As soon as I got down on my hands and knees, I knew I had my audience’s attention. From my position on the floor, I imitated the motions that I thought a late 1970s era housewife would go through when trying to retrieve something from inside a 1960s era vacuum cleaner. Even with my head down, I could feel the audience leaning in, watching what I was doing, and listening to what I had to say.
I had learned earlier in the week that including an “attention grabber” in my presentation would boost my audience engagement. So far it seemed to be working. I continued on with my presentation. At the end… I received applause. They liked it! And a few days later, I received my grade - I got an ‘A.’
Kneeling on the floor of my 10th grade speech class, reciting a chapter from Erma Bombeck’s early 80s comedic bestseller, If Life is a Bowl of Cherries, What Am I Doing in the Pits?, I had come to understood the power of non-verbal communication.
As a sophomore in high school, I was still pretty introverted, not wanting to stand out for fear of drawing a bully’s attention. The recitation assignment was one of our first real ‘presentations’ to the class. My original plan was to recite a Bloom County comic from the daily paper. It was funny and short, which meant the memorization would be easy and my time in front of the audience brief. In 30 seconds, I could have the embarrassment over with if I just recited this cartoon. I also naively thought I could deliver the wry, deadpan humor of Berkeley Breathed’s popular strip.
The night before my presentation however, after investing 5 minutes to memorize my comic strip, I was rehearsing the lines out loud. Sitting in our family room, my mom looked up from the paper. She asked me what I was going to do in class. I made the excuses you’d expect from a 15-year old, talked around it and then finally stood up and started to re-tell the comic. I wasn’t even through the first word balloon dialogue when I could tell this was sinking like a stone and I was in trouble.
I didn’t have a workable piece! I was due to present the next day! What was I going to do??? My mother (and serious deadline pressure) was literally the mother of my next invention.
Scanning the bookshelves for some literary material that I could quickly memorize, I came across a couple of Bombeck’s books. A columnist, she turned her observations on the state of domestic affairs into several bestselling books. My mom was a fan and even laughed out loud reading the books. If it could make my mom laugh, surely it could make a bunch of 10th graders chuckle. I grabbed the latest book that we had, Life is a Bowl… and started scanning through it to find material that was the right length and included something I could use as an attention grabber.
Non-verbal communication, like an attention grabber, is often overlooked and underused in our presentations.
As the speaker, we are often too busy trying to memorize our material, to make sure we don’t forget the number in box F65 on our Excel spreadsheet. A consequence is we may show up looking a bit mentally taxed and not meet the energy of our audience. That can be a critical mistake according to the experts cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article.
The words you speak are important. But how you speak them are equally critical in getting your message across. These communication areas are Visual, Vocal, and Verbal. We tend to focus all our time trying to memorize and rehearse the Verbal, thus ignoring the Vocal and Visual. This leaves the audience disconnected, not having really heard any of the brilliance you shared.
Visual is both the way the content is presented on the screen as well as how you are physically presenting it. It’s worth having a colleague record one of your presentations so you can see how you move in front of your audience. Does it look natural? Are you relaxed or tense? A subject matter expert, which you are if you are presenting, knows their stuff and should appear calm. Move around in front of your audience. I talk with my hands, in real life as well as when I’m presenting. A public speaking course I took once tried to get me to keep my arms at my side while I spoke, or to use small, subtle gestures. I felt ridiculous trying to contain my natural enthusiasm. I followed that advice only until the end of the training and promptly reverted back to what works for me.
Tip #1: Bring yourself to the presentation. Being buttoned up doesn’t mean being a stiff.
Have you ever gone through a presentation and realized afterward that your voice was all up in your throat and your breathing was nearing hyperventilation? I have. More than once. Now, I remind myself to breathe and slow down. Otherwise I end up sounding like an out of breath teenager trying to get every last detail in. That just doesn’t resonate with the audience.
Where I have ‘nailed it’ in presentations is when I take my time and use. Some. Emphasis. To. Make. My. Point.
and let the audience take it in.
This is Vocal communication, it’s the way you say what you say. It’s like the yin to Verbal communications yang. They complement each other and if you want to give an impactful presentation, you need a balance of both.
Tip #2: Breathe. Emphasize. Inflect.
The decision to get down on the floor seemed like the only logical thing to do although I was scared to try it. A newbie to speaking, I was trying to figure out how to grab my high school audience’s attention and bring the story of a housewife to life. It served a dual purpose. I used it as a visual communication tool – the audience had to look down and stretch their neck from the back if they wanted to see what I was doing. I also used it as a vocal communication tool – the audience had to strain to hear my voice because it got muffled while my face was pointing toward the imaginary vacuum cleaner. This “attention grabber” only lasted a few moments. Once I stood up, I continued to deliver my monologue.
Should you get down on the floor in your next presentation? Only if it adds to the storytelling. Had Erma written about a housewife washing the dishes, I would have done something altogether different.
Tip #3: Enhance, don’t distract.
Getting down on the floor for that presentation ended up being transformative for me. Once I finished and received congratulations from my classmates, it gave me the confidence boost I needed to go further and stretch my imagination for the next time. And if something didn’t work, I learned from it and tried a different way the next time. I was learning that, while the words you say are important, the way that you say them and how you say them are just as critical. Those are the tricks that make the difference between the presentations that quickly fade, and those that resonate and inspire action.