man who I believe has the most naturally conversational delivery I’ve seen on the TED stage? Stevenson’s popular talk, “We Need to Talk about an Injustice,” contains 4,000 words. On closer inspection, however, I discovered that he bent the rules slightly and talked for 21 minutes. The total number of words in his first 18 minutes: 3,373.
I’m not suggesting that you start counting the number of words in your presentations. If you’d like to try it once, that’s fine. It’s more important that you pay attention to how you speak in everyday conversation and how it changes during your presentation. Most people slow down their rate of speech when they give a speech or a presentation, making their verbal delivery sound unnatural. Don’t deliver a presentation. Have a conversation instead.
SPEAK IN A CONVERSATIONAL TONE. Watch Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk. Listen to how he tells his three stories. He sounds like he’s shooting the breeze with you. It’s natural, conversational, and very authentic. When you practice your presentation, you’ll be inclined to slow the rate of your speech as you advance slides or try to remember the points you want to make. Once you’ve internalized the content, match the pace of your verbal delivery with your natural conversation style.
Lisa Kristine Punches Key Words
For two years Lisa Kristine has been visiting the far parts of the world to photograph one of the most atrocious crimes against humanity—slavery. Kristine is a photographer and she lets her photos tell the story. During her TEDx talk Kristine directed the audience’s focus to her slides, but she decorated the photographs on those slides with her vocal intensity (we’ll revisit this skill of hers again in chapter 8).
In the following section of her TEDx presentation, she slowed the pace of the delivery, enunciated every word clearly, and punched key words (accented with an underline):
“Today’s slavery is about commerce, so the goods that enslaved people produce have value, but the people producing them are disposable. Slavery exists everywhere, nearly, in the world, [pause] and yet it is illegal everywhere in the world.”3
Kristine is passionate about her topic. She talks about the moment she learned about slavery, during a conference when she met with someone working to eradicate slavery around the world. She didn’t use many gestures but closed her eyes as she said, “After we finished talking, I felt so horrible and honestly ashamed at my own lack of knowledge of this atrocity in my own lifetime, and I thought, if I don’t know, how many other people don’t know? It started burning a hole in my stomach.”
Dr. Jill Acts Out a Story
How you say something leaves as deep an impression on the listener as what you say, yet many of us neglect this all-important skill.
At TEDx Youth Indianapolis Dr. Jill brought her prop—a human brain—onstage (we’ll hear more about this unusual prop in chapter 5) to talk to an audience of teenagers and young adults about why they feel out of control during puberty and their teen years. Once they understood their “neurocircuitry,” they would be better equipped to handle the inevitable mood swings and inexplicable feelings and emotions. Dr. Jill’s presentation is one of the best science talks I’ve ever seen. If all educators made science as interesting as Dr. Jill does, I’m sure more kids would be excited about pursuing careers in science and math!
Dr. Jill opened her presentation speaking at a Goldilocks pace of 165 words per minute—not too fast and not too slow. She is an accomplished and perceptive speaker. She knows that her verbal delivery must match the content of her narrative. Speaking at the same pace for the entire presentation would surely have bored her audience, no matter how compelling the content. Her goal was to inform and entertain.
Dr. Jill reached the point in her presentation when she discussed the changes to the human brain during puberty, the time when teenagers “literally lose half their minds.” What does losing your mind sound like? What would it look like? As Dr. Jill’s gestures got more erratic and expansive, her voice grew louder and her pace of delivery picked up substantially. She was speaking at the pace of 220 words per minute when she said:
First, major physical growth spurt. When we go through a major physical growth spurt, our entire body changes. Our amygdala is on a little bit of alert—a little bit of alert. It’s very interesting, but it’s a little bit of alert. What’s going on? What’s going on? And then on top of that our hormonal systems are going to start flowing through our body and with that are going to come all kinds of mood swings and all kinds of interesting behaviors and then on top of that there’s going to be what we call a pruning back, a pruning back of fifty percent of the synaptic connections inside our brains. We literally lose half our minds!4
Great speakers act out a story. They must embody their words. While Dr. Jill rehearses her presentation, she chooses the words that best communicate her key messages and also practices the most effective way of delivering those words. Teenagers aren’t “crazy,” according to Dr. Jill. Instead, there are actual biological reasons for their spontaneous and aggressive behavior. Dr. Jill’s advice to teens and parents: Survive until you’re 25, when your adult brain is formed. It’s an important message and she hopes that millions of teenagers and students will view her presentation now online at YouTube (“The Neuroanatomical Transformation of the Teenage Brain”). Dr. Jill knows that she cannot reach the people who need to hear the message if she delivers it poorly.
Dr. Jill’s presentations seem natural, authentic, animated, and conversational. Conversational delivery takes practice. She rehearsed her presentation not once, twice, or even 20 times. She rehearsed it 200 times! Here’s how Dr. Jill created her popular presentation.
Dr. Jill’s Indianapolis presentation was conceived in Cancun. She was in a creative state of mind as she walked the beach with a notepad. She wrote down everything that came to mind, free-flowing words and ideas, and read what she had written out loud to feel how the words and sounds worked together. She didn’t edit. She simply wrote down everything that she thought her audience (teens and parents) needed to know about the subject.
When Dr. Jill arrived back at the hotel room, she typed out the notes she had written in longhand. Back home after her vacation, she had 25 single-spaced pages. Her next step involved condensing the material into five major points (key messages). Dr. Jill’s final step was to figure out how to deliver the key messages to be visual, interesting, and entertaining. We’ll talk about the visual display of information in chapter 8, but notice that Dr. Jill weighs the entertainment component of her presentation as equally as she does the others.
The problem with most technical or scientific discussions is that the presenters fail to make their content visual, interesting, and entertaining. The people who do all three stand out, get noticed, and inspire positive changes in behavior. Now think about the last component—entertainment. Entertainers use their voices, facial expressions, gestures, and bodies to make us feel emotions. A great presentation is no different.
DEBUNKING BODY LANGUAGE MYTHS
Vocal delivery and nonverbal communication both matter—and they matter a lot. But how much, exactly, do they matter? One urban myth that has been accepted as gospel by body-language “experts” is that 7 percent of a person’s message is conveyed through words and 93 percent is conveyed nonverbally (38 percent vocal tone; 55 percent body language). Perhaps you’ve heard this statistic before. If you have, disregard it. It’s wrong.
Several years ago I spoke to the UCLA professor behind the statistics, Albert Mehrabian. Mehrabian, now retired, conducted very limited studies in the 1960s in the area of interpersonal communication. He simply found that when people expressed a message of emotional content, that message could be misconstrued if the speaker’s tone and body language were not congruent or consistent with the message. It certainly makes sense, but Mehrabian says the data have been completely taken out of context. In fact he “cringes” every time he hears the grossly misleading statistic.
That said, I’m quite confident that vocal delivery and body language do make up a majority of a message’s impact. I don’t use Mehrabian’s research to back my statement because, as he said, it doesn’t apply. Instead, I’ll cite more thorough and proven research from the area of behavior analysis—the same data professional interrogators use to determine whether one is lying or telling the truth.
Telling the Truth about Lying
Morgan Wright is an 18-year veteran of law enforcement. He has trained CIA, FBI, and NSA agents in behavior analysis, interviewing, and interrogation techniques.
“Body language makes a world of difference. It helps identify the difference between deception and truthfulness,”5 Wright told me. According to Wright, the NSA (National Security Agency) conducted a study using 300 criminal cases whose outcomes were known. In one experiment, interviewers were asked to identify whether the suspect was telling the truth only by listening to the audio recording of the interrogation. In the second group, interviewers saw the video of the suspect being questioned but could not hear the audio. The third group saw and heard the interview. The fourth group had access to the video, audio, and case file.
The group that had access only to the audio portion of the interview had a 55 percent success rate. That means verbal behavior (what the suspect said and the tone in which he delivered the information) was only 55 percent accurate in determining whether a suspect was lying or telling the truth. The group who couldn’t hear the audio and had only the suspect’s body language on video did better—they were accurate 65 percent of the time. Those who had the advantage of hearing and seeing the suspect had an 85 percent success rate, while those who had the background (case file) along with the video and audio correctly assessed truthful versus deceptive behavior in 93 percent of the cases, which is more accurate than a polygraph test.
“When I watch someone give a presentation, I evaluate them the same way as I did during interrogations,” Wright said. “When you’re delivering information that you don’t believe in or are lying about, you manifest the same behaviors as suspects in criminal or espionage cases who are lying to officers or agents.”
Wright’s advice: believe in what you’re saying (chapter 1). “If you don’t believe what you’re saying, your movements will be awkward and not natural. No amount of training—unless you’re a trained espionage agent or psychopath—will allow you to break that incongruence between your words and actions. If you don’t believe in the message, you cannot force your body to act as though you believe in the message.”
According to Wright, truthful and confident people have command presence. They have the look of authority, and “the look” begins with what people wear and how they carry themselves. The FBI conducted a study on prisoners who had shot or attacked police officers. Before deciding to “engage,” the prisoners evaluated how easy it would be to take down the officers by the way they were dressed (sloppy or sharp) and how the officers carried themselves (slouching or straight). “As an officer you can invite trouble if you slouch, avoid eye contact, use vague, imprecise language, and are generally sloppy in your attire.”
Of course, there’s a big difference between delivering a presentation and approaching a suspect. In the latter, poor vocal tone and body language could get you killed. But it reinforces the point that people are making judgments about you all the time— based largely on the way you walk, talk, and look.
Great Leaders Have an Air of Confidence
In a group presentation, the person with the best “command presence” is usually the leader. He or she understands the material best, shows it, and has the confidence to take charge. They are typically dressed a little better than everyone else. Their shoes are polished and their clothes pressed. They make stronger eye contact and have a firm handshake. They speak concisely and precisely. They don’t get flustered. They remain calm. They use “open” gestures, palms up or open and hands apart. Their voices project because they’re speaking from their diaphragms. They walk, talk, and look like inspiring leaders.
Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet Commander Matt Eversmann, who teaches leadership at Johns Hopkins University. He led troops into battle in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993. The battle was turned into a book and movie of the same name, Black Hawk Down. One thing that struck me immediately was that Eversmann had presence, loads of it.
“What role does body language play in the development of a leader?” I asked him.
“Great leaders have an air of confidence,” he replied. “Subordinates need to look up to somebody who is still standing strong, like an oak, regardless of events around them. You need to convey a feeling that you will always be in control despite the circumstances, even if you don’t have an immediate solution … someone who doesn’t lose focus, doesn’t cower, doesn’t waffle. The air of confidence must come out.”
Do you have that air of confidence on the corporate battlefield? Great communicators do. A leader who fails to instill confidence among his subordinates—during hundreds of everyday actions—will lose the loyalty of his “troops” when it really counts.
You might never see a TED stage, but you’re selling yourself all the time. If you’re an entrepreneur pitching investors or a software vendor pitching yourself in a trade-show booth, you’re giving a presentation. If you’re a job candidate pitching yourself to a recruiter or a CEO pitching a new product to customers, you’re giving a presentation. A TED talk can be the presentation a lifetime for many people, but your daily business presentations are often just as important for your career or company. Successful TED presenters have strong body language and so should you.
TALK, WALK, AND LOOK LIKE A LEADER
Colin Powell is a very thoughtful leader. His thinking process is rigorous and structured, much like his background as an army general and U.S. secretary of state from 2001 to 2005. When Powell is on television sitting across the desk from an interviewer, he usually starts with his hands folded in front of him on the desk. He doesn’t stay that way for long. Within seconds, he is using gestures that complement his message. Researchers have found that rigorous thinkers cannot easily stop using gestures, even when they try to keep their hands folded. Using gestures actually frees up their mental capacities, and complex thinkers use complex gestures.
Powell uses gestures frequently in television interviews and presentations. In October 2012, Powell delivered a heartfelt TED presentation on the topic of kids and why they need structure for a good start in life.
Powell began his presentation as he does his television interviews, with both hands clasped together. Again, it didn’t last long. Within 10 seconds his hands came apart and didn’t touch each other for another 17 minutes. Table 3.1 shows you an example of the natural, continuous variety of gestures he used in just a short portion of his presentation.
COLIN POWELL’S WORDS WITH CORRESPONDING GESTURES
Every child ought to have a good start in life.6
Both hands spread shoulder-length apart, palms open toward the audience
I was privileged to have that kind of good start.
Makes circular moment with right hand, palm pointing toward his chest
I was not a great student. I was a public school kid in New York City, and I didn’t do well at all. I have my entire New York City Board of Education transcript from kindergarten through college.
Arms extend farther apart past length of body, palms facing each other, using hands to highlight words kindergarten and college
I wanted it when I was writing my first book. I wanted to see if my memory was correct, and, my God, it was. (Laughter). Straight C everywhere.
Left arm relaxes by side. Right hand held up at chest level and continues gestures
And I finally bounced through high school, got into the City College of New York with a 78.3 average, which I shouldn’t have been allowed in with, and then I started out in engineering, and that only lasted six months. (Laughter)
Left hand goes up again and mirrors right hand gestures, but both hands still spread apart
And then I went into geology, “rocks for jocks.” This is easy. And then I found ROTC. I found something that I did well and something that I loved doing.
Left arm relaxes by side and right hand continues gestures, first three fingers together pointing toward his body
And I found a group of youngsters like me who felt the same way.
Right hand extends and clasps into a fist
And so my whole life then was dedicated to ROTC and the military. And I say to young kids everywhere, as you’re growing up and as this structure is being developed inside of you, always be looking for that which you do well and that which you love doing, and when you find those two things together, man, you got it. That’s what’s going on. And that’s what I found. I tell young people everywhere, it ain’t where you start in life, it’s what you do with life that determines where you end up in life.
Leans forward, raises voice and gets more intense, raises both clenched fists
And you are blessed to be living in a country that, no matter where you start, you have opportunities so long as you believe in yourself.
Points toward himself
You believe in the society and the country.
Extends right hand, chest high, palm facing outward
And you believe that you can self-improve and educate yourself as you go along.
Right hand makes circular waving motion while left hand remains clenched in fist chest high
And that’s the key to success.
Left hand held chest high in a fist; right arm extended, palm open
Table 3.1. Colin Powell’s words with corresponding gestures during his TED 2012 presentation.
Powell has command presence. He walks, talks, and looks like a leader. He also trains people—soldiers and young adults—to do the same. When Powell talks to a group of students and asks them questions, he will ask the student to walk up to the front of the class, stand at attention like a soldier—arms straight at his sides, eyes up, look straight ahead, and speak loudly. The kids have fun with it, but something inside them changes. They feel different, more confident, ready to take on a challenge. The way you carry yourself actually changes the way you feel when you’re delivering a presentation.
“I have been a professional speaker for most of my adult life. From my first day in my first unit as an army officer, I had to speak to and teach troops. Over time I learned how to reach them, how to make the subject interesting, and how to persuade them that they had an interest in learning what I was teaching. Since they bored easily, a bag of attention-grabbing techniques was essential. In 1966, I was assigned to be an instructor at the Infantry School at Fort Benning … you were taught eye contact, how not to cough, stammer, put your hands in your pocket, pick your nose, or scratch your itches. You were taught to stride across the stage, use a pointer, slides, and hand gestures, and how to raise and lower your voice to keep the students awake.”7
—Colin Powell, from his book It Worked for Me
GESTURES MAKE A STRONG ARGUMENT EVEN STRONGER
Recall Ernesto Sirolli, the passionate economic-development expert you learned about in chapter 1, who told a TEDx audience about the learning experience he had in Zambia teaching the local natives how to grow tomatoes. Table 3.2 recaps part of his presentation we addressed in chapter 1 in relation to passion, but it now shows you the gestures he used to complement his words. He’s an Italian who, like me, has no problem using his hands to make his point, and he does so in an impactful and genuine way in his presentation.
3.1: Ernesto Sirolli, speaking at TEDxEQChCh 2012. Courtesy of Neil Macbeth for TEDxEQChCh.
Sirolli’s strong case was made stronger by the gestures he used to reinforce every sentence. Sirolli’s gestures are so animated, it’s impossible to adequately describe them in text. Visit TED.com and search “Ernesto Sirolli” to see him for yourself. Every gesture helps to paint the pictures he’s creating verbally. He doesn’t even use slides. He doesn’t need to. His gestures and animation decorate his words for him. His presence is commanding and dynamic.
ERNESTO SIROLLI’S WORDS WITH CORRESPONDING GESTURES
We had these magnificent tomatoes. In Italy, a tomato would grow to this size. In Zambia, to this size.8
Starts with both hands together in the form of a small circle and expands the circle with hands apart
We could not believe it. We were telling the Zambians, “Look how easy agriculture is.” When the tomatoes were nice and ripe and red, overnight, some 200 hippos came out from the river and they ate everything. (Laughter)
Both hands extended away from the body, brought forward as Sirolli describes hippos walking into the field. Without saying a word, he continued to use facial expressions (mouth and eyes wide open) to express shock and surprise.
And we said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”
Brings both hands to his head
And the Zambians said, “Yes, that’s why we have no agriculture here.”
Nods his head
Table 3.2. Ernesto Sirolli’s words with corresponding gestures during his TEDxEQChCh 2012 presentation.
The world’s most charismatic business professionals have great body language—a commanding presence that reflects confidence, competence, and charisma. Command presence is a military term used to describe someone who presents himself or herself as a person with authority, someone who is to be respected and followed. How much would people sacrifice to follow you? Would they leave a high-paying job, good benefits, and a pension? If so, you have command presence.
If you want to make a positive impression in your next meeting, sales pitch, or job interview, pay attention to what your body is saying. Walk, talk, and look like a leader whom people want to follow.
THE GIST ON GESTURES
Are gestures necessary? The short answer is—yes. Studies have shown that complex thinkers use complex gestures and that gestures actually give the audience confidence in the speaker.
Dr. David McNeil says it’s all in the hands. The University of Chicago researcher is one of the foremost authorities in the area of hand gestures. McNeil has empirical evidence proving that gestures, thinking, and language are connected. I spoke to McNeil and I can confidently say that the most popular TED speakers reinforce his conclusion: disciplined, rigorous, intelligent, and confident speakers use hand gestures as a window to their thought processes.
Soon after I spoke to McNeil, I had the opportunity to watch Cisco CEO John Chambers in person. He’s an astonishing and charismatic presenter who works the room like a preacher, walking offstage and into the audience. He uses his voice masterfully—speeding up or slowing down the pace, raising and lowering his voice, punching key words and phrases, etc. Chambers is considered one of the most intelligent and visionary executives in high-tech and is said to have a prodigious memory. As McNeil observed, complex thinkers have complex gestures, and Chambers, being a complex thinker, uses large, expansive hand gestures to punctuate nearly every sentence.
Based on my conversation with McNeil and my experience working with global leaders on their communication skills, here are four tips you can use today to improve the way you use your hands:
Use gestures. Don’t be afraid to use your hands in the first place. The simplest fix for a stiff presentation is to pull your hands out of your pockets and use them. Don’t keep your hands bound when you present. They want to be free.
Use gestures sparingly. Now that I’ve told you to use gestures, be careful not to go overboard. Your gestures should be natural. If you try to imitate someone else, you’ll look like a Saturday Night Live caricature of a bad politician. Avoid canned gestures. Don’t think about what gestures to use. Your story will guide them.
Use gestures at key moments. Save your most expansive gestures for key moments in the presentation. Reinforce your key messages with purposeful gestures … as long as it feels genuine to your personality and style.
Keep your gestures within the power sphere. Picture your power sphere as a circle that runs from the top of your eyes, out to the tips of your outstretched hands, down to your belly button, and back up to your eyes again. Try to keep your gestures (and eye gaze) in this zone. Hands that hang below your navel lack energy and “confidence.” Using complex gestures above the waist will give the audience a sense of confidence about you as a leader, help you communicate your thoughts more effortlessly, and enhance your overall presence.
Former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm makes expansive, bold gestures, and keeps those gestures within her power sphere. Granholm pioneered clean-energy policies in her state and kicked off the TED 2013 with a talk on how states can and should use alternative energy sources. Table 3.3 shows an example of the gestures that complemented her words.
Not once did her Granholm’s hands—either one—leave the power sphere. It also didn’t hurt that she held her back straight, kept her head high, made solid eye contact, and wore solid colors that popped out from the dark background (black slacks, white blouse, green jacket). Granholm’s posture and gestures added to her authority.
JENNIFER GRANHOLM’S WORDS WITH CORRESPONDING GESTURES
I was introduced as the former Governor of Michigan, but actually I’m a scientist. All right, a political scientist. It doesn’t really count, but my laboratory was the laboratory of democracy that is Michigan, and, like any good scientist, I was experimenting with policy about what would achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.9
Leans forward, both hands apart, palms open
But there were three problems, three enigmas that I could not solve.
Right hand and elbow at a 90-degree angle holding the clicker; left hand raised with three fingers
And I want to share with you those problems, but most importantly, I think I figured out a proposal for a solution.
Leans forward, raises index finger on left hand, makes eye contact with each part of the room
Table 3.3. Jennifer Granholm’s words with corresponding gestures during her TED 2013 presentation.
Granholm’s body language is an example of a style that social scientists have found to be persuasive. It’s called “eager nonverbal.” In fact, a mismatch or incongruence between your nonverbal communication and your words can significantly detract from the effectiveness of your pitch.
3.2: Jennifer Granholm speaking at TED 2013. Courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/TED (http://duncandavidson.com).
In a groundbreaking study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Bob Fennis and Marielle Stel performed studies in urban supermarkets. They trained actors to approach shoppers and try to persuade them to buy a box of Christmas candy. They discovered that when the sales strategy was to make a product more attractive (reducing the cost, covering its benefits, etc.), the “eager nonverbal” style proved most effective. The eager nonverbal style includes three elements: very animated, broad, open movements; hand movements openly projected outward; and forward-leaning body positions.
The analysis showed that a much larger percentage of shoppers (71 percent) agreed to buy a box of candy when exposed to a sales representative who displayed an “eager nonverbal” style than one who had a more reserved style characterized by a backward-leaning position, slower and smaller body movements, and slower speech. The researchers conclude, “If your strategy is aimed primarily at increasing the perceived attractiveness of your request or offer, an eager nonverbal style is more likely to be effective.”10
Jennifer Granholm fits the theory perfectly. Everything about her posture, gestures, and body language can be classified as eager nonverbal. Her goal is to sell her ideas—her plan—to other states. Her proposal is to pitch a “clean energy jobs race to the top.” She’s selling something more important than chocolates, of course, but as Fennis and Stel discovered in their research, her body language is the best fit for her desired goal—to make her proposal more appealing and ultimately actionable.
Sit up. It will help you feel more self-confident. A 2009 study published in The European Journal of Social Psychology found that posture makes a difference in how people evaluate themselves. Volunteers who filled out a mock job application were told to either sit straight or slouch. Those who sat straight as they filled out the form reviewed themselves far more favorably than the slouchers. When you practice your presentation, stand tall. It’ll give you confidence for the real thing!
THREE EASY FIXES FOR COMMON BODY LANGUAGE PROBLEMS
Few of the leaders I work with initially think about how they talk, walk, and look until they see themselves on video. Once they do, most realize they need a lot more work to look natural and conversational. Fortunately the problems are easy to identify and fix.
Here are three common problems I see among leaders who give presentations. Correcting these issues will help you develop command presence, whether you’re interviewing for a job, pitching your idea, delivering a sales presentation, occupying the corner office, or running a small business.
Fidgeting, Tapping, and Jingling
These are annoying habits that many of us exhibit during our presentations and conversations. Fidgeting makes you look unsure, nervous, and unprepared. Mannerisms such as tapping your fingers on the table or playing with your pen serve no purpose. Recently I watched an author who had written a book on leadership discuss his project. He jingled the coins in his pocket during his entire talk. It drove me nuts, and everyone else, too. He didn’t sell many books that day, and he certainly didn’t score points for leadership.
The quick fix: Move with purpose. Use an inexpensive video camera or your smartphone to record yourself delivering the first five minutes of your presentation, then play it back. Watch yourself and write down all the mannerisms that serve no useful purpose, such as rubbing your nose, tapping your fingers, and jingling coins. Simply seeing yourself in action makes you more conscious of how you come across, making you better equipped to eliminate useless movements and gestures.
I once worked with a leading technology executive who had to inform a major investor of a product delay. The investor was Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who has a reputation as one of the toughest bosses in the business world. The tech executive and his team had the issue under control and had learned valuable lessons from the delay. However, his body language said otherwise. He fidgeted constantly as he presented—tapping his toe, touching his face, and drumming his fingers on a table next to him. His mannerisms communicated a lack of competence and control. Once he saw himself on video, he caught most of these annoying habits on his own and eliminated them. He gave a confident presentation, Ellison was happy, and the project was completely successful.
Standing Rigidly in Place
Great presenters have animated body movements; they do not stay in one spot or look motionless. Standing absolutely still makes you appear rigid, boring, and disengaged.
The quick fix: Walk, move, and work the room. Most business professionals who come to me for presentation coaching think they need to stand like statues … or behind the lectern. But movement is not only acceptable, it’s welcome. Conversations are fluid, not stiff. Some of the greatest business speakers walk among the audience instead of standing in front of them.
Here’s a simple trick: When you record your presentation, walk out of the frame once in a while. I tell clients that if they don’t leave the camera frame several times during a five-minute presentation, they’re too rigid.
Hands in Pockets
Most people keep their hands in their pockets when they’re standing in front of a group. It makes them appear uninterested or bored, uncommitted, and sometimes nervous.
The quick fix: This one’s too easy—take your hands out of your pockets! I’ve seen great business leaders who never once put both hands in their pockets during a presentation. One hand is acceptable as long as the free hand is gesturing. Remember to keep those gestures within the power sphere.
Fake It Till You Make It
Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School. Her research into body language has landed her in TIME magazine, CNN, and on the TED stage. Cuddy believes body language shapes who we are. She says that how we use our bodies—our nonverbal cues—can change people’s perceptions of us. Cuddy goes further, however, to argue that simply changing your body position affects how you feel about yourself and, by default, how others see you. Even if you don’t feel confident, act like it and your chances of success greatly improve.
We all know that our minds change our bodies. A person who is insecure will close up, bringing his hands and arms in, shrink in his seat, cast his eyes down. Cuddy believes the opposite is true as well—“our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.”11
Cuddy suggests that “power posing” increases testosterone and lowers cortisol levels in the brain, which will make you feel more confident and commanding. She says it’s a “tiny tweak” that can lead to big changes.
3.3: Amy Cuddy, speaking at TEDGlobal 2012. Courtesy of James Duncan Davidson/TED (http://duncandavidson.com).
The power pose works like this—stretch out your arms as far as they’ll go and hold that pose for two minutes. You can do it in an elevator, at a desk, or behind the stage, preferably where nobody will see you!
When Cuddy administers the test to students, she finds that “low-power people” experience a 15 percent increase in hormones that configure the brain to be more assertive, confident, and comfortable. “So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves … our bodies change our minds.”
It’s natural for people to be nervous and it’s perfectly okay. We’re social beings, and since the beginning of time it’s been important than we fit in socially. When our ancestors lived in caves, getting kicked out of a cave wasn’t exactly a desirable outcome. Our “nerves” are the result of our biological need to be accepted. But for many people nervous energy becomes stifling. Who hasn’t felt her throat closing, palms getting sweaty, and heart racing? We’ve all been there. I can’t tell you how many leaders I work with who get very nervous before public presentations—and these are people at the top of their professions, often worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The secret is not to eliminate nerves but to manage them.
Amy Cuddy offers a solution for nervous speakers—fake it till you make it. Cuddy was identified as a gifted child and her intelligence gave her an identity in her early, formative years. When she was 19 years old Cuddy was thrown from a car and sustained a head injury. She was taken out of college and told she would not be returning. “I really struggled with this, and I have to say, having your identity taken from you, your core identity, and for me it was being smart, having that taken from you, there’s nothing that leaves you feeling more powerless than that. So I felt entirely powerless.”
Cuddy worked hard, reentered college, and graduated four years later than the majority of her peers. She continued her education at Princeton thanks to an adviser who had a lot of faith in Cuddy’s ability. Cuddy didn’t believe it herself, though. She felt like an imposter. The night before her first-year talk, Cuddy called her adviser and said she was quitting the graduate program. “You are not quitting, because I took a gamble on you,” her adviser responded. “You’re going to stay, and this is what you’re going to do. You are going to fake it. You’re going to do every talk that you ever get asked to do. You’re just going to do it and do it and do it, even if you’re terrified and just paralyzed and having an out-of-body experience, until you have this moment where you say, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m doing it. Like, I have become this. I am actually doing this.’” And that’s what Cuddy did: she faked it until she believed it. “And so I want to say to you, don’t fake it till you make it. Fake it till you become it.”
How Tony Robbins Gets into a Peak Presentation State
Motivational speaker Tony Robbins has enough energy to keep 4,000 people engaged for 50 hours over four days. Featured in an Oprah Winfrey special, Robbins demonstrated his prespeaking ritual, which involves incantations, affirmations, and movement—lots and lots of movement. This makes sense since one of Robbins’s core teachings is that energized movement can change your state of mind. Robbins gets himself in the zone for about 10 minutes prior to taking the stage. He jumps up and down, spins around, pumps his fists, stands with his arms outstretched, and even bounces on a trampoline.
It’s not enough to rehearse the words. Before you’re “on,” some physical preparation will boost your energy level and make a huge impact on the way your audience perceives you. Of course it’s not necessary to go to the extreme that Robbins does—and you would look a bit foolish jumping on a trampoline before your next sales pitch—but it’s important to adopt some sort of physical pre-presentation ritual since movement and energy are so intimately connected.
YOUR STRENGTH AS A SPEAKER COMES FROM WITHIN
Professional cross-country skier Janine Shepherd was involved in an accident that ended her career. A truck hit her as she was on a training ride. Shepherd broke her neck and back in six places. She broke five ribs and suffered a severe head injury. At TED 2012 she told the audience that a broken body isn’t a broken person.
Due to the severity of her injuries, Shepherd used her body and stage props creatively to have a conversation with the audience. She placed five chairs on the stage, each chair giving her an opportunity to sit, acting as a metaphor for each chapter of her life after the accident:
First chair (part one: the accident)
Second chair (part two: ten days in the hospital)
Third chair (part three: move from intensive care to acute spinal ward)
Fourth chair (part four: “after six months it was time to go home”12). When she “remembered my friend” who was still in the acute spinal unit, she turned and talked to the chair next to her.
Fifth chair (part five: Shepherd learns to fly. She sat in chair as she said, “They lifted me into the cockpit and sat me down.”)
Shepherd stood up as she delivered the remaining few minutes, talking about her new career as an aerobatic flying instructor. “My real strength never came from my body … who I am is unchanged. The pilot light inside of me was still alive.”
Secret #3: Have a Conversation
Shepherd has a point. While she uses her body effectively to tell her story, her “strength” comes from the inside. Your delivery and gestures, mastered through hours and hours of practice, will enhance your overall message, but without passion and practice, your presence will be severely diminished. Your strength as a speaker comes from the inside.