leadership

Three things to remember next time you speak in public

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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.

Multi-tasking

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.

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