Do Speakers Always Seem Authentic?

In previous blog posts, we’ve looked at how to present without notes (https://mercury-cs.co.uk/how-do-people-present-without-notes/), communicating strategy (https://mercury-cs.co.uk/strategise-and-communicate/) and how not to spoil an otherwise good presentation (https://mercury-cs.co.uk/dont-spoil-a-good-thing/).  This time, we’re having a look at what it takes to ensure authenticity, believability and credibility when presenting.

Can you think of a time when a leader of your business took to the stage to rally the troops and generate motivation for a strategy or to relay annual results and present a great outlook for the future of the business, only to be regarded by the audience as insincere and not genuine?  This is often the case, even when the presenter is well-meaning, passionate and well-informed about his or her subject.  Why does this happen?  Surely a well-rehearsed presentation can’t fail, right?

Wrong!  Rehearsal can be as much of a negative as the positive that it usually is, if one aspect of presenting is over-rehearsed.  That aspect is often known as ‘the second voice’ and it’s the body language.  It’s pretty well known that body language accounts for some two-thirds of the delivery of a message when someone’s speaking.  With this is mind, people sometimes practise their body gestures so that they flow in harmony with the words, thereby emphasising the messages and creating a more powerful delivery.  Let’s face it, if something accounts for two-thirds of the success of anything, then we’re going to try to perfect it!

That all sounds great!  So what’s the problem?  It’s this: too much rehearsal of gestures leads to their use in the actual event in a way that appears contrived.  When we consciously think about body language and the fact that it’s an important part of creating energy and adding significant meaning to the messages, we cease to appear natural.  Our gestures are made ever so slightly out of synchronisation with the words that we speak but, as the speaker, we don’t realise this.

Here’s the bad news: the audience does realise it!  Even if our words and gestures are only fractions of a second out of synchronisation, the human brain computes this as there being something not quite right.  The audience probably won’t be able to ‘put their finger on it’, but they will still conclude a lack of sincerity.  A major problem arising from this in the business world is that employees won’t be motivated and inspired to make the extraordinary efforts on behalf of their organisation that they would if they felt the presentation was authentic and sincere.

Note the word ‘felt’ just then.  If, as a presenter, we want our audience to feel the energy, passion and inspiration from our delivery, then we have to feel it, too, which means we have to be ‘in the moment’, ‘go with the flow’ and ‘be natural’.  OK, enough clichés!  The point is this: if we throw ourselves into the presentation and connect with the audience, instead of rehearsing how and when we’re going to move our hands around, then the body language will take care of itself.  It’s important to know how gestures matter in presenting – indeed, we teach precisely that as part of our training – but the body language still has to be natural.

Years of detailed scientific research has led us to understand that non-verbal conversation starts first, in the instant after an emotion or an impulse fires deep in the brain but before it’s been articulated.  Indeed, people’s natural and unstudied gestures are often indicators of what they will think and say next.  Imagine, for example, giving someone a hug.  The impulse to embrace someone you know begins before the thought that you’re glad to see them has fully formed, let alone been expressed aloud.  Another example is the way we express agreement, reinforcement or contradiction in conversation: we nod, shake our heads or roll our eyes (or a combination of these), all of which express our views more immediately than words can do, and more powerfully.  An interesting article in Harvard Business Review (November 2008, pp. 115 – 119) raises awareness of this fact, and there has been plenty of published research since then.

Gestures precede conscious thoughts and thoughts precede words.  This means that natural presentations, that aren’t over-rehearsed and choreographed, will involve body gestures that occur microseconds before the related words are spoken.

So what?  How does all this help us with presentations?  Like this: instead of focusing on being the world’s best presenter or on following a script with a pre-ordained order of gestures, we need to focus on connecting with the audience and on being open with them, plus on listening to them.  Of course, being passionate about our subject remains a requirement, as always.

At Mercury we know, from the world of coaching, that connecting with people, being open with them and listening actively to them are all essential requirements of a positive, constructive and healthy working relationship.  One of our first steps in coaching is to connect our clients with the visions and emotions related to the goals they’re aiming to achieve.  This makes a hugely positive difference to the power of the coaching.

The same happens in presentations: connect your audience with the visions of your ideas, the bigger purpose of your presentation and the reasons why you’re investing your and their time in addressing them.  Ask them for their views and opinions early on.  Make it known that you’re as interested in their experience as you hope they’ll be in yours.  This shows you’re human and that you’re seeking a natural interaction with the audience, rather than a contrived monologue.  As for being open with your audience, this is made easier if you visualise yourself speaking to someone you know well and with whom you feel completely relaxed.  Imagine what that state feels like in everyday life and recognise that this is how you’ll feel when you’re open, comfortable and connected with your audience.

There are many ways in which presentation skills development can take a leaf from the fascinating world of performance coaching and in which the two are linked.  If you want to know more about this, or about any of the topics on which we blog, contact us with your questions and if you’d like to share your ideas and experiences.

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