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Platform Conduct

When you first step before a group, you are an unknown quantity for 120 seconds. The old saying, "You never get a second chance to make a first impression" is true. In two minutes, people make assessments about you that will determine whether they will listen and ultimately follow your lead. Surprising as it may seem, people pay more assessment attention to the visual and vocal cues they see and hear than your actual words. Dr. Albert Mehrabian studied face-to-face communication looking for the channels of communication delivery people heed in assessing speakers. His findings are shown in this chart.


Charismatic people are skilled in the verbal side of communication, but they're also good at nonverbal communication. Part of charisma is "presence." It's your bearing, your carriage, your poise which helps you create a bond with your audience. How do you establish "presence?" A major part of presence is emotional expressivity, which can be verbal or nonverbal. Leaders can "infect" followers, stir them to action, through facial expressions, body movements, and posture, as well as words.

Most of us enjoy being emotionally aroused because it makes us feel alive. We seek emotionally arousing entertainment and, although entertainment is a temporary "fix," we use it sometimes with the hope of making more permanent changes in our emotional outlooks. We enjoy motivational speakers because of the positive emotions they convey. Through their emotional expressiveness, they spark an emotional reaction in listeners.

As listeners, we are also affected by the subtle emotional cues given off by those who surround us. A chain reaction can occur, so that the audience becomes emotionally charged. Emotional expressivity enables speakers to arouse feelings in an audience by establishing emotional ties to the audience. We want to feel that our leader likes us, cares for us and our feelings, and is concerned for us. When we feel that a leader meets us where we are and understands our concerns, we more readily accept their reassurance and comfort. We are more willing to listen—and follow. So, how do we as meeting leaders convey this?


One of the first aspects of appearance most folks think of is clothing and its accessories, so let's look at that first. The guideline here is to contribute to the perception you want to create. If it's businesslike, bring out your suit and dress shoes. If it's less formal, note acceptable standards for casual clothes and wear those. Our current culture may consider "dressing up" an unnecessary concern. However, when you pay attention to clothing, you're saying "I care enough about your perception of me to dress appropriately." Some studies indicate that when you're dressed in your best bib and tucker, you perform better because you feel good about yourself.

A second guideline is that your clothing and accessories should not detract from your message. We've all noticed a speaker with HUGE earrings, or fluttering fabrics, or a necktie that speaks louder than the message itself. Although we're in the age of wash-and-wear clothing, we still need an iron now and then. A word about buttoning your jacket: do it. Some style analysts have said that an unbuttoned suit jacket makes you look approachable. Buttoned looks better. Convey approachability by your nonverbal behavior, not your clothing, especially if you're wearing a double-breasted jacket (one with a double row of buttons in the front). Try to look the part you want to play.

Nonverbal Behavior

What you do speaks louder that what you say. Remember the Mehrabian percentages: visual is 55 percent, verbal is 38 percent, and words are 7 percent. At this point, let's say that you have the proper dress angle figured out. Now what? What else goes into the visual picture you are trying to create?

Good posture conveys presence. Straight shoulders and back look like you mean business, but don't go overboard here. Standing "at attention" while speaking may not work well either. Strike a balance. Try to move confidently and purposefully. If you've planned your meeting well, you should know exactly what you need to do prior to the meeting and what your goals are during the meeting, so this lends credence to your movements. Don't stand in one place; walk out into your audience occasionally. If you wish to plan this, make one point standing in one spot, the second in another, and the third in another. If you're using overheads and need to stay near the projector, leave one on for a while, step out in front of the projector, and deliver your supporting material from there. Don't pace or sway from side to side just to create movement. People get dizzy if you pace back and forth during meetings.

The final set of appearance indicators center on your head, face, and eyes. Of these, most important are your eyes. Obviously, if your head is buried in your notes, eye contact with the audience is limited, so practice enough that you can do major parts of your talk without notes. Use note cards preferably. If you must use sheets of paper, glance at them only briefly and maintain eye contact. Don't look at the ceiling or the floor or above the heads of the crowd or just at the people who nod their heads and smile at you. Look at one person in the audience for about five seconds or until you've finished the phrase or sentence or thought, and move on to another person, maybe across the room. Then choose someone else. (Saying their names while you're doing this is especially riveting.) You're creating a series of one-on-one conversations in doing this, which makes people feel you understand them and have their best interests at heart.

Keep the room lights as bright as possible so folks can see your face. You are your own best audiovisual. You are the show! Smile at the audience, act alert, attentive, and confident and your audience will respond similarly. If you hesitate or act unsure, your audience will think, "If you are not certain about this, why should we be?" Plus your uneasiness is catching; soon your audience feels restless and out of sorts. It's the expressivity thing!


Body language and voice express your feelings, attitudes, physical state, and self-image. Good vocal quality energizes people and adds meaning to your words. A clear, pleasing, expressive voice with good articulation communicates your ideas well and keeps the audience's attention. People will remember what you say and be more willing to respond to you.

What does your voice sound like to others? Tape record yourself—audio or video—and listen critically to your speech patterns, your energy level, your listenability. It's said that we acquire our voices by hearing and imitating our families in growing up. However, we're not stuck with what we inherited or learned early on. Work on improving your vocal instrument!

The first rule of the voice is to be heard. Even if you're the shy, retiring type who ducks his/her head and almost whispers responses to others, you must be heard in order to lead meetings. Some people are soft-spoken by nature; they just don't jump up and down a lot in public. Yet at sporting events or while pursuing a hobby or topic near their hearts, they have enough volume and intensity for two persons. Harness this sound production unit for meetings! This isn't a voice problem; it's a self-image problem and, maybe, a breath control problem.

Contrary to what most people think, your voice doesn't originate in your throat. It starts in your diaphragm, a dome-shaped muscle underneath your lungs and above your stomach. The diaphragm flattens out when we inhale and our lungs take in air. Sound is actually produced when we exhale. Air from our lungs comes through the trachea and causes the larynx to vibrate. The amount of resonance in our voices, that pleasant "hum" that makes some people easy to listen to, is determined by the chest, throat, and nasal passages. Sounds are determined by our jawbones, noses, tongues, and mouth parts. If we experience muscle tension in any of this network, we produce different sounds. A shrill or harsh voice, a too-low or too-high pitch, or a choppy speech pattern can be attributed to breath control problems.

You can determine the amount of diaphragmatic breathing you use by holding your hands over your stomach above the waist and panting. In speaking, we must push air from the diaphragm through the vocal cords to the nose and mouth areas. If you have an itsy-bitsy voice and people are constantly asking you to repeat what you just said, work with your breathing. Since the diaphragm is a muscle, you can exercise it and train your voice to produce more sound.

If you have a big voice to start with, be aware that steady volume wears on people, so you need to vary this quality. Have you ever worked with a person who used the same volume level all the time whether he was two feet away or across the room? Continually loud voices hurt others' ears. Projecting your voice so it reaches all of the audience is important, too. Some speakers address only the front rows of a crowd, while the people in the back steadily lose interest. Share your message with the entire group!

Voice characteristics you can work on besides volume include rate, pitch, and articulation. Rate is how quickly or slowly you speak. People can listen at a much higher rate than most people can speak. An average rate of speech is 140 words per minute. However, if you're making a technical presentation, you could slow down to 100 words per minute. Then speed up on other points, since a consistently slow rate of speech makes you sound tired or bored. Pauses create drama and emphasis.

Pitch concerns the low and the high of your sound and is one of the best qualities to improve your expressivity. Young people tend to have higher-pitched voices so we associate high pitch with immaturity. A really high-pitch sounds shrill and lacks strength. Try for a lower pitch; it is much more pleasant to hear and your voice carries farther. Use pitch changes to show a change in your message. End declarative sentences with a drop in pitch to emphasize the authority of your statement. Lift your pitch at the end of questions since this indicates uncertainty. Vary your pitch with your meaning; otherwise, you sound artificial.

Inflection is the variation of tone in your voice. We would get bored listening to one note on a piano or even three notes, for that matter. Vary your inflection and pitch to maintain listener interest. A monotone speaker or even a three-note speaker sounds flat and lifeless. A hesitant tone sounds timid and indecisive, while a harsh tone sounds aggressive. A nasal tone lacks authority. All these aspects can be improved, but you must listen to yourself and get feedback from others in order to correct them. If you are happy and enthusiastic or stressed and tired, it will show in your tone of voice. Smile in your head and it will come out through your voice.

Articulation is the distinctness of your words. Vernacular errors, such as jest for just, fer for far, orl for oil, warsh for wash, make people think you are uneducated. Better to eliminate dialect pronunciations in favor of more cultured language. An offshoot of this is not pronouncing the endings of words, such as comin' and goin' or wanna. These make you sound lazy; use your lips and tongue to create words and be sure to finish them.

A last word on voice is the use of fillers: um, ah, you know, like. Use pauses rather than fill in with meaningless words.

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