A great speaker can turn even the blandest subject into something amazing. How is it that some speakers can have the audience devour each word while others elicit sighs? Passion, enthusiasm and theatrical antics might be a good starting point, but what else? A public relations company used big data analysis of 100,000 presentations to find out which are the common denominators that turn a presentation into gold.

Public speaking

Credit: Flickr user Håkan Dahlström.

The researchers examined behaviors ranging from word choices and vocal cues to facial expressions and gesture frequency. They then used this data to rate and rank important communication variables such as persuasiveness, confidence, warmth, and clarity. Here are the main takeaways:

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Words matter

A good speaker reads the room and tunes his voice to the audience. Use less jargon if the audience is less technical, and always define terms and subjects that you feel the audience might not know.

Don’t use phrases like “kind of” or “i think”. You’ll sound more confident with words like “I feel” or “I believe”, which add more credibility and force.

Use short sentence, speak clearly and concisely. A trap many fall into is to start speaking as if you’re reading out loud a text. While a text can be re-read for clarification, and nested clauses and sentences are fine, in front of a public these don’t work so well. The analysis suggests being as concise as possible by stripping unnecessary words is most effective.

The voice of a leader

Days in school or at work listening to a monotonous speaker can be arduous. Five minutes in and you feel like leaving for a bathroom break. The analysis suggests that just adding 10% vocal variety (volume, cadence, rate) will have a major impact. Great speakers match spoken words with the emotion they’re trying to enlist. If the context is right, when you say “big” you have to vocalize something BIG. Words like “challenging” or “exciting” can really tune in the audience if spoken with a distinct rate and volume.

Disfluencies like “ums” and “uhs” aren’t that bad when you’re in mid sentence since the audience is more focused on the content itself. When the “ums” kick in between points, this can be annoying. Try to leave a black pause — silence can be very powerful, though difficult to control.

Body language

Non-verbal cues can be more important than words. Stance, gestures and eye contact can be critical to an effective speech.

No matter if you’re tall or short, it’s important to keep your head straight and stand so that your shoulders and hips are square. This balanced position conveys confidence. Concerning gestures, makes broad movements. When not gesturing, keep arms loosely on the sides and avoid toying with pens, jewelry and other items. Eye contact can seem daunting especially if there’s a large audience. A good strategy is to form quadrants and look in that direction. If the presentation is remote in front of camera, look directly into it and imagine the lens is the eyes of another person.

Authenticity

The research found the top speakers are 1.3 times more trustworthy and persuasive than the average speaker because they seem more authentic. Authenticity is primarily conveyed through passion and warmth. A good tip when you’re preparing your presentation is to use a few minutes to reflect back on what points in the talk excite you. Imagining how the audience will benefit from your talk will help motivate and keep you energized for the talk.

Warmth refers to a sort of empathy. It simply refers to your ability to understand your audience’s needs and conveying that understanding in your presentation. Here, everything counts: words, non-body cues and voice. Say things like “Like you, I once..” helps the speaker relate to the audience. Storytelling is your biggest ally for signaling authenticity.

Now, use this information in your upcoming presentation. Remember, practice makes perfect.

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