Non-TelePrompter Obama is More Engaging

Sure, Sen. Barack Obama can read a TelePrompter better than anyone else in history — better even than Ronald Reagan.  Heck, Obama has such a wonderful voice that he could read the ingredients off of a bottle of Nyquil and it would sound interesting.

But Obama is like everyone else as a speaker in one particular way. Like everyone else, he’s best when he’s talking without notes and telling stories. 

Here he is demonstrating what makes everyone come across well when giving a speech. Obama is telling a pie story without notes. He sounds like he’s having an animated conversation with friends over dinner. You can’t do that when you’re reading, even if you’re reading a TelePrompter and you’re Barack Obama.


Use a Camera to Improve Your Presentation Skills

A UCLA Psychology Professor named Albert Mehrabian did a study in 1971 of the way we communicate. He found that 55 percent of the impression that we make is based on physical things like facial energy, posture, gestures, and eye contact. He found that 38 percent of the impression we make is based on how we sound.


 That leaves 7 percent for content.

This is one of the most famous studies in the public speaking business. It is often cited for the idea that content doesn’t matter.

That’s absurd.  Content matters a lot.

But don’t disregard Dr. Mehrabian’s study.  People judge us based on how we look and how we sound. Here are four steps to improving your communication style without the help of a coach.


Step 1. The next time you give a presentation, record it with a video camera.  If you’ve never done this, it can be shocking and revealing.  Working with an attorney recently, I showed her a brief clip of her presentation before I gave her any feedback.  “Oh dear,” she said, somewhat shocked. “I look like a slug.”  The camera showed vividly how bored she looked. I often tell my clients that the camera is a far better coach than I am.  Nothing beats seeing how you appear to others.


Step 2. Look first for eye contact. If your eye contact is down at the floor or directed solely at your notes, then you have a problem that must be corrected immediately. Failure to make eye contact makes connection with your listeners impossible.  You should be having random, miniature conversations with individual members of your audience.  To practice eye contact, set up chairs around the room and make eye contact with imaginary audience members. At our offices, we have Halloween masks mounted on sticks that we place in chairs to pose as listeners.


Step 3. Listen for vocal energy. This is where most people can make the biggest improvement. You have to sound excited about your ideas. One of the most common things that clients will say when I show them their videotapes is simply, “I don’t sound enthusiastic.” To improve passion, try speaking about something you’re passionate about, forcing yourself to get overly excited. You want to sound like you’re having an animated dinner conversation with a close friend.


Step 4. Look for facial energy. While watching the videotape of yourself, turn off the volume. Do you look excited? When I first saw myself on camera, I was appalled at my flat facial energy.  I forced myself to smile for a month. My “smiler” muscles ached.  To fix facial energy, exaggerate. Do more with your eyebrows and your eyes. It may feel weird, but it will look good. As Billy Crystal said, “It is better to look good than to feel good.”


As business people, we tend to think that the only thing that matters when we talk is content. But if you want to connect with others, pay attention to how you look and sound.

Baby-Faced Spokespeople are More Believable

If you have a tough message to deliver, put on your best baby face.  That’s the message from a new study done by Columbia Business School.

It turns out that controversial messages are more believable if the spokesperson has a “baby-ish” looking face. People with baby faces — big eyes, high foreheads, small chins and small noses — tend to be perceived as trustworthy, according to the study conducted by Prof. Gita Johar of Columbia along with with Profs. Gerald Gorn and Yuwei Jiang of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

According to an article released recently by Columbia:

Subjects were shown fictitious news articles describing mild or severe side effects caused by a drug. The articles were accompanied by different pictures of CEOs, some baby-faced and some with more mature-looking faces. When side effects were described as less severe, subjects reported believing the baby-faced CEOs more often than the mature-faced CEOs. But there are limits to the baby-face effect: when side effects were described as being more severe, subjects were less likely to trust either the baby-faced or the mature-faced CEOs’ claims of ignorance.

Persuasion Tip from Tennis Legend Arthur Ashe

When I was a kid, my favorite tennis player was Arthur Ashe, who won the 1968 U.S. Open and became, as an amateur, the first African-American to win a men’s major tennis championship.    I was watching a televised documentary about him last night when I learned an interesting tidbit about his life and his skills as an orator.

In 1973, Ashe traveled to South Africa to play a tournament, despite the protests of anti-apartheid activists. He wanted to play there not to support the government, but to build relationships that would eventually help with anti-apartheid protests.

During his visit, he took time out from the competition to visit a local university and debate a college professor on the subject of apartheid.

During the debate, Ashe identified an elderly black man who was seated in the audience next to a white man. “All that is well and good sir,” Ashe apparently said to the professor. “But how do you explain how that man is not allowed to vote and that man seated next to him is allowed to vote? How do you explain how that man is not free and the man seated next to him is free?”

It was a turning point in the debate and incredibly powerful.

The lesson here is that often the simplest analogies are the most powerful.  Ashe used the members of the audience to shame his opponent into admitting the unfairness of the apartheid system.

Public Speaking Tip from Harold Pinter

“One way of looking at speech is to say it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.”

Those are the words of Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, who celebrates his birthday today.

And his take on speech is somewhat cynical and perhaps true.

But the best speakers fight the urge to use speech to cover their nakedness. Indeed the best communicators understand that they are at their best when they are most personally revealing, truthful, and authentic.

If you want to give a great speech, tell personal and revealing stories about yourself, both your successes and failures.

When I talk about my own story, I always tell about how when I was an attorney, I would couldn’t answer a question without going into a longwinded explanation.  Audiences respond to such personal stories.

Don’t hide yourself with your speech. Reveal yourself.

Do that and your audiences will respond.

Six Thoughts About Last Night’s Debate

  1. I watched the entire thing from beginning to end without a break. On the other hand, I couldn’t watch any of the speeches at the conventions without a break.  Conclusion: hearing people speak in a Q&A format is much more interesting than hearing people speak for an hour without stopping.
  2. McCain is far better in this format than in a canned speech.  When he’s reading a speech, he seems stiff and phony. When he’s speaking in response to questions, he connects in a personal way. Even though Obama reads a TelePrompter better than anyone in history, he also came off better in this more informal setting. Conclusion: the less formal the better.
  3. With the economy in such a dire mess, I was particularly interested in hearing plans for fixing the economic system.  Conclusion: listeners in a burning house are very interested in hearing the plans of a firefighter. 
  4. I thought Obama did a better job of walking the stage. He would approach the questioners and address them personally.  McCain seemed to be trying to connect with everyone, turning around in a herky jerky manner.  Conclusion: Stay calm.
  5. I found it distracting that McCain paced around in the background when Obama was speaking. Maybe he had to do that because of his war injuries. If that’s the case, then I’m sorry.  But it did bother me. Conclusion: When someone else has the stage, focus your attention on him or her. To do anything else seems rude.
  6. Brokaw’s protests that the candidates were violating the rules seemed silly. Who cares?  They were keeping it short. The format was working fine.  Conclusion: Brokaw is a grumpus.

Survey Details PowerPoint Pet Peeves

I ran across an interesting study of what bothers people the most about PowerPoint.   In the online survey, people were asked to list the top three things that irked them most when watching a PowerPoint presentation.   Almost 700 people responded. Here is what they said.

  • The speaker read the slides to us – 62 %
  • Text so small I couldn’t read it – 47 %
  • Slides hard to see because of color choice – 43 %
  • Full sentences instead of bullet points — 39 %
  • Moving/flying text or graphics — 25%
  • Overly complex diagrams or charts — 22%

A Smile Beats Sex, Chocolate, or Shopping

If you doubt the connecting power of a smile, consider the conclusions of a study out of Great Britain.  When someone looks you in the eye and gives you a warm, genuine smile, the positive stimulation that you feel may be better than sex, chocolate, or shopping.

That’s the conclusion of a study out of Scotland.  And it’s just one more reason why people who want to be great communicators need to remember that smiling and facial energy are critical to connecting with listeners.

According to an article in The Scotsman, a Scottish newspaper, tests were carried out on adult volunteers to determine the effects of various factors in creating a short-term high. An electromagnetic brain scan machine and heart-rate monitor measured brain and heart activity to create a “mood-boosting value” for various stimuli. The tests were carried out on 109 volunteers and followed up by a poll of 1,000 adults.

In the clinical tests, the subjects were shown photos of friends, family and loved ones smiling, given money, and chocolate.

Participants who were shown a child’s smile experienced the same level of stimulation as they would have had from eating 2,000 chocolate bars or receiving £16,000 in cash.

The subsequent survey found that seeing a smile was more likely to create a short-term high than sex, chocolate and shopping.

Now if someone can just find a way to combine all three.

A Perspective on Stage Fright from Elvis Presley

Most people hate stage fright. But Elvis had a different perspective. He embraced the anxiety as a way of maintaining the quality of his performance. Here’s what he said.

I’ve never gotten over what they call stage–fright. I go through it every show. I’m pretty concerned, I’m pretty much thinking about the show. I never get completely comfortable with it, and I don’t let the people around me get comfortable with it, in that I remind them that it’s a new crowd out there, it’s a new audience, and they haven’t seen us before. So it’s got to be like the first time we go on.

He’s right.  Nerves show that you still care.

Happy B-day Jimmy Carter; He Smiled Into Office

Today is the birthday of a man who won the White House, in part, on the power of a radiant smile.  As much as anyone who ever lived, former President Jimmy Carter stands as an example of the power of personal connection.

Carter was famous for his inability to connect well on television.  Ronald Reagan did the TV thing far better. But Carter won the presidency in large measure because when you met him you couldn’t help but like the guy.

I’ve met Jimmy Carter twice and both times he blew me away with his personal charisma.

When I was a cub reporter with The Times in Gainesville Ga. I was assigned to cover a health conference at Emory University that was being led by Carter in 1984. At the conference, I had the chance to interview the former President in a small interview room.

The interview went fine. But what was most interesting to me was what happened after the interview was over. Carter started asking me questions!  He wanted to know where I had been to college and where I was from.  

And as I spoke, he smiled at me and looked me in the eye. He seemed truly interested in everything I had to say. For the short time I was with him, his eyes and that smile made me feel like everything I said was incredibly important to him.  He seemed totally focused on me.

I’ve met many people who have had similar encounters with Carter. Many have reported similar experiences.

The second time I met Carter was about two years ago on an airplane. I was returning to Atlanta from New York. As I boarded the plane, there was Jimmy seated in first class beside his wife Rosalynn.

When everyone finished boarding, Carter stood and made his way to the back of the plane, stopping to greet everyone on the flight. 

“Hi,” he said, extending his hand to everyone as he worked from row to row. “How are you. It’s nice to be traveling with you.” And as he said it, he looked you right in the eye and smiled. You couldn’t help but smile back.  The atmosphere in the plane was buzzing with excitement. 

The man has incredible personal charisma. And it’s largely because of his smile.