Just as we have a verbal channel for words and a visual channel for images, we have a social channel for non-verbal signals.

That’s the big idea of Alex Pentland’s book “Honest Signals”.

Alex Pentland is a professor at MIT Media Lab. He and his team have used a specially designed digital sensor called a sociometer to monitor and analyze non-verbal signals between people. Pentland calls them “honest signals” because we send them out unconsciously and therefore they’re difficult to fake. His research shows the great influence this social channel has over our communications.

In my work as a presentation trainer, I emphasize the importance of having well-organized, logical and engaging content ie: the verbal channel. When I first started reading this book I felt a little unnerved – would this research refute my approach.

After all, at first glance one could confuse Pentland’s findings with that pervasive and long-lived erroneous interpretation of Mehrabian’s research – that only 7% of your meaning comes from your words (the rest being from your body language and tone of voice).

However, Pentland’s research is not about showing that one channel is more important than any other. The thesis is simply that the social channel has huge influence. What are the lessons from this finding for presenters?

1. Face to face is important

There are many different options for communicating with people. Sending your intended the audience your slides, or holding a webinar are easy and cheap. A face-to-face presentation is the most logistically challenging and expensive method. But the addition of the social channel makes it worthwhile.

Pentland demonstrated the importance of the face-to-face component of communication by studying the evaluation of business plans by two different groups of people. One group saw executives presenting their business plans live. The second group evaluated the business plans in writing.  Each group recommended a different set of business plans. Pentland says of the group who evaluated the written plans:

[They] had to evaluate the plans based on rational measures alone. Unfortunately for them, research has shown that investments made without that “personal connection” are far more likely to fail.

2. Believe in your content

The reason for the difference in the recommendations was because the people who saw the live presentation could also evaluate the social channel. Here’s how Pentland describes their evaluation process:

While listening to the pitches, though, another part of their brain was registering other crucial information, such as: How much does this person believe in this idea? How confident are they when speaking? How determined are they to make this work?

If you don’t believe in what you’re saying, or you’re bored by it – your audience will be able to discern this through your non-verbal signals. So having well-organized persuasive content that you believe in is critical (phew!).

3. Change how you think, not what you do

I have never been a  fan of speech coaching which focuses on body language and vocal variety. It results in forced, artificial and sometimes quite weird speakers. I wrote about this in my post How to create authenticity – the inside-out approach:

The right way to coach is to focus on what is going on inside. Get the presenter to connect with something inside that will produce what you want to see on the outside. I call this inside-out coaching.

Pentland’s research supports this approach.

Here’s an example of how this works. Let’s say you want to come across as open and approachable. The conventional approach would have you think about using open palm gestures and reminding yourself to smile during your presentation. Instead think of yourself as open and approachable – you might think of a time when feel that way eg: talking with close friends  – and then imagine your audience are close friends. By focusing on this, you will unconsciously communicate the signals which the audience will interpret as open and approachable.

4. Match your audience

Here’s an amazing piece of research reported in  the book – a computer animated figure delivered a three minute presentation to two groups of students encouraging them to carry their university ID whenever they were on campus. The first group just saw the straightforward presentation. The second group of students saw something slightly different:

The animated figure moved exactly as they did, but with a delay of four seconds. If  a student tilted their head thoughtfully and looked up at a fifteen-degree angle, say, then the animated figure would repeat the gesture four seconds later.

This group of students rated the mimicking agent as friendlier, more interesting, honest and persuasive. The mimicking presentation was 20% more effective. (Note: eight out of 69 students realised what the agent was doing – in most cases because they made a movement which looked weird when the agent replicated it. For those 8 students the agent was not more persuasive).

But in general, Pentland’s research shows that mimicry between two people will increase how much they say they like and trust each other.

Here’s the lesson – don’t be too different from your audience. Your audience is often in a fairly passive, possible skeptical mood at the start of your presentation. If you bounce onto the stage with a dramatic opening – you may have their attention, but you won’t have their trust.

At the start of a presentation, meet your audience where they are. I’m an advocate of a conversational start – where your audience can get to know you. Once they know you, like you and trust you – then you can take them with you, stir them and move them to action.

5. Be interested in your audience

In a speed dating experiment, at the end of each encounter both the man and the woman were asked to secretly write down whether they wanted to exchange phone numbers. The researchers’ hypothesis was that the women would be fairly selective about the men they were interested in, whereas the men would be more indiscriminate. But what they found was that generally the men said they wanted to exchange phone numbers only when the woman also wanted to.

And the men were excellent at discerning when a woman was interested in them through her non-verbal signals.

So are audiences. The number one wish for most presenters is to have the audience interested in them. Here’s the secret – be interested in your audience. Often presenters are not interested in their audience. They’re interested in their notes, or the PowerPoint screen, or what they’re going to say next. The audience is the last thing on their mind.

Be interested in your audience. Pause after you’ve expressed an important point and look at a person in your audience. How are they reacting? Be interested in your audience and they will reciprocate.

6. Get people to nod

The results of this experiment left me open-mouthed. The researchers asked a group of people to nod their heads up and down while listening to a sales pitch. They liked the pitch more and were more likely to buy than a control group who didn’t nod their heads up and down! Pentland says:

It is as if your brain thinks to itself, “Well, I see that I’m nodding my head, so I guess I must really like this!”

People nod often in everyday conversation – it’s how we signal that we understand the other person. A person in an audience will nod too – if you give them the signal. In a conversation between two people, that signal is when the person who was speaking pauses. But often, presenters rarely give that signal – the pause – they’re too busy racing onto the next sentence. Look at one person as you’re finishing a sentence – pause at the end – and they will most likely nod. Go on, experiment with this in when you talk to someone and then try it out in your next presentation.

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