Hi, I am about to give you a critical presentation which I have spent dozens of hours preparing.
I've got such a great message that you need to hear, it will change your life, it will help you and help me.
So I'm going to kick it off by shuffling to the front of the room with bad posture, wrinkled clothes,
hands in my pockets, shifty eyes, and a smirk that reveals some spinach from lunch stuck in my teeth.
How long do you have to make a good impression on your audience? It can be as long as 15 seconds, and that's not a a long time. In job interviews, many interviewers have already subconsciously made up their mind about the candidate within the first 7 seconds of meeting them. The situation in a presentation is in many ways similar to a job interview. You have to persuade others, you have to sell you or your ideas. So in a business presentation, those first few seconds count for a lot. They set the stage for what comes next, so we need to do everything we can to ensure success.
So how to make a big, positive impact in those critical first seconds?
Three things are vital in making that first impression, in projecting confidence:
- Your posture
- Your appearance
- Your facial expression
Thinking carefully about these will radically boost the effectiveness of your presentation. Make the audience like you, show them you're someone they should listen to. Look positive and confident. That's what we want to see in a speaker.
That 15 second clock to make a good impression? It's ticking even before you open your mouth or launch your slide deck. We, the audience, are sizing you up from the moment you walk up to begin your presentation, or even earlier. Think about how you look from the audience's perspective
Head Held High
First off, how's that posture?
Shoulders straight, walking at a steady pace with your head up, arms at your side? Great! We've all subconsciously sized you up as looking confident, relaxed, and implicitly trustworthy.
Hunched shoulders, walking quickly with your head down, arms crossed or held in front of you? Hmmm, you look a bit weak, lacking confidence. Is this the kind of person who'll be able to persuade me? Maybe you are, but I and the other audience members now have some reservations about what comes next.
Don't give us that impression. Be aware of how you stand, how you're walking, what your arms are doing. Be aware of yourself and what your body is doing at all times.
I naturally have pretty bad posture, but I know that, and I know to concentrate on fixing it when I stand in front of an audience. I push my shoulders back a bit, make sure my spine is straight, and that my head is tilted up. I feel stronger, I look stronger, my voice becomes stronger. But most importantly, the audience sees a stance which says, "This guys looks confident." That immediately adds credibility to me or any other speaker, and will make the audience that much more likely to listen to us and give our message a fair shake.
We're still close enough to our animal ancestors to recognize a good posture as being confident and dominant, and poor posture as looking submissive and weak. We instinctively want to listen to someone who projects confidence and strength, so make sure your body language is giving that off before you even begin your presentation. Be aware, and adjust as needed so that we, the audience, instinctively thinks "this person looks confident."
Body language is important throughout your presentation, so don't start slouching after your opening! But it is never more critical than in those first few seconds when we, the apes in the audience, are sizing you up and deciding how well we think we can put our trust in you.
And how about your fashion sense?
Are you dressed appropriately for the audience, looking clean and presentable? Good job! Again we've sized you up as looking professional and confident.
Or, did you wear a business suit to a meeting at a startup? Is your hair messy, or worse, dandruffy? Too much makeup? Unshaven, and not in a stylish manner? Your tie is loose, jacket is unbuttoned, shoelaces untied. These seem like minor things, but each adds a bit to reducing your credibility to the audience. You look sloppy. Again, we've subconsciously tagged you, and not in a positive way.
Take a look in the mirror before you start. Make sure your clothes and appearance are giving the right impression. Dress for success. It can be a good idea to dress a little bit more formally than your audience, but not too much more. Show a bit of foresight by erring on the side of formality a little, because it can show respect for the audience, and it's easy to adjust your formality down (take off that jacket, undo that tie, loosen your hair) if needed after you show up.
It's not Poker
But let's assume you've done everything right, and you've run the gauntlet. You have walked up to begin your presentation looking confident, neat, and professional.
Maybe five seconds have elapsed up to this point, but you're not out of the woods yet.
You now turn to face the audience and we can focus on your face. What do we see?
A smile and eye contact with the audience? Great!
A frown and eyes darting all over the room in panic, looking like you're worried there's a lion out in the audience? Uh-oh, audience confidence level down.
Or, perhaps you have a poker face that you think makes you look serious and professional, like someone who should be respected and listened to? You'll come off as arrogant and cold before even opening your mouth.
Make the audience like you.
A smile goes a long way. We instinctively react positively to smiles, it's wired into us. We want to share in whatever is making you smile, we want to hear your words.
And good eye contact builds trust in the audience and inspires confidence. If we see your eyes looking everywhere rapidly, we see someone who is nervous, who likes like they'll panic. Again, our brains are wired for this. Our confidence in you takes a dive.
Start by taking in the audience with your gaze when you launch your presentation. Make it feel inclusive, makes us feel like we are part of the conversation.
Create a mood
Use that body language, dress, smile, and appearance to set a positive mood to begin your presentation. Sure, if your presentation involves delivering bad news, a smile may not be the most appropriate later on, but in most cases a presentation is meant to be persuasive and people are persuaded more by positivity than by negativity.
Is any of this fair? Not really. It's true that our presentations should really be judged on the merits of our ideas. But humans are still animals, driven by a few hundred thousand years of instinct and reading body language for signs of dominance or submissiveness. You may still be able to persuade us even if giving off signals of weakness, but it's going to be harder, it's not going to persuade everyone as effectively.
Use good posture, a professional appearance, and a winning smile to create a positive mood at the start of your presentation. Set yourself up for success by creating that mood and giving the audience some reassurance that you are the kind of person we should trust and listen to. You'll see it in their faces when they have confidence in you, and they'll have confidence in you when you display it by your posture, clothing, smile and eye contact.
Then we'll be far more ready to listen to that awesome, life-changing message.