It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. How often have you heard that classic turn of the phrase? When it comes to public speaking and presentation, “how you say it” introduces several factors like vocal tone and body language that can have a significant impact on your message.
How significant? UCLA Psychologist Albert Mehrabian conducted several studies of nonverbal communication culminating in what’s known as the “7%-38%-55% Rule.” Mehrabian found that 7% of a message is conveyed through words, 38% through vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements. I’m all for tossing out a tired expression but when it comes to your presentation, the best chance you have for moving the needle is amplifying how you say it.
Instead of doubling your prep time by adding nonverbal communication research, there are three simple tricks that can lead you down the right path. To start, we need the help of another axiom: Fake it till you make it. Science actually backs this up too. Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy says, “our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.”
To change the outcome of your next talk, try implementing these nonverbal tricks.
Stand Up Straight
In addition to teaching communication, I occasionally consult with political candidates on their message strategy and communication including debate and forum preparation. During the last cycle, a candidate I was working with took a few moments prior to the beginning of a forum to properly adjust the boardroom chairs used for the forum. She then made a point of sitting up straight for the next 90 minutes. “You did great,” I said afterward. “While others were lower and slouched you sat tall and prepared.” She’d been nervous but her posture told a different story.
A study from the European Journal of Social Psychology found that when job applicants stood up straight instead of slouching, they rated themselves more favorably. They felt more confident by simply standing up straight. Before your next presentation, take a moment and consider your posture — your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Like my choir teacher used to say, imagine a string at the very top of your head slowly pulling your posture straight. Speaking of my choir teacher …
My high school choir teacher Mike Cooper somehow turned me from a back-row bass into a winning vocal soloist. I can’t read music but I can communicate. In teaching me how to communicate the lyrics, Coop frequently chimed, “Eyebrows up!” as I sang. He did this for a simple reason. It lightens your vocal tone and makes you sound brighter and more connected with what you’re saying.
As a teacher of communication, I frequently remind my own students to raise their eyebrows to enliven their communication (it can help you in writing difficult emails that require a positive tone as well). Eyebrows up also keeps your brow unfurrowed. This is especially useful if, like me, you have an intense listening face. Raising your eyebrows keeps your facial expression open and your vocal tone light and conversational.
Arms Out, Palms Up
What do I do with my hands?!? This is one of the most common concerns I hear from speakers and presenters. So, what’s the quick fix? For starters, forget the standard “hand pacifiers” such as hands in your pockets (yikes!), hands behind your back (the “in-cuffs” look), and, the worst of all of the bad options, hands clasped in front of you (“the fig leaf”). Jokes aside, I call these hand pacifiers because that’s what they do — they lock up your hands.
This is a high crime in nonverbal communication as your hands are powerful tools, helping you reinforce key ideas and engage your audience. So, what should you do? Find a comfortable, neutral position where you can use your hands as needed. With your hands at your sides bring your forearms up so they’re resting at waist level. From here, spread your arms slightly as though you were about to hug someone. Finally, turn your hands so your palms are facing up.
According to the Center for Body Language, this tried-and-true position communicates openness and honesty. You can also do a lot of things from here — make your hands into fists, gesture at something, flip your palms down, bring your hands together, and more. Again, this is a comfortable, neutral position that keeps your hands available to help accent your speech.
Stand up straight, eyebrows up, arms out, and palms up. Will robotically performing these gestures fix your next presentation? Of course not. But they will start your mind and body down a path that will help you become a more confident and engaging speaker.