Show And Feel

March 28, 2011

American kids have a huge advantage in public speaking because from a young age, they have to “show and tell” – that is, they bring something to school, stand up in front of their class, show the object, and tell the class all about it. This should be mandatory in all schools, including high schools where many teenagers sadly unlearn the creativity and fearlessness of their childhood.

There’s another thing that presenters need to know, and that’s what I’m going to call “show and feel”. No, I am not suggesting you get tactile with your audience.

It’s quite simply that audiences will naturally tend to copy the presenter’s emotions. This is mainly down to the recently-discovered mirror neurons, which produce the same feeling when we see someone else experience something as we feel when we experience it ourselves.

I was reminded of this recently when I was at the Comédie Française watching Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. At one point Falstaff was about to take a swig of wine which he had previously found very unpleasant, and which he had doubtless forgotten. As he raised the bottle to his lips, I found that I was screwing up my eyes and nose, just like the lady in the picture above. I was feeling the disgust which Falstaff was feeling. My mirror neurons were in action.

Apply this to presenting. If you appear bored, your audience will feel bored. If you look like you really don’t want to be there, your audience won’t want to be there either.

If when you say “I’m excited about this” you sound more like Marvin the Paranoid Android than Steve Jobs, nobody will believe you are excited, and they won’t be excited either.

On the other hand, if you appear passionate about your idea, if you look like you are enjoying yourself and feeling comfortable, if you smile at appropriate times, then your audience will most likely mirror those positive emotions.

Yesterday a student in one of my classes gave a presentation where he was smiling almost all the time, laughing from time to time, and was clearly very enthusiastic about his subject. I just couldn’t help enjoying it. On the other hand, at one of the TEDx events I worked at last year, one presenter took the stage in a very bad mood, and hated his talk as much as the audience did.

If you want your audience to enjoy your talk, enjoy it yourself  - visibly. Show positive emotions, and your audience will mirror them.


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