The “Smart” Trap

Lots of us fall into the “smart” trap when presenting: we work so hard to be polished and articulate that we overcompensate and come across as flat, boring, and egg-headed. We’ve all certainly heard (and suffered through) talks like this.

So how is it that great communicators manage to engage and entertain their audiences while sounding smart? They’re open and sincere.

We all have different personalities, of course. But whether you’re boisterous or quiet, be yourself. If you really love what you do, for example, let your enthusiasm show. Take a look at Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. He exudes so much passion when he presents that his sweaty, breathless dancing became a YouTube phenomenon.

And then, at the other end of the spectrum, there’s Susan Cain, whose style was very subdued when she gave one of the most buzzed-about talks at TED 2012, “The Power of Introverts.”

She spoke quietly and convincingly. Her approach suited her — and her subject matter — perfectly. She delivered her message in a way that would resonate with fellow introverts when she wished them “the courage to speak softly.”

The funny thing is, it takes practice to be as natural as Steve Ballmer and Susan Cain in front of a group. When you rehearse, think carefully about your stance and your gestures. Knowingly or not, people size up your body language to gauge your authenticity. Constricted and contrived gestures will make you appear insecure. Larger movement conveys confidence and openness.

Use your physical expression to its fullest:

Peel yourself away from your slides

If you turn your back to the audience to look at your slides, you put up a physical and psychological barrier. As much as you can, keep your eyes on the audience. Let people see your face.

Open up your posture

Avoid a “closed” stance, such as folding your arms, standing with legs crossed, putting your hands in your pockets, or clasping your hands behind or in front of you. It signals discomfort.

Use gestures to amplify what you’re saying

If you’re presenting a record year in sales, go “big” with your arms. If your team barely missed its targets, bring everything in, perhaps showing a tiny little gap between your thumb and forefinger.

Brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor coordinated her gestures and content beautifully in her 2008 TED talk about what it was like to have a massive stroke. She threw her arms upward to convey the unexpected rush of euphoria she’d felt as the left side of her brain shut down (about the 15-minute mark in the video below); she brought them back down when she described how she’d surrendered her spirit, ready to transition out of this world.

It’s easy to get caught up in what the audience thinks about you. But don’t worry too much. Audiences are more gracious than you’d think, especially if you’ve earned their trust by being yourself — and showing them that you’re comfortable in your own skin.

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