Three things to remember next time you speak in public*
*The following article of mine recently appeared in Smart Company Australia.
Recent academic research points to specific behaviours you can invoke to become a more authentic, compelling speaker.
Results from inquiries into warmth and immediacy, multi-tasking, and processing fluency lead to specific, actionable behaviours that can help you be a more confident, competent and compelling communicator.
Warmth and immediacy
Recent social psychological research builds on earlier work in the field that suggests that speaking in an immediate, warm manner improves a presenter’s credibility and increases his or her engagement.
Immediacy is a term coined in the late 1960s by psychology professor Albert Mehrabian to represent the verbal and nonverbal behaviour people express to build emotional connection.
Nervous and novice speakers tend to retreat physically and emotionally when presenting. They step back away from the audience while drawing their arms across their chests and hunching over. They hide behind a lectern. Their language is more formal, such as “one must consider”.
Contrast this to speakers who communicate in an immediate fashion by holding an open, balanced posture and using language that is conversational and inclusive, such as “you should know or we all need to…” Research has shown that leaders and presenters who communicate in an immediate way are more effective and better liked.
Building on the immediacy work started decades ago, researchers, such as popular TED presenter and Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy, have shown that warmth is also a key trait of successful presenters.
Warmth can be thought of as operationalised empathy. It is a combination of understanding your audience’s needs and displaying that understanding through your actions. Warm presenters acknowledge their audience’s needs by verbally echoing them (e.g. “Like you, I once…”). Further, they maintain an engaged posture, leaning forward and moving towards people who asked questions.
While most people think they can do many things at once without losing any accuracy and effectiveness, research by communications scholars like the late Dr Clifford Nash have shown time and time again that the human brain cannot successfully process multiple channels of information at the same time.
Nash has observed that “in general, our brain can’t do two things at once”. This is especially true if the tasks we are asking our audience to do tax the same regions of our brain. Specifically, your brain processes verbal information utilising one set of neural modules regardless of if the verbal input is written or spoken. For a presenter, this means that showing text-heavy slides while pontificating about them increases the cognitive-load (read: multi-tasking) required of the listeners.
To avoid challenging your audience in this manner, multi-tasking research suggests two better approaches:
1. You should use more visual images on your slides than words. Your brain processes pictures and images (e.g. diagrams and charts) differently than words. While there is a multi-tasking burden placed on your audience while talking to your visual aids, it is far less than that of wordy slides.
2. Pause often to allow your audience to focus their full attention on what you are showing them. This can feel very awkward to introduce a slide prior to showing it and then remain silent for a few seconds while your audience decodes it. However, this pausing can increase fidelity and retention.
Cognitive psychologists have begun to explore what makes information more readily absorbed and enjoyed – something they refer to as processing fluency. The more fluently information is processed, the more it is preferred, feels true, and is remembered.
Expectation setting and repetition play important roles in increasing this type of fluency. When subjects read summaries of stories prior to reading the complete stories, they later reported getting more out of them and liking them more than stories for which they did not read summaries.
Thus, providing your audience with a roadmap or preview of where you intend to take them will help set their expectations and increase their connection to your material.
Similarly, repeating key ideas or themes helps your audience get your message and enjoy it more.
Dr Sascha Topolinski showed that subjects who saw words contained in a punch line prior to hearing the words repeated later in a joke, found the joke funnier and made the punch lines quicker to process. So when presenting, repeat your key concepts in a variety of ways. For example, you can speak a claim as well as tell an anecdote that supports it while showing a visual image that captures it.
Taken together, academic insight into immediacy and warmth, multi-tasking, and processing fluency, can help you become a better, more engaging speaker. Try employing these scientifically supported tools to your next presentation.