Why People Aren't Listening To You When You Present

Posted by Norman Bailey on Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Every presenter’s nightmare is spending ages crafting what seems like a perfect pitch that doesn't achieve the desired results.  People seem bored, talk amongst themselves, or they don’t buy into what you have to offer.

So what’s going wrong?  Well, if you’ve spent more time working on the words you say rather than the way you deliver them you’ll keep coming up short.  Why?  Mainly because the words you use, in your carefully crafted speech, only accounts for 7-10% of how people buy into what you have to say.

To achieve greater success you need to work on the 90+% that makes the difference.  Learning to understand how your tone of voice, confidence level and body language influences people’s decision-making process is time well spent.  

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Are you familiar with the 2011 movie, The Artist?  This movie won 7 Oscars, numerous Baftas, and clutch of Golden Globes. It was praised by critics around the world and made $133 million at the box office.  The most amazing thing is that it’s a silent movie. 

This movie, illustrates the point that sometimes we rely too heavily on words to get our message across and win an audience over.

What does this mean for the business person trying to stand out impress an audience? 

You know you have a great product and you’re sure you give the right amount of information about the benefits and features.  But time after time you come away empty-handed.  This can be even more frustrating if others, selling the same products and working from the same script, are achieving better results.  So if it’s not the product and it’s not the words, then it’s time to look at the way you put yourself across to people.

The MIT report below highlights some of the major mistakes people make when they present. This study, along with many others, leads us to a surprising yet illuminating conclusion: people use other channels of communication that don’t simply revolve around words.

Understanding these principles will help you stand head and shoulders above others in your sector.  It will help you pitch like a champion and guarantee you greater success in all areas of presenting.  It will help you to appreciate why successful business and political leaders take vocal and performance training. 


Understanding ‘Honest Signals’ in Business 

New research reveals the surprising power of ancient — and largely unconscious — forms of human communication.  

Prof. Alex Pentland, MIT  


What if you could "see" the rhythms of interaction for people in your work group? In your entire company? Members of my research group and I have done just that by developing technology tools that allow us, for the first time, to gain a dramatically new perspective on human behavior. These tools have revealed subtle patterns in how people interact, enabling us to predict outcomes of situations ranging from job interviews to first dates to business plan pitches.  

To illustrate, consider our study on business plan pitches. In that study, a group of rising- star business executives gathered at MIT for an important task: Each executive would present a business plan to the group, and then the group would choose the best ideas to recommend to a team of venture finance experts. It was a great opportunity. The skills the executives required — the ability to clearly formulate ideas, effectively communicate to a group of peers and then persuade others to pursue those ideas — are indispensable in business as well as everyday life. These executives had each spent more than a decade building their strengths.  

Not only the other group members were watching and evaluating the business plan pitches, however. A sensitive, specially designed digital device was also monitoring each presentation. This device — we'll call it a sociometer — wasn't recording what each person said in their presentation but rather how they said it. How much variability was in the speech of the presenter? How active were they physically? How many back-and-forth gestures such as smiles and head nods occurred between the presenter and the listeners? This device was measuring another channel of communication that works without spoken language: our social sense. 

At the end of the meeting, the group selected the ideas that they agreed would sell the best. At least that is what they thought. When the venture finance experts were given the plans to evaluate — on paper, rather than via a live presentation — there was little similarity between the two groups' judgements. Each group had a different opinion of which business plans were most likely to succeed. Why?  

Our up-and-coming executives didn't pick different business plans simply because they weren't as seasoned as the venture finance experts. Remember our other observer in the room — the sociometer. As it turns out, the sociometer was able to predict which business plans the executives would choose with nearly perfect accuracy. Both the sociometer and our executives (even though they didn't know it at the time) were busy measuring the social content of the presentations, quite apart from the spoken, informational part.  And which channel of communication — social or spoken — informed more of their final decision? Yes, the social channel.  

The executives thought they were evaluating the plans based on rational measures, such as:  How original is this idea? How does it fit the current market? How well developed is this plan? 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? And the second set of information — information that the business executives didn't even know they were assessing — is what influenced their choice of business plans to the greatest degree.  

When the venture finance experts saw the business plans, however, this social channel of communication was purposely removed. They saw the plans written on paper only — with no live presentation. With the social sense disconnected from the decision, the venture finance experts 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. This is why venture capitalists normally invest only in companies they can visit regularly in person, and why many investors pay more attention to the face-to-face interaction among the company's founders than they do to the business plan itself.  

This study, along with many others, leads us to a surprising yet illuminating conclusion: people have a second channel of communication that revolves not around words but around social relations. This social channel profoundly influences major decisions in our lives even though we are largely unaware of it.

These social signals are not just a back channel or complement to our conscious language; they form a separate communication network that powerfully influences our behaviour. In fact, these honest signals provide an effective window into our intentions, goals and values. By examining this ancient channel of communication — paying no attention to words or even who the speakers are — we can accurately predict outcomes of dating situations, job interviews and even salary negotiations. A startling finding is that the back-and forth signalling between people is a major factor in even the most important decisions in our lives.  


What Are Honest Human Signals?  

What are the types of honest signals that humans use? We are familiar with many types of human signals; smiles, frowns, fast cars and fancy clothes are all signals of who we are (or who we want to be). In fact, this sort of signalling is probably the basis of fashion and "current culture."  We are conscious of these types of displays and often carefully plan to incorporate them into our communications. And therein lies the problem: Because these signals are so frequently planned, we cannot rely on them being honest. We need to find signals that are processed unconsciously, or that are otherwise uncontrollable, before we can count them as honest.  

If we watch a conversation between two people and carefully measure the timing, energy and variability of the interaction, we can find several examples of honest signals. Four that we will concentrate on here are:  

       Influence. The amount of influence each person has on another in a social interaction. Influence is measured by the extent to which one person causes the other person's pattern of speaking to match their own pattern. 

       Mimicry. The reflexive copying of one person by another during a conversation, resulting in an unconscious back-and forth trading of smiles, interjections and head nodding during a conversation. 

       Activity. Increased activity levels normally indicate interest and excitement, as seen in the connection between the activity level and excitement in children, or when male orangutans shake branches to impress potential mates. 

       Consistency. When there are many different thoughts or emotions going on in your mind at the same time, your speech and even your movements become jerky, unevenly accented and paced. The consistency of emphasis and timing is a signal of mental focus, while greater variability may signal an openness to influence from others. 

These honest signals influence critical activities such as negotiation, group decision making and project management. 


Signals Change People 
It is tempting to imagine that these social signals are some sort of magic incantation that you can use to control people. But there is a fundamental difference between honest signaling and the more familiar medium of language: Signaling inherently changes both people, whereas conscious language can be strictly one-way. 


Honest Signals in Groups 
Why does this ancient communication channel exist? What does it do? Data from biology show that honest signals evolved to coordinate behavior between competing groups of individuals.  For instance, honest signals form a communication channel that helps to create family groups and hunting teams. The social circuits formed by the back-and-forth pattern of signaling between people shapes much of our behavior, as our ancient reflexes for unconscious, social coordination work to fuse us together into a coordinated (but often contentious) whole.  

In a family, a work group or even an entire organization, the pattern of signaling within the social network strongly influences the behavior of both the individuals and the group as a whole. Healthy signaling patterns result in good decision making, while bad patterns result in disaster. The social circuitry of a work group, for instance, can insulate the group from problems like group think and polarization. Even for large networks of humans, such as companies or entire societies, the pattern of social circuitry influences the "intelligence" of the network.  


The Implications of Our Findings 

The sociometer has given us a different view of human society — one that owes more to our ancient capacity for honest signaling than to our conscious mind, and one in which signaling within our social networks is seen as more powerful than logic or reason. And the sociometer has also given us a new, powerful way to understand and manage human groups, corporations and entire societies.

MIT Research Paper

Start Changing The Way You Present 

There you have it.  Start paying more attention to you, not your PowerPoint graphics or all the NLP tricks you've been told work so well.  Start cultivating presentations centred on you turning up and addressing your audience as one human being to another.  Get help if you need to.  And watch your presenting nerves melt away and your success as a presenter sky rocket.


Art will feed itself

Life-long creative. I have one goal in life and that is to live from my creative endeavours, That what my motto 'Art will feed itself' means. this.