In the 1970s, Albert Mehrabian, a communications scholar at UCLA, sparked a revolution in our understanding of presentation skills. His experiments showed that a listener's emotional response to a speaker's message had more to do with the speaker's facial expression and tone of voice than the actual words the speaker used. He expressed it as an equation: "Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking."
For the next 30-40 years, popularizers and consultants went crazy with Mehrabian’s findings, claiming they indicated that nonverbal communication carries more meaning than a speaker’s actual words. Anybody who has sat through a college lecture knows this is unlikely. Mehrabian was talking not about meaning but about feelings and attitudes. So don’t believe it when someone tells you that you say more with tone and body language than you do with words. Nevertheless, Mehrabian’s work makes it clear that your presentation skills need to incorporate tone and body language, because getting those things wrong can sabotage your message by causing a negative emotional response. In other words, your presentation is always more than what you say.
As a presenter, you have a responsibility to your message. You must use your presentation skills to present it both clearly and effectively. That means you should exercise care in your body language. You need to appear both natural and enthusiastic. The elements of a presenter’s body language are facial expression, balance, foot placement, and gestures.
- Facial expression should be engaging and friendly. The best way to achieve those qualities is to smile. A smile animates your face and makes you more interesting. It also makes an audience like you more and helps you to connect with them. So look audience members in the face and smile.
- Balance means distributing your weight equally between your feet. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands at your sides (except when you’re gesturing). No matter what your message is, this posture reinforces it by conveying directness and authenticity. Good posture projects energy; poor posture projects apathy or uncertainty. When you're upright and balanced, you look like you’re ready for anything. Upright does not mean stiff.
- Foot placement means staying in place without shifting, pacing, or tapping, all of which convey the impression of nervousness. To emphasize a thought, you can walk straight ahead, closer to the audience, but when you do, stop, deliver the thought, then return to a more neutral position.
- Gestures are from the shoulder so they involve the entire arm. They are away from the body and always performed with an open palm. Make them with one arm at a time, because when you gesture with both arms, your hands tend to follow each other, which looks like a dance movement. And use your gestures to illustrate what you are saying.
Don’t just plan on using this body language when you make your presentation. Rehearse these behaviors beforehand. Rehearsing helps you develop the muscle memory that eventually makes these behaviors feel natural. In our Executive Presentation Skills® program, we make extensive use of video so participants can view their own body language and see it improve as they learn these behaviors.
When standing in front of a group, how you stand sends a powerful message. Try standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart and pointed toward the projector or the center of the room, and your hands placed at your sides to start. This stance will allow you to turn your body from side to side without having to shift your weight or your feet. It will also help you control nervous motion. What's more, if you put your feet too close together you might appear either too stiff to your audience. On the other hand, if your feet are too far apart, you might appear aggressive.
Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about tailoring your presentation to the needs of your audience. I explained that you could give the same topic two different treatments for two different audiences. The example I used was a safe driving presentation: you would emphasize different points, and even include different information, if you were speaking to an audience of students than you would if you were speaking to a meeting of the PTA. A few months later, I discussed audience analysis and offered a system for scoring an audience's responsiveness to you and your message. Both of these posts have to do with understanding your audience, and they recommend that you do your homework: research your audience and shape your presentation to fit their needs. Presentation skills, in other words, are not simply speaking skills. Some of them are analytical skills. And some of them are neither speaking skills nor analytical skills, but interpersonal skills.
It’s these interpersonal presentation skills I want to discuss here. Don’t just try to know your audience in the abstract. Get to know them as people. Go early to your speaking engagement. Greet members of the audience individually as they arrive. Work the room.
You may learn more about your audience, and you may get ideas for tailoring the presentation even more closely to their needs than you have already done. That last bit of tailoring may be the difference between a good presentation and a great one.
The second reason that working the room is one of your most important presentation skills is that it can gather important intelligence for you. Using names and information you have gleaned by working the room helps your credibility. Imagine how much more impact you have if, instead of just talking about turnover, you can say, “Joe, you mentioned before we started that you have a problem with turnover.”
Third, working the room makes you a person in the eyes of the audience. When people know you as a person, they will be more respectful toward you and more open to whatever you have to say. This kind of respect can be particularly important for “bad news” presentations or those presentations in which the audience might be resistant or hostile. Let them know you not just for your presentation skills but for your winning personality as well.
Fourth, working the room reduces your nervousness by personalizing your audience. You would give a better presentation to a roomful of your closest friends than you would to a nameless crowd. So take the opportunity to turn your audience in a roomful of you closest friends. You may end up feeling like you’re not using presentation skills at all but simply making remarks to people you’re fond of.
Fifth, working the room gives you something to do before you step up on the platform – something besides obsessing about your presentation. You will find that your nervousness is reduced and your brain constructively occupied if you're not just sitting in a corner looking scared and talking to yourself. Nervousness can be one of presentation skills, if you learn to harness it into energy. But let’s be honest. You’ll give a better presentation if you’re not on the verge of an anxiety attack.
It's no secret that salespeople must be persistent. But some salespeople seem to forget the imaginary line separating persistence from pressure.
The customer is the one who determines the amount of pressure that crosses the line. Therefore, it's wise to remember to pay attention the following customer cues indicating you may be pushing too hard:
• You hear verbal cues like, "hold on" or "not so fast."
• There is a sudden change in their physical demeanor; they pull away from you; or they suddenly look less relaxed.
• Their voice becomes flatter and less engaged in the conversation.
If you're asking too many closed questions (a common cause of feeling pressured), the customer may go from using friendly responses to one-word answers.
Don't give up on your objective-but remember to avoid the line between persistence and pressure.
You may not have thought of intelligence gathering as one of your selling skills, but it's one you need to cultivate in order to plan your sales meetings and your approach to the customer. Fortunately, research is a lot easier today than it once was.
As a first step, you should find out everything you can about the person you’ll be meeting with. Google can help you find out if your customer has written articles, maintains a blog, participates in web forums, or gives speeches at industry events. As a sales professional, you probably excel at relationship building, so consider also applying your more traditional selling skills to off-line sources: co-workers of the customer, as well as assistants and administrative staff at the customer’s company. In the era of flat organizations, finding such people is more difficult than it once was. But if you can find someone to talk to, be up front about your need for information: “I’m meeting with her next week, and I want to prepare for the meeting.” Ask only for public information and use active listening techniques to draw out the person you interview.
Do a thorough exploration of the company’s website. Get an overall feel for what the company is about, and look for company history and profiles of the top executives. The site may also have a mission statement. A mission statement is a public relations document, and it’s usually a lousy indicator of what actually goes on in the company, but it can hint at what management hopes is going on. Other useful stuff on a company web site can include press releases, speeches by the company’s executives, and links to articles published about the company or its products. At the very least, gathering this kind of knowledge will make you look well-informed in your sales meetings, and that is one of your most effective selling skills.
The company’s annual report will give you a good idea of how the company’s management team wants it to be perceived. In addition, if it’s a public company, it is required to file 10-K reports annually. 10-Ks are a lot less colorful than your average annual report, but they include stuff you won’t find in a regular annual report, such as events that could materially affect the company’s business. Use the EDGAR database of the Securities and Exchange Commission to locate 10-Ks. You can find it at www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/webusers.htm. Your company may subscribe to other Internet sources of company information: LexisNexis, Hoover’s, The Wall Street Journal, Dun & Bradstreet, Standard & Poor’s, and so on. Look for key industry trends, company’s competitive position, strengths and weaknesses, and threats and opportunities. Your selling skills will help you determine how to turn these pieces of information into customer needs, which might be filled by your product or service.
Finally, don’t forget industry magazines and websites, general business magazines, the newspaper in the company’s “home town,” and industry associations. Once you have a decent picture of the customer, the company, and the company’s industry, you will be well on your way to understanding how to make the customer’s life better, which is, after all, the primary object of your selling skills.
If you do a Google search for "Sitting is the new smoking," you'll get over 58,000,000 hits. I think that qualifies it as an idea that’s on the public mind. And why not? Prolonged sitting is associated with a variety of health problems, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, colon cancer, orthopedic problems, osteoporosis, and blood clots. Some researchers have even found connections to depression and dementia. And it's not just that sitting is sedentary. Lately research seems to indicate that sitting is unhealthy even for fit and active people. This would seem to be bad news for those of us who train people in presentation skills. Audiences are invariably sitting, and who wants to think their presentation might be damaging the health of the people they are presenting to?
Researchers Andrew Knight and Markus Baer, in a study I found summarized at the ScienceDaily site (“Standing up gets groups more fired up for team work." ScienceDaily, 12 June 2014), have a new angle on the problem of sitting, and their work suggests it may undermine organizational health as well as individual health. But their findings may be of interest to people concerned with presentation skills. Their paper, published this year in Social Psychology and Personality Science, described an experiment they performed with participants who were asked to work in teams to record a recruitment video. They divided the teams and assigned half to work in rooms arranged with chairs around a table and half to work in rooms that had no chairs at all.
They asked participants to wear small sensors around their wrists. These sensors pass minute electrical currents through the skin to measure moisture. It turns out that when human beings get excited, sweat glands around the feet and hands release moisture. The researchers also took videos of the teams, which were then reviewed by observers. And they surveyed all participants on their teams’ degree of “idea territoriality,” which is an obstructive attitude familiar to anyone who has worked in a team.
Their most obvious finding was that the standing teams created higher quality videos. In addition, they found that standing teams had higher physiological arousal than those who sat. And the surveys showed that participants in standing teams worked with less idea territoriality. Standing teams, in other words, work more cooperatively and with less ego and more excitement about the work. And their work is better quality. What does this have to do with presentation skills?
I am going to suggest something you would not usually find in a business professional’s portfolio of presentation skills. To the extent you have any control over the configuration of the room in which you’re presenting, why not consider removing the chairs? For large group presentations, it could be problematical, since a large standing audience is less likely to be able to see you than a sitting audience. But there has to be a way to work around that. For small group presentations, this seems like a no-brainer. Getting the members of the audience on their feet may not only energize them. It might make them more receptive to your ideas.
Knight and Baer are concerned with office configurations rather than presentation skills, of course. But to the extent you want the people in your audience to be thinking and to be excited about what you’re saying, their findings might be useful.
In a blog post earlier this month, I discussed executive coaching and how to acquire the charisma that we all associate with effective leadership. At Communispond, we view leadership training as skills training. There are a handful of skills that, when performed before an audience, are perceived as charisma. As I said in that post, "On the question of whether you can be taught to have more charisma, our position is simple. If you appear to an audience (of one or one thousand) to have charisma, then you have charisma.”
I truly believe that, just as I believe that anyone can demonstrate leadership in the right situation and with the right preparation. But there’s a genuine quality of leadership that we do not try to instill in our leadership training, because doing so would be too invasive.
I am talking about character. It takes leadership with character to build an effective organization, and while I can tell you how to have (or acquire) that character, I can’t come up with lectures or exercises that will enable you to do it. The way to demonstrate character is to put yourself on the line for the good of your followers. The modern corporation does not encourage that, which is why truly effective leadership is so rare. That is why I was thinking of leadership training when I watched a TED Talk by Simon Sinek last week.
Sinek has observed leadership behavior in the military, and he compares it to what passes for leadership behavior in business. “You know, in the military,” he said, “they give medals to people who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that others may gain. In business, we give bonuses to people who are willing to sacrifice others so that we may gain. We have it backwards.” He exaggerates to make a point, but he’s on to a profound notion: all the leadership training in the world isn’t going to make an outstanding leader of someone who won’t willing sacrifice himself or herself for the good of the followers.
Personal sacrifice builds the kind of tribal commitment that creates a truly transcendent organization. How? By creating a deep sense of trust and cooperation. According to Sinek: “Trust and cooperation are really important here. The problem with concepts of trust and cooperation is that they are feelings, they are not instructions. I can't simply say to you, ‘Trust me,’ and you will. I can't simply instruct two people to cooperate, and they will. It's not how it works. It's a feeling.” That’s why leadership training, while it can make a learner an effective – even an inspirational – communicator, won’t ordinarily produce leaders who can create trust and cooperation.
Sinek explains trust and cooperation as products of human evolution. The world in which we evolved was filled with all sorts of danger, and our species survived the dangers by banding into groups. There is nothing the group can do about external dangers. Those dangers are always there. “The only variable are the conditions inside the organization, and that’s where leadership matters, because it’s the leader that sets the tone. When a leader makes the choice to put the safety and lives of the people inside the organization first, to sacrifice their comforts and sacrifice the tangible results, so that the people remain and feel safe and feel like they belong, remarkable things happen.” If you care about leadership, his talk is worth its 12-minute investment. It will show you the character foundation on which Communispond leadership training can build truly effective leadership.
The highest of selling skills is establishing rapport with customers and prospects. Shared laughter is by far the most efficient way to do it. Real laughter causes the hormone oxytocin to be released into your system. Oxytocin, which is sometimes known as the "bonding hormone," has a lot of uses in human behavior, and research has shown that one of those uses is to promote trust and empathy. When you and your customer laugh together, you are signaling to your own brains that you’re members of the same tribe.
Your selling skills, then, should include laughing. If the customer makes a joke, laugh. If you make a joke, laugh to help the customer start laughing. But it’s important to understand this laughter has to be genuine. A paper published this year in Evolution and Human Behavior reported on the human ability to recognize fake laughter. Greg Bryant, an associate professor of communication studies at UCLA, did a study that was described last week at the Science Daily website. In his experiments, Bryant played recordings of laughter, both real and faked, and asked students to identify which was which. The students identified the fake laughter 63% of the time.
Interestingly, if Bryant sped up the recordings, the students found it more difficult to identify the fakes. He says this finding helps to explain why fake laughter is so easily recognizable. Fake laughter is characterized by shorter breaths between the “ha ha ha” sounds. Bryant says this is because real laughter and faked laughter are produced by different vocalization systems: “Genuine laughs are produced by an emotional vocal system that humans share with all primates, whereas fake laughs are produced by a speech system that is unique to humans,” he said. Your breathing is much more powerful during genuine laughter, and it’s difficult to fake that kind of breathing with your weaker speech system. If laughing is one of a portfolio of selling skills, only genuine laughing will do.
In our Socratic Selling Skills® program, we have trained thousands of sales professionals to uncover and identify the needs of their customers. You must understand the customer needs in order to fill them, because you need to fill customer needs in order to make sales. It turns out that the best way to understand customer needs is to be sincerely, authentically interested in the customer and the customer’s business. The techniques we teach in Socratic Selling Skills are based not on manipulating customers into revealing information but on establishing dialogue and strengthening relationships.
What do you do if your customer tells a joke that’s just not funny? There is a wikiHow page that provides tips on faking laughter. But what strikes me about these tips is that the best ones describe not how to fake laughter but how to bring out genuine laughter – such as the one that advises you to use funny memories, or the one that says to adopt a playful attitude. So perhaps it is less accurate to say your selling skills should include laughing than to say they should include authenticity. If you really care about your customer, I think you’ll find it easier to generate genuine laughter.
People who seek executive coaching are generally looking for advice or training on how to get charisma. The word "charisma" entered the English language around the middle of the 17th century via ecclesiastical Latin, which got it from the Greek "kharis," meaning "favor" or "grace." It originally signified a God-given talent. This is probably the reason many people today still believe that charisma is something you cannot learn, that it’s something you’re born with.
Today, charisma means a compelling presence or charm that translates into influence. In the words of the Harvard Business Review, it is “the ability to communicate a clear, visionary, and inspirational message that captivates and motivates an audience.” The word “audience” can be misleading, however. True charisma works as well on a single other person as it does on a roomful. As a leader, you have two practical tools: transactional power, which is the control of rewards and punishment, and instrumental power, which is the control of tasks. It only takes a moment’s reflection to see that these two powers can run out fairly quickly. But with the addition of charisma, you can get people to do what you need them to do because they trust you and are inspired by you. When we conduct executive coaching at Communispond, much of what we do is train people in the behaviors that others perceive as charisma.
On the question of whether you can be taught to have more charisma, our position is simple. If you appear to an audience (of one or one thousand) to have charisma, then you have charisma.
Charisma consists of two prerequisites and half a dozen behaviors. Most of those who seek executive coaching know they already have the two prerequisites: 1) expertise and 2) mastery of the material at hand. You must have expertise so the audience feels you know what you are talking about. If you’re in the healthcare business, you need to have healthcare expertise. If you’re in the insurance business, you need to have insurance expertise. And so on. Second, you need to have complete mastery of the material at hand, so you can deliver your message without stumbling or fumbling.
If you have those two prerequisites, then, your executive coaching is a simple matter of learning the six behaviors:
- hold your head up
- keep your arms comfortably open at your sides unless you’re gesturing
- gesture a lot, and do it expansively, with your whole arm
- project your voice to the back of the room
- make steady eye contact
- look sincere.
I say this is a simple matter, and it is. But simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy. Many people find the posture and gestures of charisma unnatural. Nevertheless, I believe anyone can learn these behaviors with the right training. The more you do them, the more natural they become. We have taught these behaviors to thousands of executives all over the world, and we are particularly skilled in the area of executive coaching, when we have a single subject and can tailor the training precisely.
Part I: How to Craft a Strong Subject Line
Ah, the business letter. You remember (if you’re over the half-century mark) those handwritten or typewritten thoughts on paper that arrived in an envelope… with a stamp… from the post office!
We certainly have come a long way from the days when the business man dictated his thoughts to the secretary, who furiously scribbled dictation into a steno pad and then dutifully typed the letter and mailed it.
Then we had the business memo, typed between sheets of carbon paper (later mimeographed) and distributed on the desks of the recipients.
Although those times are light years from the state of written communication today, the basic rules of the business letter and business memo apply to today’s email messages.
And oddly enough, nobody seems to be teaching young professionals the components of an effective email, despite its crucial importance in business communications. Knowing how to craft a good email – one that will get a response – can make a huge difference in your success, whether it’s getting your boss to take you seriously or convincing the board of directors to increase your budget.
Think of every email you write as a pitch. Even if you’re not literally selling anything in your email, you are selling the idea that your email is worth reading and responding to. That’s no small feat, given the large quantities of email that most professionals receive each day. You have to craft your message in such a way that your email not only does not end up in the Delete folder, but that it gets opened, read and responded to.
What determines whether your email gets opened or nixed depends upon whether you signal one the recipient’s internal alert mechanisms. When we look at our email Inbox, we look for subtle clues as to the probable value of each email message. The clues you give as to the value of your email will illicit which mechanism goes off in the recipient’s brain when they view your subject line and email preview pane.
Picture your Inbox. At the very least you can probably see the sender’s name, and subject line; as well as possibly their email address and the date sent. If the recipient can preview their emails they can read the first few lines of each one as well, so your subject line and opening sentence are critical to determining whether that rest of your email gets read at all.
Your email subject line is important to get the recipient interested enough to read your email, yet some email headers just about scream "please delete me!" or "I’m irrelevant!" Here’s how to write a subject line that gets your email opened and responded to:
- Focus on the reader. Know what will grab your reader's attention and include those words in the subject line. Think about the most important part of your email message to the reader. Including the words that convey that message in the subject will focus the reader's attention on your email. Example: Mandatory intranet training session for staffers this Friday, May 1.
- Include your requested action. If your email requests the reader take action be sure to include that in the email header. If your email is informing the reader of a meeting, party, or function include the date in the header. Example: Intranet training session for staffers Friday, May 1: RSVP by April 30.
- Present a benefit. This tells the reader “what’s in it for them”. Example: Five things you’ll learn at Friday’s intranet training session.
- Be as specific as possible. Get to the point. Think about what words or phrases really get your point across and use only those in your header. Example: Mandatory intranet training Friday May 1: important info.
Now that you’ve mastered your email subject line, in our next post we’ll talk about the all-important first paragraph.
Want to master the art of email communications? Communispond’s Writing for the Web course teaches you how. Check our website for details.