Public Speaking: You Have Half a Second


I recently had the following article published by which contains some very powerful advice on how to not only make the right first impression in a presentation but also a lasting one.

‘Research from Princeton and the University of Glasgow suggests that we judge a stranger in just half a second.

As harsh as that may sound there is clearly something in it although whilst I’d like to think that it takes me a little longer, researcher Dr Phil McAlee suggests that our ability to make rapid judgments about people may be part of an ancient survival mechanism.

The fact is though whether it’s half a second, or even sixty seconds, I don’t think any of us would argue with the reality that most of us are too quick to judge people and aren’t even conscious about it.

Remember the scene from the Jerry Maguire movie where Renee Zellweger says to Tom Cruise, ‘You had me at hello’?

Imagine presenting to a room full of strangers for the very first time. Wouldn’t it be great if they all felt like Renee Zellweger?

Unfortunately, Jerry Maguire is Hollywood and in the real world most of us have to work considerably harder, especially when it comes to presenting to an auditorium full of skeptical eyes with a built in Neanderthal mechanism that judges you before you utter a word. It may be a human frailty but whether we like it or not it’s as sure as death or taxes. This is probably the reason that so many people might say as Jack Nicholson did in the movie Terms of Endearment “I’d rather stick needles in my eyes”, than subject themselves to the ordeal of presenting to people they don’t know.

It is human nature for us all to want to look good and to make a positive first impression. The good news is that whatever your level of presenting or public speaking experience is no one needs a radical personality makeover to achieve a great first impression. The key is being very mindful about what it takes to manipulate the areas of the brain which help us to compute our first impressions of others which according to Psychology Today are the amygdala and posterior cingulate cortex.

Here are some powerfully, mindful ways to start a presentation to significantly increase your chances of making that all important first impression:’

Put on your halo 

Psychologists believe that people who communicate in an expressive, animated fashion tend to be liked more than people who seem difficult to read. They call it the Expressivity Halo? which is a belief that that we feel more at ease with people who are easy to read.

To don your halo means you have to learn to be relaxed, open and be as warm and friendly as you can without going over the top. Good, sincere eye contact, use of gestures and purposeful movement will all serve you well in this regard and of course whatever you do, don’t forget to smile.

Research suggests that smiling activates the release of neuropeptides such as dopamine, endorphins and serotonin into the body. This not only relaxes you but can lower your heart rate and blood pressure. As if that is not benefit enough in helping your audience to feel more at ease with you, guess what? Research also suggests that when you smile at someone else they smile and you cause physiological changes within their bodies too.

Be just like them 

Remember the last time you met with someone for the very first time and within moments realised that they like the same things as you or have been through a similar experience. Perhaps you liked the same food, book, or perhaps just both knew the same person, do you recall how that somehow created the sense of an instant bond between you?

We have all been there, it’s real and it’s even got a name, it’s called the ‘similarity attraction hypothesis’.

It isn’t rational but even something as ridiculous as finding out that you share the same name as someone could mean you take a shine to them.

As presenters this provides an invaluable insight and opportunity to enable us to make a positive first impression on our audience. Through research we can make every effort to find out what we have in common with them, put ourselves in their shoes and from the very start we can make it clear how similar we are to them in some way and therefore how we understand them. Remember the old saying, ‘birds of a feather flock together’.

Well, show them your feathers up front!

Own the stage 

For your audience to have confidence in you they need to see and feel that you have confidence in yourself from the very start, before you even open your mouth. This means calmly and confidently walking to the front of the stage or conference room, your body filled with poise and purpose.

As you reach the place you will begin to speak from, stand grounded and centred with the weight of both feet planted firmly on the floor. At this point most speakers begin to speak before they have even completely stood still. Resist this temptation, as the mindful presenter will look at their audience first and they pause, take in a breath and smile.

If you have a flip chart show them that you own it and touch it or even move it to a place that suits you (even if it’s just a couple of inches to one side). If you have a table or desk with materials on it feel free to take a moment to adjust them. If you are using a monitor or projector screen don’t be afraid to touch and own that too.

Move with purpose and meaning and make good eye contact, even with people at the back of the room.

Make your impact

Tell them a story 

When I’m running leadership seminars and I want to talk about the need for change in leadership style I begin with a story.

‘When I was a small boy I loved Mickey Mouse and all of his pals at Disney and I desperately longed to go to Disney World in Florida. I didn’t actually get there until I was 20 years old.

That was 30 years ago!

One day my brother and I were queueing for a ride and noticed a man in front of us with a small suitcase. As we laughed and joked about how he would never be able to get that on the ride and wondered why on earth he was taking it on in the first place we soon realised it wasn’t a suitcase at all.

It was a mobile phone!

That’s how they made mobile phones 30 years ago; there was nothing mobile or portable about them at all.’

Then I pull my iPhone 6 out of my pocket, start talking about change over the last 30 years and what could happen over the next 30 from a leadership perspective.

Share a powerful quote 

It doesn’t even have to be a famous one.

Often when I find myself speaking about vision or the future I open with a quote an old boss of mine once told me when I first stepped onto the management ladder many moons ago,

“The only people who need to be motivated are the people who can’t see a future” Arthur.

I then go on to explain the impact it has had on my personal and professional life (another story) and its relevance to my presentation.

Use a prop 

In a former corporate executive role, once, before presenting to the board to ask them for significant sums of money to acquire a rather expensive piece of new software, I wheeled in thousands of paper copies of customer complaint letters into the boardroom on catering trollies.

That was the reason we needed the new software and it certainly got their attention.

Shock them 

Faced with the unenviable task of having to play a major executive role in saving a severely ailing business I once opened a series of national conferences to thousands of stakeholders telling them that,

“This business is hemorrhaging 200,000 sales a year to our competitors, in 5 years none of us will be here, we won’t have a business”

Needless to say we got the support and vote we needed to restructure the business.

The old saying, ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression’ is not only a truism, it’s critically important to consider before any presentation. Those first few moments will not only influence whether your audience take a liking to you from the start but whether they make the effort to listen to what else you have to say.

A mindful approach to understanding how we think as human beings, how our audience may think and how we can relate to them quickly and effectively is the key to opening any presentation.

Wouldn’t it be great if we get them all at ‘hello’?

Read the original article on Lifehacker UK

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