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

Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #2 – Writing By Hand Can Increase Commitment

Picture of a hand writing on a pad of paperI remember, many many years ago, when I wrote my Ph.D. thesis in graduate school, my first draft was done by hand (ok, now I’ve admitted that I’m quite old!). Most writing these days is done by typing on a keyboard. I write these blogs directly into my laptop using a keyboard, same thing with the books that I write, and most of my communications with friends and family is done via emails that I, of course, compose at my keyboard. There are still a few things I write “by hand” — my most important daily “to do” lists are done by hand, as well as most of my business planning. It’s interesting, when you stop to think about it, which things you write by hand versus with a keyboard. But does it matter? And as a presenter should you care how people might be taking notes during your presentation?

Writing things down increases commitment — If people write something down (compared to, for example, thinking it or speaking it out loud), it increases their commitment to the idea and to taking action. Deutsch and Gerard (1955) asked people to estimate the length of some lines. They were looking at the effect that others might have on decision making. They had other people who were part of the experiment estimate the length of the line incorrectly. Would the subjects go along with the incorrect estimates they were hearing from others, or would they stick (commit) to the answer they felt was correct? If you have read my blog post about social validation,  you won’t be surprised to discover that the line length estimates were influenced by the what other people said.

Writing can over come the influence of social validation – But Deutsch and Gerard also looked at whether there were situations in which commitment to a decision would be stronger. Before hearing what others had to say on the length of the line:

  • Group 1 wrote their estimates on paper. They were told not to sign the paper, and that they would not be turning in the sheets of paper.
  • Group 2 wrote their estimates on a “magic pad,” and then lifted a sheet and the estimate was erased without anyone seeing it.
  • Group 3 was told to write their estimates on paper, to sign their papers, and they were told that their papers would be collected at the end of the experiment.

Did the groups vary in terms of how strongly they stuck to their commitment of the length of the line? Group 2 was most likely to change their decisions and to give incorrect estimates. Groups 1 and 3 reacted the same way. They were five times less likely to change their answers. They were more committed to their original estimates, regardless of what they heard others say.

Signing their names or being told they were going to hand in their estimates did not seem to make a difference. Just the act of writing it on something relatively permanent was enough to make them commit.

Writing changes brain processing — Research by Shadmehr and Holcomb (1997) looked at brain activity when people wrote with something longhand (for example, with a pen or pencil) instead of  typing on a keyboard. Writing involves different muscles than typing, and Shadmehr and Holcomb found that there was more memory consolidation when people were writing in longhand.

If you want people to commit to the call to action you have at the end of your presentation, and remember that commitment, consider having them write down their action step on a piece of paper before the presentation ends.

What do you think? Is your behavior different when you write things down “by hand”? Have you tried this in your presentations?

And for those of you who like to read the research:

Deutsch, Morton, and Harold B. Gerard. 1955. A study of normative and informational social influences upon individual judgment. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Vol 51(3), 629-636.

Shadmehr, Reza and Holcomb, Henry H. 1997. “Neural Correlates of Memory Motor Consolidation.” Science 277.

Top 10 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People: #1 – People learn best in 20 minute chunks

20 Minutes

I’m wrapping up my new book, 100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People (It’s available for pre-order and will ship on May 17th), so I thought I’d take some ideas from the book for some blog posts. I’ve picked my 10 favorites (always hard for me to pick only 10 when I love all 100!), and will do a “Top 10” series here in the blog. This is the first post in the series.

When I am coaching and mentoring people on presentations I almost always recommend that they watch some TED talks. If you aren’t familiar with TED talks, go to and watch some. These are short talks by accomplished people in their fields. Most of these people don’t earn their living making presentations, but all of the presentations are very interesting. You can learn a lot about effective presentations watching TED talks.

Most TED talks are 20 minutes long —  I think that’s one reason why they are so effective. These same presentations stretched out to an hour might not be quite so brilliant.

20-minute presentations are an ideal amount of time —  Maureen Murphy tested this idea in an experiment. She had adults attending a 60 minute presentation at work, and tested to see the difference in memory and reaction to the same talk given in one 60 minute long presentation, versus a presentation that had 20 minute segments with short breaks in between. What Dr. Murphy found was that the people enjoyed the 20-minute chunked presentations more, learned more information immediately after, and retained more information a month later.

Plan your presentation in 20 minute chunks —  See if you can build in some kind of change every 20 minutes. For maximum learning you want a break every 20 minutes, as opposed to just a change of topic. The best ways to accomplish this are:

  • If you are presenting for more than one hour you probably have a break planned. Time the break so that it comes at one of these 20 minute time periods.
  • Instead of taking one long break, take several short ones. For example, it is common for a half-day workshop to go from 9 to 11:30 or 9 to 12 with one 20-30 minute break at around 10:30. Instead of one 30 minute break, have one 15 minute break and then 3 other short 5 minute breaks.
  • When I am presenting I sometimes introduce short “stretch” breaks. These are anywhere from 2 to 5 minutes in length. I just announce, “Let’s take a short 3 minute stretch break”. I time these to fall in the 20 minute intervals.
  • If you have activities, exercises, or interactions, plan them at 20 minute intervals. Although they are not true breaks, they allow people to assimilate the information just presented.

If you want to read the research:

Murphy, Maureen. 2012. Improving learner reaction, learning score, and knowledge retention through the chunking process in corporate training. Denton, Texas. UNT Digital Library.

And if you want to check out the book here’s a link to Amazon:



"Bad Powerpoint Presentations Are A Serious Threat To The Global Economy"

IPresenter Book Cover   
100 Things Every Presenter Needs To Know About People

In his TED talk, John Bohannon says that “bad powerpoint presentations are a serious threat to the global economy”. He estimates that:

Each day $250,000,000  (USD) is spent on presentations, assuming each presentation is ½ hour long, with an average audience of 4 people that have an average salary of $35,000 USD.

Each day there are 30,000,000 presentations created

¼ of presentations are a total waste of time

$100,000,000,000 (USD) is wasted globally on presentations each year

I don’t know how accurate his numbers are, but I do know that I feel blessed when I see/attend a great presentation, and bored and antsy when I”m watching/attending a bad one.Which got me thinking about why a lot of presentations are so bad, and only a few are good. Having been a presenter all of my adult life, I’m dedicated to, and fascinated by, the science of giving a great presentation, and therefore decided to make that my next book: 100 Things Every Presenter Needs to Know About People.

Score a free copy of the book — For this book I am including “Stories From The Field” which is a collection of tips and stories from YOU. I’m asking people to send me their presentation tips, techniques, good, and disaster stories. If I use the story or tip you send me in the book, then you’ll get a free copy of the book (due out in May).

So if you have stories, tips or techniques email them to me at:



7 Tips To Get A Team To Implement Your Recommendations: Tip #5

Example of data from researchThis is the 5th in a 7-part series on how to get a team to implement your recommendations. Tip #1 was: Hide Your Top 3 Recommendations. Tip #2 was Say “You”, “They”, “Customers”, “Users”, or “Research”. Don’t say “I”. Tip #3 was Give Them A Presentation, Don’t Send Them A Report. Tip #4 was Use The Word “Because” And Give A Reason. Now for Tip #5. The context is that you want to see your recommendations implemented. How can you present them to a team so that they will be acted on and not dismissed?

Tip #5: Add research or statistics to bolster your recommendations — Research tells us that people make decisions based on a variety of unconscious reasons, but they like to have a rational, logical, fact-based reason to justify their decision. Including research or statistics with your recommendations makes it easier for people to say “yes”. It’s not enough to cite vague numbers without supporting evidence. You need to provide an actual source for your citation.

For example, if I say, “Research shows that people can only remember 3-4 items”, that is not as strong as saying: “You’ve probably heard that people can remember 7 plus or minus 2 items (5-9), but that number is not accurate. Separate research studies, for instance those by Baddeley and more by Cowan, show that the number is really 3-4 not 5-9”. Then you want to provide the actual research paper citation. (Of course I’m going to recommend my book, 100 Things Every Designer Needs To Know About People, as a great source for research citations about design!). If you are going to quote statistics make sure of the number and provide a source for the data.

Using your own data, for example, data from user research you conducted is also a great idea. If you have direct quotes and/or video clips from actual users/customers, that is the most powerful and persuasive.

What do you think? Have you been citing research and sources with your recommendations?


7 Tips To Get A Team To Implement Your Recommendations: Tip #3

person holding a huge stack of reportsThis is the 3nd in a series on how to get a team to implement your recommendations. Tip #1 was: Hide Your Top 3 Recommendations. And Tip #2 was Say “You”, “They”, “Customers”, “Users”, or “Research”. Don’t say “I”. Now for Tip #3. The context is that you want to see your recommendations implemented. How can you present them to a team so that they will be acted on and not dismissed?

Tip #3: Give Them A Presentation, Don’t Send Them A Report. If you hand someone a printed report with your data and recommendations, or, send them an email with a document attached, it is very likely that your recommendations will not get implemented. A very well written report, being read by someone who wanted to make changes in the first place, MIGHT compel someone to action, but it is highly unlikely. Most of the time you are:

  • asking people to change their opinion and beliefs
  • asking people to take action
  • asking more than one person to change and act

This is a tall order for a word document or powerpoint “report” to accomplish just by sending a document and having people read it. Instead you want to present the recommendations. The most engaging and persuasive way to present your recommendation is in person. If you can’t do it in person then at least be on the phone. The critical elements are:

  • The team needs to be able to hear your voice, and preferably see your face. This is best in “real time” (i.e., not a video or audio recording).
  • You need to be able to see their reactions including facial expressions and body language so you can “read” the situation and know what to do next.
  • If you are in “real time” then you can clear up any misunderstandings. It’s very easy for people to misunderstand a recommendation they are reading in a report.
  • If you are in “real time” then you can discuss a particular recommendation, explain, show an example, and even negotiate.

How many times have you received a report, flipped through the first few pages, and then put it aside? If you want to be sure that people are really listening and considering your recommendations you have to present them.

Many of the recommendations you give will also need a report so that the recommendations are documented. But don’t confuse the report with your presentation. They are two different things. Here are some tips about creating a report:

  • Don’t give or send the report ahead of time. This will weaken your presentation. You can send it after your presentation as documentation.
  • Don’t even hand out the report as you start your presentation. Instead, give your presentation first, and then follow-up later with the written report. Otherwise people aren’t listening to you, they are just looking through the report. If there are things they need to look at while you are talking, examples, etc, then prepare a handout to go with your presentation, but don’t just hand them the report.
  • Finalize the report after the presentation, since things may change as you discuss your recommendations during the presentation.

What do you think? Is this the way you’ve been giving your recommendations?

100 Things You Should Know About People: #67 — Anecdotes Persuade More Than Data

pie chart with a "No" red slash through it
No Data!

Let’s say you have to make a presentation to several department heads at work about your latest conversations with your customers. You interviewed 25 customers and surveyed another 100, and have lots of important data to share. Your first thought might be to present a summary of the data in a numerical/statistical/data driven format, for example:

  • 75% of the customers we interviewed….
  • Only 15% of the customers responding to the survey indicated…

Perhaps you are thinking about pie charts vs. bar charts.

Don’t present the data first — A data based approach will not be as persuasive as anecdotes. You may want to include the data in the presentation at some point, but your presentation will be more powerful if you start with and focus on one or more anecdotes, for example:

Send Me To South By Southwest: Vote for my panel

SXSW LogoI’ve submitted to speak at South By Southwest (SXSW) next spring. The talk I’ve submitted is: The Psychology of Web Design: Interactive Behavior Explained.

SXSW has an interesting way of deciding who the speakers are — 30% of their decision is based on votes. So if you go to the description of my talk (click on the logo above, or go to my page at the site) and vote yes, then it increases the chances of my presentation (panel) getting picked. (Vote early vote often?)

If you like the topics I write about in this blog, please consider voting. And while you are there you can peruse (and even vote for) some of the other great submissions.