I was surprised and humbled when a blog subscriber informed me that my Think Fast. Talk Smart. presentation delivered for a Stanford GSB Alumni event reached 4 million views. I hope this video in some small way can help people feel more comfortable and confident presenting spontaneously (e.g., Q&A, toasts, feedback, etc).
If you have yet to see this video or want a refresher, here it is: Youtube Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HAnw168huqA&list=UUGwuxdEeCf0TIA2RbPOj-8g
Say bye-bye to vocal fry, filler words and other presentation challenges.Lee Price, Monster contributor You’re on. It’s your turn to speak, present or tell a group what you think. How do you respond? If you’re like most people, your heart starts to pound, your voice shrinks and you stumble over every third word. Don’t freak out. This is a common reaction for many speakers, whether they’re on stage in front of a crowd or just presenting to coworkers in a meeting. The good news is that you can overcome these pesky hang-ups once and for all. READ MORE
Say bye-bye to vocal fry, filler words and other presentation challenges.Lee Price, Monster contributor You’re on. It’s your turn to speak, present or tell a group what you think. How do you respond? If you’re like most people, your heart starts to pound, your voice shrinks and you stumble over every third word. Don’t freak out. This is a common reaction for many speakers, whether they’re on stage in front of a crowd or just presenting to coworkers in a meeting. The good news is that you can overcome these pesky hang-ups once and for all.
We asked speech experts and coaches for their tips on avoiding common public speaking roadblocks. With a little practice, you can send these three bad habits packing.
Bad habit: Relying on filler words
Why it’s a problem: People use filler words (“um,” “ah” “like,” “you know,”) when they’re uncomfortable with silence or lacking confidence, says Jeremey Donovan, author of How to Deliver a TED Talk. How to overcome it: Record yourself to understand where you’re using filler words (are they mid-sentence or between sentences?) and train yourself to simply pause instead of using the filler word. “One of the things that really helps me is knowing that other people appreciate the pauses,” says Donovan. “It’s a gift to the listener because the listener needs time to process what you’re saying.”
One technique Donovan uses: “I pause for one beat at whatever feels like a comma, and for two beats whatever feels like a period.”
Bad habit: Vocal fry
Why it’s a problem: Vocal fry is the sound you make in your throat when you run out of air as you’re speaking. Matt Abrahams, who teaches business students at Stanford how to give more effective presentations, lumps vocal fry with other “vocal graffiti” that distract our audience. How to overcome it: “Any technique that helps people relax can help vocal graffiti,” Abrahams says. “Take deep belly breaths, meditate, try tensing everything up for a few seconds and then relaxing.” Then, at the end of a sentence, “get rid of the air purposefully, and land on a down tone.”
Donovan recommends a similar exercise: Take a huge, deep breath and deliver one sentence at a time to get a sense of what it feels like to have enough air in your lungs. Next, record yourself speaking to understand what the vocal fry sounds like, and practice eliminating the vocal fry through breathing.
Bad habit: Sounding cold or aggressive
Why it’s a problem: Many speakers struggle to sound warm and friendly while still commanding authority. When people focus too much on sounding formal, assertive or smart, they can come off as cold and aggressive. “Excess formality often comes off as low-confidence,” Donovan says. “Excess formality is like showing up at a business casual workplace wearing a tuxedo.” How to overcome it: Ita Olsen, a speaking coach in Malibu, California, says that over-articulating is one of the ways people can sound excessively distant. Instead of articulating every letter, she says, the trick is using a strong intonation on the parts of the words that have the most information, and not on what she calls the “grammar glue”—the less important sounds like prefixes, conjunctions and prepositions. “Don’t try to sound smart,” she says. “Just try to reach people, get in touch and love them. That’s a way to get out of yourself, and that’s what gets people to like you.”
Abrahams says that sounding warm is also about word choice. He suggests using inclusive language (“you,” “us,” “we”). “Speak from the perspective of your audience,” he says. For example, try saying “what we learned today” versus “what I showed you today.”
Researchers from UCLA's Voice Center for Medicine and the Arts explored how the 2016 Presidential candidates vary their vocal pitch in variety of settings. Regardless of gender or political affiliation, Dr. Rosario Signorello, a postdoctoral researcher, found that these candidates varied their vocalizations in very predictable ways based on the goals they were trying to achieve. When trying to maximize persuasiveness and charisma, the candidates used a large pitch range inclusive of low and high frequencies. However, when these candidates were trying to demonstrate dominance and control, they restricted their vocal range to low and medium frequencies.
As public speakers and communicators, we all can benefit by employing different “vocal profiles” to accomplish specific speaking goals (e.g., persuasion versus instilling confidence). The question them arises…how do we develop our vocal profiles? Thankfully, technology can help. Many apps exist to assist us not only in recognizing and developing our vocal range, but also our rate and use of filler words (e.g., “um’s” and “uh’s”). Here are a list of three useful apps:
Can three simple questions change the way you process information and thereby reduce the angst we feel during and after presenting? New research from Kings College London and Oxford University by clinical psychologists Rachel White and Jennifer Wild seems to suggest they can. These researchers explore if the way people think about trauma inducing events can protect them from experiencing the often negative after effects. According to the theory these authors leverage, when processing information, people tend to fall into one or two camps: concrete or abstract. Dr. White explained the difference between these two types of processing in a press release from Oxford University as follows: “Concrete processing is focusing on how a situation is unfolding, what is being experienced and what the next steps are. It differs from abstract processing, which is concerned with analyzing why something is happening, its implications, and asking 'what if' questions with no obvious answer.” In other words, when processing something in a concrete manner, you tend to focus on “the what and how” of an event, while abstract processing focuses more on “the why.” Interestingly, you can learn how to process one way versus the other.
White and Wild’s research found that people instructed to take a concrete processing approach to watching traumatic movies experienced fewer intrusive thoughts and emotional angst after the events than those who were taught to process the stimuli in an abstract manner.
Since public speaking can be a traumatic event, I believe taking a concrete processing approach to your own presenting can help reduce the impact of the moment as well as after. So how can one adopt a concrete processing approach? White and Wild trained their participants to focus on the following aspects of the traumatic event:*
The specific and objective details of the event, such as what you can see or what you can hear
The sequence of events like what happened first, second, and third
The next steps after the event occurred
By asking yourself and answering these three questions (or questions like them) prior to speaking, you put yourself into a concrete processing mode, which should lessen the intensity of your anxiety. Additionally, these questions will help you have a present-focus, which as I have discussed in previous blogs, helps to reduce goal-based anxiety.
*Rachel White, Jennifer Wild. “Why” or “How”: The Effect of Concrete Versus Abstract Processing on Intrusive Memories Following Analogue Trauma. Behavior Therapy, 2016; 47 (3): 404 DOI: 10.1016/j.beth.2016.02.004
Giving a virtual presentation to a tech audience has special challenges, but an expert provides tips to overcome any obstacles and give an engaging and informative talk.
It’s fairly easy to tell if people aren’t paying attention during your presentation or meeting. Eyes glaze over, bodies slump in chairs and someone appears to be engrossed in a Sudoku puzzle. That’s the signal that you need to make more of an effort to engage the audience by soliciting feedback or doing anything short of juggling to get their interest.
But when you’re giving a virtual presentation, how do you know when things aren’t going well until it’s too late? How do you salvage your presentation and all your hard work when your virtual audience tuned you out 20 minutes ago?
Matt Forrest Abrahams, a lecturer on organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, teaches how to make virtual communications more effective, and he says that speaking in front of a virtual audience that is tech-savvy does have unique challenges.
“I’d say the biggest problem is that people don’t practice their (presentation) content,” he says. “By that I don’t mean checking their slides. I mean actually recording themselves to ensure the technology will work correctly, and they’re being engaging.”
Abrahams explains that when there is a virtual audience, the speaker must plan ahead and consider not just his or her role – but what he or she wants from the participants, such as support of a new app or cross-functional collaboration.
In a virtual presentation, for example, the presenter may need to prepare the audience beforehand to be engaged. This can be done by sending out a poll or contacting participants beforehand to get a handle on their concerns or interest that can be addressed during a virtual get-together.
“Remember that people in a virtual presentation are going to be sitting in front of the biggest distraction there is: the computer,” he says.
Plant ways throughout your discussion to grab their attention, such as revealing the poll results, or asking them to imagine something (“Imagine getting to collaborate with whomever you want….”), he suggests.
Abrahams says virtual presenters may not realize that it can be more difficult to solicit questions or input from virtual audience members, which is why it’s important they contact some beforehand.
“You don’t want to ambush these people, but you can contact them and say, ‘I might ask you to share your experience about….,’” he says. “By asking them to share beforehand, then this also makes them pay more attention during your presentation. You don’t have to do this with everyone who is going to attend, but it’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle – you’re asking others to contribute a piece.”
In addition, virtual presentations mean that you’ve got to pay more attention to details like your voice and gestures since your audience will find it more difficult to pick up body language and other subtle clues that underscore your message.
The next time you need to give a virtual presentation or lead a remote meeting, here are key things Abrahams says you need to think about to ensure your message has the most impact:
Speak slowly and distinctly. Again, recording yourself will pay off because you may notice that you “swallow” the ends of your sentences, making it very difficult for your remote audience to understand your words or you’re speaking too rapidly.
Watch your gestures. When giving an in-person speech, you may gesture widely, which can help hold the interest of an audience. But virtually, those gestures won’t be seen, so work to keep your gestures close to your body – and don’t gesture toward the camera because from the audience’s point of view, it “looks like a monster is coming toward you,” Abrahams says.
Cast yourself in the best light. Ensure that any lighting doesn’t cast shadows on your face. Don’t wear patterned shirts as they can look like they’re “swimming” on camera. A solid-colored shirt is more flattering than a white one, and make sure you check the background so that it’s not distracting to your audience.
Keep your head on straight. Don’t tilt your head, or look at yourself on your computer. Your eyes should look straight into the camera, and your head should be held straight. If you’re sitting in a chair, be sure not to jiggle or swivel back-and-forth.
Set the pace. Plan to change things up every eight to 10 minutes by showing a video or asking someone a question. “This keeps everyone paying attention – partly because they think they may be called upon,” he says.
Don’t dumb it down. If you’re presenting complex information, don’t talk down to your audience, but rather look for other ways to illustrate your information, such as through analogies or graphics. Or, consider starting with the end product and then saying, “How did we get here? I’m going to tell you.”
Shut down motormouths. While it’s great to have audience participation, you don’t want someone to hijack the presentation with a long-winded question or other off-topic rant. “When someone is talking a lot, just paraphrase them by saying, ‘OK, the point you’re making is….,’ which lets them know you’re listening. Then, you quickly turn to someone else and say, ‘What do you think, Sally?’” Abrahams says.
Don’t rush the ending. If you will be taking questions at the end, be sure and make that clear when you begin. Still, in a virtual presentation it can be tricky to see who has a question, which is why tools such as WebEx, GoToMeeting and join.me can come in handy. “Give people time to process what you’ve said and muster up the nerve to ask a question,” he says. “You’ve got to do what you can to mitigate their reasons for not asking a question, and technology can really help do that.” If the first question is slow in coming, a presenter can “pre-populate” by saying, “A question I’m often asked is….,” he says. “That may help the second question arrive easily.”
Key takeaways from analyzing 100,000 presentations. Students in my strategic communication class often ask how they can become more engaging, competent communicators. This question is in no way new — rhetoricians dating back to the ancient Greeks have explored this issue. However, unlike Cicero and Aristotle, we now have big data tools and machine-learning techniques to examine the core characteristics of effective communicators.
One person leveraging this technology (and one of my most popular guest lecturers) is Noah Zandan, founder and CEO of Quantified Communications, which offers one of the first analytics platforms to measure, evaluate, and improve corporate executives’ communication skills.
Zandan’s team of data scientists analyzed more than 100,000 presentations from corporate executives, politicians, and keynote speakers. They examined behaviors ranging from word choices and vocal cues to facial expressions and gesture frequency. They then used this data to rate and rank important communication variables such as persuasiveness, confidence, warmth, and clarity.
Zandan grounds his team’s work in a communication scheme created by psychologist Albert Mehrabian. They expand upon Mehrabian’s original “Three V’s” — the verbal, vocal, and visual choices that a communicator makes — by adding a fourth V: the vital elements of communication.
Here’s what his team has learned through studying the best communicators, combined with concepts I cover in class:
The actual words you use, whether spoken or written, matter. Zandan and his team found that the language used in corporate earnings calls affects up to 2.5% of stock price movement. Based on data from the most successful communicators, here are three things to keep in mind.
First, word choice should be appropriate for your audience and conform to the context (e.g., formality). Relying on jargon is likely to confuse your audience. The best approach is always to take the time to define terms and technologies that some in your audience might not know. You would also be well-served to have someone review your content specifically to confirm that your word choices are appropriate.
Second, avoid hedging language. Qualifying phrases such as “kind of” and hesitant language like “I think” can be beneficial in interpersonal communication, where they invite contribution and adjust your status relative to the person with whom you are conversing. But in contexts like presenting in public, they can reduce your credibility. You will sound more confident when you remove qualifiers and say “I feel” or “I believe.” The best way to make yourself aware of how often you use hedging language is to have a trusted colleague alert you while giving a practice presentation. Once you’re aware, you will be better able to proactively eliminate this type of language.
Finally, speak clearly and concisely. Research suggests that succinct messages are more memorable. In fact, Zandan and his team found that effective communicators’ messages tend to be more concise than those from speakers who were rated as average or below average. Many presenters speak the way they write — that is, they use complex sentences with nested clauses and phrases. This works well in writing, but when you’re presenting, it’s hard for you to speak and challenging for your audience to follow. In writing, we don’t have to worry about pauses for breath. Nor do we need to worry about the audience understanding what we have written, as a reader can always reread a confusing passage. To be more concise, start by stripping away excess wording that might sound good when read silently but that adds limited value when spoken aloud. When you’re practicing, ask others to paraphrase your points to see if their wording can help you be more succinct.
Vocal elements include volume, rate, and cadence. The keys to vocal elements are variation and fluency. Think of your voice like a wind instrument. You can make it louder, softer, faster, or slower. We are wired to pay attention to these kinds of vocal change, which is why it is so hard to listen to a monotonous speaker. In fact, even just a 10% increase in vocal variety can have a highly significant impact on your audience’s attention to and retention of your message.
Less expressive speakers should vary their volume and rate by infusing their presentations with emotive words like “excited,” “valuable,” and “challenging,” and using variations in their voice to match the meaning of these words. If you’re speaking about a big opportunity, then say “big” in a big way. With practice, you will feel more comfortable with this type of vocal variety.
Disfluencies — all those “ums” and “uhs” — might be the most difficult vocal element to address. Not all disfluencies are distracting. “Ums” and “uhs” within sentences are not perceived as frequently, nor are they as bothersome, as those that occur between thoughts and phrases. Your audience often skips over midsentence disfluencies because they are more focused on your content than your verbal delivery. But as you move from one point to another, disfluencies stand out because your audience is no longer focused on what you are saying. In essence, you are violating your audience’s expectation of a silent pause by filling it.
To address these between-thought disfluencies, be sure to end your sentences, and especially your major points, on an exhalation. By ending your phrases on a complete exhalation, you necessarily start your next thought with an inhalation. It is nearly impossible to say “um” (or anything, for that matter) while inhaling. A useful way to practice this is to read out loud and notice your breathing patterns. In addition to eliminating between-thought disfluencies, your inhalation brings a pause with it. This unfilled pause has the added benefit of varying your rate.
Visual elements refer to what you do with your body. Zandan cites studies by educational researchers that suggest approximately 83% of human learning occurs visually.Your nonverbal behaviors such as stance, gestures, and eye contact are critical not only for conveying and reinforcing your messages, but they serve as the foundation of your audience’s assessments of your confidence. This is important because your audience equates your competence with their perceptions of your confidence.
Your stance is all about being big and balanced. Stand or sit so that your hips and shoulders are square (i.e., not leaning to one side) and keep your head straight, not tilted. Presenting from a balanced position not only helps you appear more confident, but it actually helps you feel more confident, too. When you make yourself big and balanced, you release neurochemicals that blunt anxiety-producing hormones.
Gestures need to be broad and extended. When you’re gesturing, go beyond your shoulders rather than in front of your chest, which makes you look small and defensive. When you’re not gesturing, place your arms loosely at your sides or clasp your hands loosely right at your belly button level. Finally, remove any distracting items that you might futz or fiddle with, like jewelry, pens, and slide advancers.
Eye contact is all about connecting to your audience. In North American culture, audiences expect eye contact, and quickly feel ostracized when you fail to look out at them. While you need to spread your eye contact around so that you connect with your entire audience, you need not look at each member individually, especially if you are in front of a large crowd. A good strategy is to create quadrants and look in those various directions. Also, try to avoid repetitive patterns when you scan the room. Finally, as Zandan rightly advises his clients, if you are presenting remotely via video camera, imagine you’re speaking directly to people and look into the camera, not at your monitor or keyboard.
Vital elements capture a speaker’s true nature — it is what some refer to as authenticity. For authenticity, Zandan’s team has found that the top 10% of authentic speakers were considered to be 1.3 times more trustworthy and 1.3 times more persuasive than the average communicator. Authenticity is made up of the passion and warmth that people have when presenting.
Passion comes from exuding energy and enthusiasm. When you’re preparing and practicing your talk, be sure to reflect back on what excites you about your topic and how your audience will benefit. Reminding yourself of your motivation can help energize you (or reenergize you if it’s a presentation you give over and over again). Additionally, thinking about how you are helping your audience learn, grow, and achieve should ignite your spirits. This energy will manifest itself in how you relay your information. This doesn’t mean you have to be a cheerleader; you need to find a method for relaying your message that is authentic and meaningful for you.
Warmth can be thought of as operationalized empathy. It is a combination of understanding your audience’s needs and displaying that understanding through your words and actions. To be seen as warm, you should acknowledge your audience’s needs by verbally echoing them (e.g., “Like you, I once…”) and by telling stories that convey your understanding of their needs, such as the CEO who tells a story of the most difficult tech support call she had to deal with as she addresses her client services team. Further, maintain an engaged posture by leaning forward and moving toward people who ask questions.
Before your next speech, try out the Four V’s and the specific suggestions derived from big data and machine learning to see if they fit your needs. Only through reflection, practice, and openness to trying new things can you become an engaging, competent communicator. Matt Abrahams is a Stanford GSB organizational behavior lecturer, author, and communications coach.Save
Anxiety about public speaking is a near-universal feeling. And so books that focus on helping people deal with that anxiety are perennial sellers. Matt Abrahams’ Speaking up without Freaking Outis no exception, and so I was pleased when I had the chance to talk with him about the book and his approach to communications. Nick Morgan: How did you come by your interest in frightened speakers — I mean, of course, stage fright or performance anxiety? Matt Abrahams: My initial interest in presentation anxiety was very personal. When I was a high school freshman, I was told by my elderly English teacher to deliver a speech at a weekend Speech Tournament to get much needed extra credit. I crafted a 10-minute speech on karate. Following my teacher’s advice to grab my audience’s attention at the beginning, I opted to start with a big karate kick. Unfortunately, my anxiety over giving a newly crafted speech in front of a room full of my friends, parent judges, and the girl I liked caused me to forget to put on my more spacious karate pants. Unfortunately, my initial kick delivered in the first 10 second of my 10-minute speech caused my pants to rip from zipper to belt buckle. From that moment on, I realized how anxiety could adversely impact speaking effectiveness!
In college and graduate school, I was fortunate to study with experts in shyness and communication. I learned that numerous techniques existed (some of which I did research on) to help people feel less anxious when presenting. I have since made it a personal mission to help people through my coaching, teaching, and writing to bring these actionable anxiety management techniques to those wishing to become more confident and comfortable speaking in front of others. Morgan: What percentage of your students/clients/acquaintances suffers from stage fright in your estimation? Abrahams: This is an easy question. All of them! Research tells us that 85% of people feel anxious when speaking in front of others, and I fully believe that the other 15% are lying. We can always create a situation that can make confident presenters nervous. In my decades of doing this work, I have only encountered one person devoid of speaking anxiety, and he was the most boring, disengaged speaker ever. I believe anxiety is beneficial when presenting: it helps us focus and gives us energy. The trick is to manage it, so it doesn’t manage us. Morgan: Amy Cuddy has received a lot of press and TED talk views for preaching the idea of the power pose — the Wonder Woman pose — to instill confidence. Subsequent studies have undercut her initial findings, but the popularity of her prescription persists. What do you think of the Wonder Woman pose, and what would you tell your students about it? Abrahams: Research from many different fields (e.g., anthropology, biology, psychology, etc) tells us that those who stand big and balanced are perceived by others as confident and assertive. What is beginning to be questioned is the impact of those body postures on our own experience of our confidence. Cuddy’s work has shown that neuro-hormones (e.g., testosterone) are released when we stand in a big, balanced manner. Her research (and that of others) has suggested that the cascade of these hormones makes the person taking the posture feel more confident.
Like all cutting edge research, confirmatory studies need to be conducted to validate the findings. For now, the dust has yet to settle. Regardless, the guidance to stand big and balanced (feet facing forward beneath your shoulders with your arms hanging down by your sides, hips and shoulders parallel to the ground with your head straight) definitely make your audience see you as confident, so I still advise my students and clients to invoke this posture. The bottom line is that Cuddy’s Superman or Wonder Woman pose can help you be perceived as a confident speaker. Morgan: What is the single best step to take, in your view, to mitigate performance anxiety? Abrahams: It is impossible for me to pick just one technique. Allow me to suggest three:
1. Take deep belly breaths…the kind you would take if you were practicing yoga or tai chi. This type of breathing prior to presenting not only quells your autonomic nervous system’s fight or flight response, but it provides more support for your voice (i.e., nervous speakers breathe shallow from their upper chest).
2. Greet your anxiety. When you begin to feel nervous, say to yourself “This is me feeling nervous; it makes sense that I am nervous since I am doing something of significance that is important to me and others.” This permission to feel nervous and recognition that it is normal and natural allows you to stop from being swept away from your anxiety. In fact, as mindfulness research teaches us, you create space between your anxiety and the experience of it. In this space, you can take action, such as going for a walk around the block or breathing deeply.
3. Be in service of your audience. Nervous speakers feel the spotlight burn brightly on them. Everyone’s focus on you as the speaker amplifies your anxiety. If you change your focus to be in service of your audience’s needs, then that spotlight becomes shared. Putting your cognitive attention on your audience, reduces your evaluative self-focus. In other words, you feel less nervous because it is not all about you…it is about your message and its impact on the others in the room.
These are but three academically validated techniques of the 50 I write about in my book Speaking Up without Freaking Out. Not every technique will work for every person, but if you can find five or six that reliably work, then you are in a position to present confidently. Morgan: OK, tell us about the third edition of your book. What’s new, what’s still good? Abrahams: I am really excited about this third edition of Speaking Up without Freaking Out. In addition to updating the research and adding a few new techniques, this edition branches out beyond bolstering confidence. For the first time, I provide specific guidance on how to be a more connected and compelling presenter. I include techniques for engaging your audience and making your content and delivery more relevant and authentic. Additionally, I have included appendices that focus on specific speaking or speaker situations, such as maximizing persuasion and increasing clarity for non-native speakers. Anyone wishing to improve the impact of their presenting should find many useful tips and best practices in this new edition. Morgan: Tell us about Matt — your background, what you do, etc. Abrahams: Thanks for asking! After holding senior leadership roles in high tech companies where I saw the value of effective, confident communication, I returned to my passion for teaching and consulting. I am a lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business as well as co-founder of a thriving Silicon Valley based communication consulting firm called Bold Echo, LLC. I really enjoy my blend of academic and practical experience. I truly believe it makes me a better teacher and coach.
My fundamental purpose is to help people feel more comfortable and confident in telling their stories and sharing their ideas. Morgan: Thanks, Matt!
Nick Morgan is the author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact.