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Presenting Yourself » How you come across

Getting the message

When we communicate face to face we receive some 60 per cent of the message via what we see, or body language. Of the remaining 40 per cent, just seven per cent of the message is received via the words themselves, with tone of voice accounting for the other 33 per cent.

Mirror, mirror...

It is important that we put ourselves across effectively in order that we communicate the right message, so let's have a listen to and take a look at ourselves first. It's stating the obvious, but your main communication tool is your voice - no matter what you have to say, if you do not say it in a voice that people warm to and want to listen to, they will not hear.

It is a fact that people respond more readily to voices at the lower end of the scale. Think about the earlier speeches of Margaret Thatcher compared to the later ones - the effects of her voice coach's efforts to lower the pitch of her voice are readily apparent. Here are some people who have problems getting an audience to listen - do you have anything in common with them?

  • Monotonous Mick - Mick has no tone or inflection - verbal punctuation - in his voice. With just one note to play and just one beat to the bar, Mick's audience soon tire of the tune.
  • Gan on Geordie - regional accents are fine, so long as people can understand what you are saying to them. Beware of coupling regional words with the accent - you really could cause problems for your listeners.
  • Squeaky Sue - listening to Sue speak is like listening to a gate creaking in the wind. Her voice is high pitched, scratchy and irritating, if not downright painful to listen to.
  • Hissing Sid - you can't make out Sid's words, you just catch the odd sibilant "S". This makes people feel that they are going deaf and whilst they might strive to hear for a short time, they won't make much of an effort for long.
  • Mumbling Martin - Martin runs all his words into each other, making comprehension well nigh impossible. Careful diction and intonation, combined with changes in pace as necessary, should aid clarity and understanding.
  • Shallow Sharon - despite having none of the above problems and a quite decent voice, Sharon is foiled by lack of depth - her voice just does not carry. A voice which projects well and has depth will come across much more effectively - and believably.

If you are not sure how you sound to others, ask the opinion of someone you can trust to give you an honest judgement. Better still, tape yourself and evaluate what you hear. Do you need to change your tone, speed up or slow down, adapt your normal vocabulary? Practise will pay dividends.

If you are concerned that your voice does not carry as well as it might, try the following:

The object of the exercise is to fill your lungs evenly and to capacity with air, and in order to do this you must breathe from the diaphragm. Your breathing pattern should be even - too fast, too shallow or irregular breathing could make you feel dizzy or anxious. To a slow count of five, breathe in deeply through your nose - your 'stomach' should rise slightly before your chest moves - this shows that you are taking the air deep into your lungs. Hold for five and then release the breath steadily through your mouth, again to a count of five.

This will help you not only to project your voice more effectively, but also to dispel any pre-presentation nerves.

As well as sounding right you must look right. When we communicate face to face, we receive some 60 per cent of the message via what we see, rather than what we hear. As far as clothing is concerned, don't wear anything too fussy or that you don't feel at ease in. In addition, don't jangle loose change in your pockets, don't scratch, fiddle with your hair, play with your buttons or attempt to throttle yourself with your tie! Be steady on your feet - it might be okay for a boxer to dance around, but you aren't planning to beat your audience into submission. A good tip to combat fidgeting is to imagine all your weight is concentrated in your lower body, making you feel more securely balanced. As a result, you will quite naturally feel more relaxed and keep your hands still.

Eye contact is vital. Don't glance nervously around the room, almost but not quite catching someone's eye - look at each individual during your presentation, with each look lasting a few seconds. This is long enough to establish real eye contact, to appear confident and relaxed and acknowledge people as individuals, but not so long that it might feel uncomfortable.

As well as projecting yourself effectively, you need to be sure that you are alert and responsive. It is all too easy to be so concerned about what you are saying that you forget to listen. Always listen carefully to what people say to you; be sure to let them know you are listening by giving them your full attention. Remember that if they ask you a question it's because they want to understand fully, not because they want to trip you up by asking something they think you might not know.

What's in a name?

There is no sweeter sound to most people than that of their own name. You can be in a crowded room with everyone talking at once, but if someone says your name, you hear it. Consequently it follows that one of the most discordant sounds is for someone to get your name wrong - either by mispronouncing it or by using the wrong name entirely.

Building rapport

Rapport is about meeting people on their own level, making them feel at home and so developing a feeling of warmth and well-being. The benefits of this do not need to be spelled out - the question is, how do we achieve this?

Robert Carkhuff1 identified eight core variables in communication, all of which will help you here. These are not in any order of priority.

  • Empathy - showing acceptance and understanding of the feeling state of the individual;
  • Positive regard - showing interest and attention, demonstrating concern - this is very effectively achieved using voice tone;
  • Respect - not judging or evaluating, treating the person as an equal;
  • Genuineness - being sincere, showing that you are not playing a role or maintaining a façade;
  • Concreteness - being specific, avoiding vague terms or jargon;
  • Self-disclosure - being unafraid to reveal your own feelings, when relevant to the discussion;
  • Confrontation - saying it like it is. Confrontation must be presented with warmth, respect and empathy and must be specific if it is to be useful and helpful; otherwise it is hurtful and punishing; and,
  • Immediacy - openly responding to the relationship and developing it to deal with the current situation.

So, to build rapport with people, accept them for who they are and avoid being judgmental - remember, for example, that there is no such thing as a stupid question. Remember also that people have a lot in common and concentrate on the likenessess, not the differences, you have.

Building rapport is a skill you can learn and develop by being aware of your own feelings and by reading other people's body language to determine their true feelings. Remember that we often don't express ourselves directly, but if the words and the gestures don't match, you can bet it's what you are seeing that is the true picture. Think about what might have caused the discomfort, whether it's expressed as anger, embarrassment or whatever. Be alert at all times for situations in which you experience a 'bad feeling'. Try to identify the cause of that feeling, to pinpoint what it was that failed to build rapport between you and the other person. Now you are becoming aware of what you should avoid doing in order to avoid creating bad feeling in the people you communicate with. Look also for the reasons why things go well. Identify techniques that work for you, try them out in different situations, develop your skill.

If you work at this consciously for a while, you will find that it becomes second nature to act in a way that builds rapport with others and this will pay dividends not only in your professional life but in your personal life as well.

1 'Helping and human relations', Robert R. Carkhuff, Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1969.