Top Ten Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #10 – People Imitate Your Emotions And Feelings

Man looking mad

Your facial expressions and body language communicate information and affect how people react to you and your message. They can also cause other people to start feeling a certain way.

People imitate what they see — If you are smiling, they will tend to smile; if you are energetic yet relaxed, then your audience will tend to be energetic and relaxed too. Which means YOU have to make sure you are rested, prepared, relaxed, and passionate about your topic. When you are, those feelings are communicated through your words, tone of voice, and body language and are picked up and felt by your audience.

Mirror neurons firing — Let’s say you are watching your friend who is holding an ice cream cone that is starting to drip. Your friend lifts her arm to lick the dripping cone. Mirror neurons in your brain will fire as though you are lifting your arm (even though you aren’t).

Mirror neurons are the starting point of empathy — The latest theory is that mirror neurons are also the way we empathize with others. We are literally experiencing what others are experiencing through these mirror neurons, and that allows us to deeply understand how another person feels.

(V.S. Ramachandran has a great Ted talk on mirror neurons.)

When you are passionate about your topic your audience will be passionate — People like to watch and listen to someone who is animated and excited about what they are talking about. If your topic does get you excited, don’t hold back. Show how you feel. That feeling will be contagious. If you aren’t excited about what you are talking about, then reconsider the topic or your approach to it. You need to find an angle on the topic at hand that will get you excited.

This post concludes the series: Top Ten Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People. Besides this post here are the other 9 (links below) or check out my book – 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People (link is in the sidebar to the right):

#9: If You Want People To Act You Have to Call Them To Action

#8: People Are Energized When The Room Is Full

#7: People Assign Meaning To Your Hand Gestures

#6: People Need To Feel Safe To Participate

#5: People Assign Meaning To Your Tone Of Voice

#4: People Read Your Body Positions Instantly & Unconsciously

#3: Multiple Sensory Channels Compete

#2: Writing By Hand Can Increase Commitment

#1: People Learn Best In 20 Minute Chunks


Top Ten Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #9 — If You Want People To Act You Have To Call Them To Action


Recently I attended a fund raiser. The speaker got up and gave a pretty good speech (I think he could have used a speech coach!), but at the end he didn’t have a call to action. There were people walking around with jars so you could donate, but no one had actually asked for the money.

In most presentations the reason you are giving the presentation is because you want people to take some kind of action. It might be to donate money, or time. Perhaps you are hoping they will think about a particular issue or topic in a different way. Maybe you want them to do something simple, such as attend a meeting the next day, or make a phone call to a colleague.

The best presentations always have a call to action — One reason is that the call to action gives structure and a “plot” to the rest of the presentation. In my book, 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People I show how to build the structure of the presentation around the call to action.

If you know what you want people to do, then you can figure out what it is you should say and present to them —  What is it that you can ask your audience to do after your talk is over? Where are they at now, where do you want them to be, and what action can you realistically ask them to take?

Consider having more than one call to action (but no more than 3 or 4) — For example, if you are preparing a presentation in order to persuade people to donate to a charity, then the call to action will likely be something like writing out a check for $100 to the charity.

You can have more than one call to action, for example, you could have:

*      Write out a check for $100 or fill out a credit card form

*      Get three friends to donate as well

*      Volunteer to help at the next fund-raising event

At the end of your presentations be very specific about what you want them to do — this is not the time to be vague. Be very specific about what they should do.

What do you think? Have you tried out using various calls to actions in your presentations?

Top Ten Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #8 — People Are Energized When The Room Is Full

Picture of a half filled auditorium
"Hell is a half-filled auditorium"... Robert Frost

There are many subtle and not so subtle ways that people change when they are together. Human behavior is a complex combination of interactions with other people. When people enter a room that is largely empty they will tend to position themselves evenly throughout the room. This means that while they are waiting for the presentation to start they will not necessarily be close to each other. The larger the room in relation to the number of people the bigger this effect will be.

If the room is full and there is lots of conversation it creates a sense of anticipation. It makes it seem that the presentation that is about to happen is important. It makes you, as the presenter, seem to be more important and therefore your message will seem more important.

Presenters are not immune to the subtle interactions either, so as a presenter when you enter and stand in front of a room that is buzzing with people and conversation it has an effect on you too. If you step into a room that is quiet and empty that will not energize you. Then there is a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you are energized you will give a better presentation and be more persuasive.

If possible you want to talk to the host of the event and see what you can do to get a room that will be mostly filled in order to have the most energy and excitement in the room before you start. This is true for small meetings as well as large. You want to avoid a large room with few people.

So is there anything you can do to avoid a half-filled room? Here are some of the ideas I’ve used:

Arrive early — You won’t be able to make any changes if you show up right before your presentation. Be sure to show up early to check-out the room and have the possibility of moving thing around.

Send a room plan ahead — If you know the expected size of the audience you can send a room layout chart ahead of time to the meeting host.

Re-arrange the furniture — If you are speaking in an auditorium you can’t move the chairs, but if you are in a room with movable chairs, and you show up early enough, then you can re-arrange the furniture. I would guess that I re-arrange the furniture 75% of the time when I show up in a room.

Re-arrange the objects in the room to affect where people sit — Take away any handouts, pads of paper, pens, etc, in one area of the room and concentrate all the materials together.

Talk to the meeting host ahead of time — Ask your hosts ahead of time how many people they are expecting, and then ask them to find a room that is the appropriate size so that it will be mostly filled.

What are your ideas? Do you find you are affected by how filled a room is? What have you tried to do to avoid half-filled rooms?

Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #7 — People Assign Meaning To Your Hand Gestures

Presenter holding hands up in the air
Hands far away from the body mean "big idea" or "I'm chaotic"!

Everyone “talks” with their hands to some extent. Some people’s hand-talking or gesturing matches their message well. Other people have a tendency to make overly large gestures that can be distracting. Others don’t use their hands much at all. No matter which camp you fall into, it’s important to pay attention to your hand gestures while you are presenting, and perhaps try out some new ones. Some hand gestures are universal across all languages, geographies, and cultures:

Using no hand gestures at all — If you don’t use your hands at all when you are presenting that can be perceived as indifference. Your audience may feel that you don’t care about what you are talking about.

Hands hidden — If your audience can’t see your hands at all, it will be hard for them to trust you.

Hands open with palms up — If you gesture with your hands open and your palms up you are communicating that you are asking for something from the audience:

Man standing with hands open and palms up
Hands open, palms up means you are asking for something.

Hands open and your palms at a 45-degree angle  — communicates that you are being honest and open.

Woman with hands open at 45 degree angle
Hands open at 45 degree angle conveys openness and honesty


Hands open with palms down — Communicates that you are certain about what you are talking about.

Woman with palms down
Palms down communicates you are certain about what you are saying.

Hands at a 90-degree angle with your fingers together  — communicates that you have expertise about what you are talking about.

Woman with hands facing each other
Palms facing each other communicates you are an expert


Hands grasped in front of you — Communicates that you are nervous or tentative, as does touching your face, hair, or neck.

Hand gestures that are larger than the outlines of your body — communicates a large idea or concept. But if  all your hand gestures are large you will communicate that you are chaotic or out of control. (See the photo at the top of the post).

Hand gestures can have cultural meanings — A few years ago I was a speaker at a conference in Lisbon, Portugal. It was my first time in Portugal, and I became instantly enamored of the special custard pastries that Lisbon and Portugal are known for. One morning I went into a bakery and ordered two of the pastries. I did so by holding up two fingers, similar to the “victory” or “peace” gesture in the United States. The person behind the counter proceeded to put three pastries in a box. I later learned that the gesture for two would have been to raise my thumb and index finger. Even though my thumb wasn’t showing, the person behind the counter thought I was signaling for three.

I was lucky that I didn’t get into more trouble than an extra pastry. Many hand gestures are not universal. Before speaking in a country or to a culture that you are not familiar with, do some research to find out which gestures in your presentation might be misunderstood, not understood at all, or offensive.

What do you think? Have you experimented with hand gestures during your presentations?

A great book on body language:

The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead by Carol Kinsey Goman (2011).



Photography And The User Experience: A Podcast With James Chudley

Photo of The Brain Lady with James Chudley
James Chudley and The Brain Lady in Bristol UK for the podcast interview

What is the role of photography in the user experience of websites? James Chudley and I explore this topic in a podcast. James is the (co)-author of Smashing UX Design, a new book coming out in June of 2012.

You can listen to the podcast by clicking on this link. It’s approximiately 30 minutes in length.

James and I recorded the podcast in person, at his office in Bristol, UK. In the podcast we talk about the role that photography plays in the user experience of a website. One of my favorite discussions in the podcast is how to incorporate photos into the user experience process, and about the role that the UX person could or should have when choosing photographs for a website.

In addition to the book, James also runs a great blog: on the same topic. His twitter is @chudders

Listen to the podcast, check out the blog and the book, and let us know via comments what you think. Who chooses the photographs for the websites and projects you work on? How much time are you giving to the photos you choose?

Here’s a link for the book at Amazon:



Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #6 — People Need To Feel Safe To Participate

Picture of Bobby McFerrin on state
Bobby McFerrin is a master of safe participation

The best performance I’ve ever been to (the best music, dance, theatre, speech — any kind of performance)  was by Bobby McFerrin. His performances involve music and extensive audience interaction. I saw him in a 1500-seat theatre in a small city in Wisconsin. The theatre was full, and from the start the audience was appreciative but reserved. But by the end of his 1.5-hour performance, he had the entire audience on the edge of their seats ready to do anything he asked of them, including coming up on stage. Bobby McFerrin is a master at getting people to participate.

Slow commitment and social validation — How does he get 1500 people to switch from being passive audience members to being part of the performance? Everyone is sitting in a theatre with strangers, and they don’t want to look silly. He gets them to first make just one small noise — sing a single, simple note, for just a second. Everyone makes the sound and then everyone laughs a little. He then builds on that one single note, and asks the audience for a little more, and a little more, often using his face and gestures only  — until everyone is freely participating. By the end of the night people are singing, jumping up to come on stage with him, laughing, and fully involved in the performance.

If you’ve never seen Bobby McFerrin engage audiences, you may want to see a little bit of him in action in this 3-minute video:

A master at safety — Bobby McFerrin is really a master at making people feel safe. He never ridicules or makes fun of anyone. His body language and comments make everyone feel that they are doing great—doing exactly what he expects and knows they can do. It feels safe to participate.

If you want people to participate in an exercise, or group activity in your presentaton then you could take some hints from Bobby McFerrin:

  • Start slow. Have people do one small activity before an activity that is longer or more complicated.
  • Make sure it’s always safe. Don’t ask people to do anything they are not comfortable doing, especially at the beginning.
  • Humor is good for making people relax, but don’t make fun of people as a form of humor, or the entire audience will start to feel unsafe.
  • Research shows that synchronicity bonds people together — when people do something together, such as clap, laugh, raise their hand to a question, it bonds the group. A bonded group feels safe, so ask your audience to do something all together and the group will bond.
  • Be confident. If you are the leader people will follow you.

What do you think? How do you make people feel safe during your presentations? What is your technique for encouraging participation?

If you are interested in improving your presentation and speaking skills then come join me for a 2-day workshop in Chicago.


Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #5 — People assign meaning to your tone of voice

If you’ve ever eavesdropped on a conversation in a country where you did not speak the language, you might have been surprised to find yourself following along and picking up the feeling of the conversation even though you didn’t understand any of the words or literal meaning. This is an entire field of research, and it’s called paralinguistics. It refers to vocal communication that is separate from the words that are spoken.

Think about this for a minute. You can say, “Sure, I’ll go with you to the store” in many different ways. You can say it with a lot of enthusiasm, with sarcasm, or with boredom. The way you say the sentence conveys as much meaning—or more—as the words themselves.

Here are some things to keep in mind about paralinguistics:

Great presenters modulate — If you spend some time listening to great speakers give presentations, you will hear that they modulate their voice. They vary the pitch and the volume of their voice, based on the meaning. If you talk at the same pitch and volume all of the time, your presentation will sound boring and you will appear to lack emotion or passion for your topic. Match your paralinguistics to your message. If you are excited or passionate about an idea, convey that passion with your paralinguistics.

Great presenters can be heard — It’s important to speak loudly enough. If you are too soft-spoken, you will convey timidity or nervousness.

Great presenters articulate — Make sure that you are pronouncing all of your words. Watch out especially for the endings of words and the endings of sentences; these are the places that presenters tend to cut off. Articulating well conveys confidence and authority.

Great presenters pause — One of the biggest differences between a poor or mediocre presenter and a great presenter is the use of pauses. If you get nervous, you will tend to talk faster and faster with few pauses. Experienced presenters pause a lot during their presentations. They pause before and after they make an important statement. They pause when they go from one topic to another. Your silence can be as important as your words.

Practice — Have someone record the audio of your presentation, or record yourself while you are practicing. Listen for the various paralinguistics, and see what you should and could adjust.

Voice coach — Consider working with a voice coach to evaluate and improve your paralinguistics. You want someone who specializes in coaching for paralinguistics in presentations.

What do you think? Have you ever tried working on your paralinguistics to improve your presentations?

Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #4 – People "read" your body positions instantly and unconsciously

Woman with a tilted head
Tilting your head can be perceived as a sign of submission

Not too long ago I spoke at a conference with a line-up of great presenters. One man I had been looking forward to hearing got up to speak. He is well-known in his field, but I had never seen him speak. His talk was very good, but I couldn’t concentrate on it because throughout the entire talk he did a small movement over and over. He would step forward with one foot and then step back with the other, like a little dance, over and over. It was a form of fidgeting, and it was very distracting.

The research in psychology over the last 15 years makes it clear that people process information unconsciously and make very quick (1 second or less), unconscious decisions about other people.

People respond to your body language before you start talking —  The way you walk and stand, your facial expressions, and your eye contact (or lack of it) communicate whether you are nervous, confident, excited, and more. Decide what impression you want to convey, and then think about how your body language is conveying it.  Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:

Make sure that your walk to the front of the room shows confidence —  Stand up tall with good posture, take your time, don’t rush, don’t fidget with anything while you walk. Plant your feet firmly on each step. If you are the presenter, then you are the leader. Your audience wants a strong leader. If you walk confidently, your audience will be inspired to “follow you” into the presentation.

Before you begin to talk, “set” your body — Stop, face the audience, stand firmly with even weight on both feet, look at the audience, smile a little bit, take a deep breath, and then begin. It will seem like too much time has passed without talking, but it will not appear that way to the audience.

If you face people directly you convey authority and confidence — Standing at an angle says that you and the audience are collaborating.

Don’t have any barriers between you and the audience—don’t use a lectern, and move tables out of the way if possible. People need to see your body in order to trust you

Keep your head straight — When you are talking one-on-one with someone, tilting your head conveys that you are interested in them or what they are saying, but it can also be a sign of submission. Since you want to convey authority and confidence during your presentation, you should avoid tilting your head.

Stand with balanced weight — Standing firmly with your weight evenly balanced on both legs and your head straight says you are sure and confident. Putting weight on only one foot or leaning against something like a table, chair, or lectern undermines your confidence and authority.

Don’t fidget  Fidgeting takes many forms. Some people rattle keys in their pockets or tap their feet or fingers. Fidgeting conveys that you are nervous, bored, or impatient.

Video yourself, evaluate, and learn new habits — It’s not easy to change habits such as how you stand, move your head, or fidget. Video yourself presenting and then pick one thing to try and change. Work on it every time you present. Keep recording yourself. When you’ve mastered one of your unconscious movement habits, go on to a new one.

It takes work to change these automatic ways of standing and moving, but with persistence you can convey a more powerful and polished demeanor when you present. You can’t ignore that people react unconsciously. You’ve got to accept it and then work to portray the image and impression that will best get your message across.

What do you think? Have you been able to change some of your body language for the better?

Other books on this topic:

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell

Strangers to ourselves: The adaptive unconscious by Timothy Wilson

The Silent Language of Leaders: How body language can help or hurt how you lead by Carol Kinsey Goman.



Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #3 – Multiple Sensory Channels Compete

Slide with too much text on itImagine that you are driving while listening to the radio and talking to a passenger sitting next to you. You are processing multiple sensory channels simultaneously. You are watching (the road), listening (to the radio and your friend), and thinking and talking. This doesn’t sound too difficult. People process multiple sensory channels all the time. But there is a limit. If one of the channels becomes complicated or difficult to process, then processing more than one channel can get very challenging. For example, what if there is a sudden storm while you are driving, and torrential rain makes it hard to see the road? It will start to get hard to pay attention to, or remember, what your friend is saying.

The visual channel trumps all others — Of all of our senses vision takes up the most area of our brains. Humans are very visual animals. So if there is something to listen to, or something to look at, looking will get first priority (an exception would be a large startling noise).

Listening and reading don’t mix well — During a presentation, there are two sensory channels that are most active: visual and auditory. Your audience might be looking at you while also looking at your slides. They are also listening to what you’re saying. If the slides are visuals that are easy to understand—such as photos, or diagrams that add extra context and meaning to the presentation—then the multiple channels are a positive experience for them. But if, instead, the slides are hard to read or complicated, then they will be distracted. In particular, the sensory combination of slides that are filled with text and a speaker who is talking is a bad combination. In order to understand the slides, your audience has to read. As soon as they are reading, they are not listening. Listening and reading are two sensory channels that compete with each other.

What to do instead of using wordy slides — You don’t have to use slides in a presentation:

  • Put your presentation together without slides first, then decide if any of your points would be enhanced by the use of a visual example or illustration.
  • If you use slides, use them for simple photos, diagrams, or illustrations.
  • Don’t put more than a few words of text on a slide. If people are reading, then they aren’t listening to you.
  • Know what to call slides with a lot of text on them? Your notes! If you feel you need slides with text, it’s probably because you need notes. Don’t show the audience your notes.

For more suggestions about how to be a great presenter, go to the rest of the posts in this series, and check out my latest book in the sidebar on the right: 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People