Last week, I wrote about the science of influence based on the research of renowned social psychologist Robert Cialdini. It got me thinking about one of the most common ways you influence people at work: presentations.
You present to your teams, to your peers, to leaders at higher levels, maybe to the board of directors, to investors or potential investors, to customers, and a slew of others. How effectively you present determines whether you get approval for a critical initiative or land a new customer.
There is an overwhelming amount of guidance about how to make a good presentation, probably because so many people might prefer a moderate root canal over standing up in front of a group to make a presentation.
Science can help.
What if I told you that the thing you spend the most time on when preparing for your big presentation might actually be the thing that influences your audience the least? That's exactly what a landmark study by Albert Mehrabian, UCLA professor emeritus of psychology, found.
Mehrabian found that there are three elements of communication that influence an audience:
This is not how cool your PowerPoint slides are (although that matters, too). What Mehrabian is referring to here are key things like eye contact, body movement, and gestures. In other words, these are the things that the audience sees you do with your eyes, your hands, your arms, and your entire body.
Do you walk around? Or stay firmly planted in one place? Do you make eye contact? Or look down? Do you make a variety of gestures with your arms? Or do you play with the slide clicker? (Guilty as charged.)
This is all about your voice. The three key areas that are most important are your rate, volume, and inflection. A rate that is too fast makes you seem "junior," lack of inflection makes you sound dispassionate, and lack of volume leaves you sounding less confident.
This is simply about content. In this study, verbal refers to the actual words you are saying. In preparing a presentation, most of us spend a significant amount of time, if not the majority, on Verbal. It makes sense, right? You can't make a good presentation without good content.
Here is where the research gets really interesting in a way that just might change your approach:
In the study, Verbal accounted for only 7 percent of what influenced the audience. That left a whopping 93 percent of audience influence based on Visual and Vocal. Specifically, the study showed that 55 percent of audience influence was based on Visual and 38 percent was based on Vocal.
So what does all of this mean practically? Should you toss content out the window, stand up there speaking in corporate gibberish and buzzwords, while using big hand gestures and speaking really loudly and confidently? Probably not.
But it does highlight a few really important things.
I recently spoke with communications expert Daniel Pitlik of Pitlik Consulting Group about this study. Pitlik, who references this study in the communications seminars he teaches, says:
"The moral of this story is that man cannot live by content alone. In other words, our words or content alone are not enough. We live in a visual world. When preparing for a presentation, create your best strategy. Make it logical. But that's not enough. You have to think about how it will resonate with people. We often forget that humans respond by seeing, hearing, and feeling."
In basic terms, the study shows us how important it is to combine good content (Verbal) with excellent Visual and Vocal. Whether Verbal accounts for only the paltry 7 percent of audience influence Mehrabian found in his study or even if it is 15 percent or 25 percent, there is still a huge amount of influence that doesn't come from Verbal.
In practical terms, this should change how you prepare. As Pitlik says:
"Practice the presentation as you would give it. Don't quietly whisper your words while sitting at your desk. By doing this, you are only focusing on the Verbal part. Stand up, project your voice, use emphatic gestures, pause for effect, and move around. When you feel like you're a bit over-animated, and easily know your content, then you are ready. Playing it safe won't get you anywhere."
As I spoke with Pitlik, I had to smile to myself as I reflected on numerous presentations I rehearsed while driving to work. Maybe I shouldn't have just admitted that in writing.
Speeding tickets aside, just being aware of the importance of Visual and Vocal elements and incorporating those into your practice and preparation will have a dramatic impact on your ability to influence your audience in your next presentation.