Presentation traps 13 – The body trap

By Jean-luc lebrun

We are trapped in our body. Funny thing is, we never knew, but come the day of the presentation and body parts buried in the background of our consciousness surge to the foreground to make themselves known. Arms appear out of nowhere, with hands attached, turning us into stage puppeteers having to consciously lift and direct our limbs out of limbo. Legs descend to the ground like measuring tapes, bringing back to life embarrassing gaussian deviations in the tall woman and the short man. It definitely feels like an out-of-body experience!

Whether we like it or not, our body contributes to the perception the audience has of us. Our body is both signal and noise. Any unnecessary noise will reduce the strength of the communication signal. There are two classes of body noise: the visual and the audible noise.

Audible noise distracts because it attracts attention to what is unnecessary.  A type of high velocity wind-based body noise familiar to all – the cough (what were you thinking!) distracts. The dry nervous cough (or noisy swallowing) interrupts speech and irritates the audience. The audience relaxes with a relaxed speaker and stresses with a stressed speaker. Another type of audible noise would be the uninformative sounds (the hesitant em) or words recurring so frequently that they distract. I remember a speaker who finished most sentences with “and so on and so forth”. The third time that phrase was spoken,  I became attentive to it and it distracted me. Another distracting mannerism is the  oral suspension mark […] after saying “a” or  “the”. Teachers are frequent abusers of a technique supposed to perk a student’s attention by interrupting a sentence in order to let the student fill in the missing word as in “And the animal that eats mice is the…”. Equally distracting is the systematic ending of a sentence on a high pitch.  The presenter is rarely  aware of such mannerisms. So if you are the best friend or the presentation coach of people with such mannerisms, tell them… gently. You are doing them a great favour!

Visual noise effectively attracts attention away from the presentation and towards the body of the presenter. Movement of the rhythmic type  are detected early (the left to right bear dance, the dance in a triangular pattern are frequent). Excessive hand gestures are just as distracting – the habit is inherited from parents but it is sometimes cultural and a national trait. Provocative clothing creates noise too: high heels, an oversized belt buckle, a noisy colour (orange, red), or a T-Shirt with a recognizable politician’s face or a offensive tagline such as “Rude  is cool”.

Stillness, the absence of body noise is just as disturbing. The zombie presenter whose only moving parts are the eyes, the lips, and the finger clicking the button on the presentation remote, may be popular in Jamaica – but there aren’t that many scientific conferences there.

The body is not just noise. It also serves as signal. When the body moves, it recaptures the attention of the audience, away from the screen, unless it turns to the screen, a signal telling the audience to also turn their attention to the screen. Body gestures and voice express the presenter’s interest in the topic presented. They act as punctuation marks. They underline. They replace verbs of emphasis.

In short, you – the human – need your body to support you – the presenter. The last thing you want to be remembered by… is a wooden performance.

Source Flickr; Author: Kind of blue

Author: Jean-Luc Lebrun

This century: Writer on Scientific writing skills and scientific presentation skills, MC for scientific events, Podcaster, Radio Consultant, Trainer for Research Institutes in Engineering and Life Sciences, Singapore, and in European doctoral schools, as well as in South East Asia Universities.
Last Century: Apple Computer, Advanced Technology Group, Technology Information manager. Then Director of the Apple-ISS Research Centre – a joint venture between Apple Computer and the National University of Singapore. Producer of TV program on IT for Singapore Channel 5.

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