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How a Speaker Impacts an Audience

A few years ago a famous UCLA professor, Albert Mehrabian, conducted extensive research on the communications process. The chart in Figure 2-1 is drawn from those studies.

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Figure 2-1:  The Visual Impact of Communications. Adapted from Nonverbal Communication, © 1972 Albert Mehrabian.

What this chart shows is the relative impact of three factors when you speak to a group. How you look accounts for a whopping 55 percent. How you sound, 38 percent. What you actually say only accounts for 7 percent of the total impression you’ve made.

How you look includes your clothes, your facial expression, your stance, the leaning of your body, your hands, the way you move your eyes.

How you sound depends more on volume and inflection than the quality of your voice. Again, it’s an impression.

Your words? Suppose you’re trying to motivate a group of people and you tell them that something is “a great opportunity,” but you don’t look and sound it. They believe their eyes and ears, not your words.

How You Look

Let’s examine some of the “how you look” mannerisms that can work against you when you face an audience (see Figure 2-2). Most of these are a result of trying to hold back and bottle up the adrenaline, the nervous energy that has been pumped into you to help you meet the challenge.

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Figure 2-2:  Don’t lose 55% of your impact.

Five Ways to Lose Visual Impact

Figure No. 1: Hands in pockets tries to create a casual impression. This can have the opposite effect of making you look nervous. Also, it adds no plus value to your talk. And who said casual was a good way to look in front of an audience? You are much better off looking committed to what you are saying.

Figure No. 2: Guaranteed, if your hands twitch, opening and closing, everyone will notice. Don’t forget, their eyes are scanning for news, too.

Figure No. 3: In this one, Velcro grabs your elbows and won’t let loose. Your arms can’t be fully extended because your elbows are stuck to your rib cage. You’ll never be able to show how high is high or how wide is wide. Your gestures will be smaller, less interesting, and repetitious.

Figure No. 4: Some people say they like to move around. Imagine someone coming into your office and dancing around as they talk to you. Moving around only makes sense when you are changing location for a purpose.

Figure No. 5: In this picture the speaker has all the weight on one leg. Your energy is stuck, and your body knows it. If you tilt one way to release it, the audience wonders which way you will tilt next.

All of this nervous energy is leaking out; it is not helping you as a speaker. It is taking a slice out of the 55 percent segment (the “how you look” portion) of your impact.

What to Do with Your Hands

Where should your hands be? When you begin, they should hang naturally by your side. Then they should be used to describe and emphasize what you are saying. Ideally, you should gesture with one hand at a time. If you use both together, they will tend to work in parallel, cutting the air up and down as you talk. This is called indicative gesturing, which is repetitious and adds some, but not a great deal, of value.

When you are able to use one hand at a time, your hand and arm movements can be descriptive as well as emphatic. From an audience viewpoint, this provides an almost infinite variety of visual stimulus that increases your impact and helps reinforce your message.

Remember, the audience is looking with their eyes even more than they are listening with their ears. They want something to happen up there. You, as a speaker, must encourage their eyes to focus on you, if you are going to hold their attention. Otherwise their eyes will drift somewhere else. And wherever their eyes go, their minds will follow.

What about Stance?

Somewhere in your mind you may have a picture of a speaker pacing back and forth while mesmerizing the audience. Maybe it’s the fictional Elmer Gantry or the very real Vince Lombardi. But it’s a mental image that makes us think that pacing while talking is a plus. It isn’t. Walking around is of no value to the audience unless you are going someplace. Pacing is going noplace.

You look strongest and in greatest control when you plant your two feet shoulder-width apart, weight equally balanced, square to the audience. That way, all of your energy manifests itself in gestures, facial expression, and upper body movements. Your message is reinforced and made clearer by your physical behavior. Your confidence will grow as you sense the control.

A popular misconception is that women should do it differently, with feet close together or with one foot placed slightly behind the other. Not so. These postures rob the speaker of the authority she wants to convey.

The Impact of Your Voice

If your volume is low, you are probably speaking in a monotone. If you are monotone you are boring (see Figure 2-3).

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Figure 2-3:  Don’t lose 38% of your impact.

In the thirty-three years of Communispond’s existence, we have trained more than 450,000 executives. Most of them, almost all, actually, don’t speak with enough volume. The sound is too soft. This is true for females as well as males, upper level as well as lower level, all industries, professions, and the arts. You name it. Speakers think they are loud, but audiences don’t. They think speakers are boring. They want more excitement, and volume is a big part of that.

Low Volume, Low Interest

Audiences read low volume as low conviction or low interest on the part of the speaker. Then they take a small mental jump and say to themselves, “If the speaker isn’t interested, I’m not either.” At that point you’ve lost them. Good-night, Irene.

Harry Holiday, the former CEO of Armco Steel, once said, “I think the greatest sin in business life is to be boring.” Some people might argue with that, but I found it to be most insightful, as it pertains to public speaking. The greatest sin a speaker can commit is to be boring, because that loses the audience. Yet we see it all the time. Low volume is the greatest cause.

Should You Exaggerate Volume?

You may be thinking, “What are you suggesting—that I go up there and shout?” We’re tempted to say, “yes,” just to get the point across. But, then you’d say, “This is crazy,” and stop reading.

All speakers think they speak louder than they do. That’s only because they are hearing themselves through the bone structure of their head as well as through their ears. And many people have been taught that they should speak in a conversational tone. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work when you are speaking to an audience. You will be trying to contain the adrenaline, to hold back the energy, instead of letting go and using it. You’ll swallow your words. Your body will be a reflection of your weak voice. You’ll be conscious of your nervousness. No good.

A Leap of Faith

But if you take a leap of faith and let your voice ring out, you’ll find that your body will follow and your confidence will soar. You see, volume is a trigger mechanism. Once you push yourself hard for more volume, your body will say to itself, “Hey, wait a second. I’m just hanging out here not doing anything. Maybe I should dive into the fray and help get the message across.”

Whammo!! Then you’ll gesture, you’ll emphasize more, your hands will beat the air, your face will contort a little bit to show feeling, you’ll smile, you’ll frown, you’ll knit your brow, you’ll smash one hand into another. Your voice will have character and timbre. Your speech will have passion. The audience will love it. And they will love you.

All of that will make you free. Free of fear, free of self-consciousness, and free of self-doubt. You will have taken all of that adrenaline, all that energy, and put it to work for you. Once you can do that, you will have found the “open sesame” to self-confidence when you speak in front of a room. Always remember: Your volume is the best physical trigger, the key to making it all happen.

Making the Most of Your Words

As Mehrabian notes, the actual words you speak will usually account for only 7 percent of what the audience will grasp from a presentation. But when you’re speaking on the spot, and you’ve got to say it right, every word must count.


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