Want to see something cringeworthy? Take a minute and watch this guy. It’s a video of the once viral Phil Davison. He is speaking to a room of maybe one or two dozen people, trying to get nominated to run for treasurer of Stark County, OH.
Of Stark County, OH.
To be clear: I am not discounting the importance of the office of treasurer or the essential role of local politics. Treasurer is an important office at any level. And local politics are an essential bedrock of democracy. In fact, that’s why Phil’s style is so bad. Most of our own speaking situations are like Phil’s, in a sense. We’re talking to small groups, trying to win the trust of peers and local leaders, trying to move up the ladder in our own neck of the woods. These kinds of situations call for even more relatability, accessibility, and level-headedness than other situations. Miscalibrated emotions can ruin our chances.
And yet, Phil screams at the audience in torrents of rage; he paces across the rostrum like a person having a panic attack; his eyes bulge and dart-like someone who just woke up under emergency room lights. It’s not pretty.
And yet, buried beneath all of Phil’s emotional excess is an actual speech. It is not a good speech, let alone a great speech. Its content is generic and riddled with cliches. Its reasoning is thin. In other words, it’s a political stump speech. But it’s not terrible or embarrassing. You could read the text and think nothing of it.
I often think Phil must have been given some bad advice. “Just be passionate,” I can hear a well-meaning friend tell him. Or, “Be angry. People like that.” Or, “Move around a lot. Own the room.”
We could just as easily consider the opposite problem. I assume you do not need a video of it. You can probably think of any number of current or former teachers, church leaders, managers, colleagues, or even friends who seem to have been given the opposite advice. “Don’t over-emote.” “People get uncomfortable if you’re too passionate.” “Just be calm.” So, they take it too far. They detach from the audience as if to acknowledge the people in the room will carry them away. They become robots.
The problem with advice to be “more passionate” or “less passionate” is that we do not know what “more” or “less” means. “More” or “less” than what exactly? You might as well tell someone to be “more” humorous or “less” formal. As if that is something they can just go do. People want tactics, not abstractions. So, here are 4 research-backed behaviors to ensure your emotional levels fit the occasion.
- Name the emotions you want to target.
Neuroscience has confirmed that we make decisions overwhelmingly based on our feelings. So, decide which parts of your message should communicate which emotions. Don’t decide simply to be emotional or passionate. Name the emotions you want to use to connect with your audience and make sure you include content that will help you target those emotions are the right times. Just being conscious of the emotion you want to share will help you to calibrate your delivery style in appropriate ways. And if, like Phil, you have only targeted one extreme emotion, then you know you need to target others to add levels and trust to your message.
- Imagine you are speaking to a friend or family member.
When we stand up in front of an audience, we usually forget that we are participating in a simple communication activity. Our brains and bodies surge with stress because they believe we are in a threatening situation. One of my favorite theories is that we fear speaking in public, because, from an evolutionary standpoint, we associate having eyes on us with being pursued by predators.So we give in to the fight or flight response.
No matter how much we try to command ourselves to calm down, we just want to run away and disappear into the safety of our seat. But since we cannot sit down right away, we do other things to try to make ourselves disappear. We speak more quietly, go expressionless in our face, gesture timidly, stand still. We become completely devoid of human emotion. It’s the opposite of the Phil Davison problem. Instead of behaving like rabid animals, we become mute statues.
My favorite tactic for solving this problem is to imagine I am speaking to someone I love, and someone who loves me. I might imagine I am speaking to my spouse or one of my children, or to my Mom or Dad, or to an encouraging friend. Not only does the thought of such people give us a sense of safety, it also triggers our conversational energy. When we speak to such people, we are more animated and natural. We want to show emotion, but we don’t want to freak them out. These are people we neither shout at nor shy away from.
- Use sustained eye contact.
This tactic is so powerful. Because the fight or flight response kicks in, we do not want to engage productively with our audience members. We wish they weren’t in the room, or that we weren’t in the room. So our eyes dart everywhere. They go into scanning mode, avoiding the faces and eyes of the people we’re supposed to be connecting with. The problem here is that by trying to avoid our audience’s eyes, we actually make ourselves more nervous and less focused.
Eye contact tells our mirror neurons to fire, which leads to more focus, composure, and emotional impact in our delivery. The studies related to the power of eye contact are overwhelming. From infants to peers to everyone else, people are engaged at an emotional level with effective eye contact. Your face, your voice, your body language – they all become more engaged when you make eye contact. Even when you’re looking at one person in the eyes, other people will see your engagement with that person and be drawn to you. And that’s what you want. Not to be “more passionate” or “less passionate.” You want to be more engaged.
So, how do you make effective eye contact? I’ll discuss this question in more detail in a future blog, but here are some basics. Stop messing with the tricks, like looking over people’s heads. Make real eye contact for several seconds with each person in the room, or as many people as you reasonably can. Vary the order, but try to hit everyone. Do not speak unless you are looking into a pair of eyes. Transition from one pair of eyes to another in silence. This will help with pacing and inflection. Try not to transition until you’ve reached the end of a thought, phrase, or complete sentence.
- Tell stories.
Like eye contact, storytelling is one of those tactics that have an almost spell-like quality on the audience. But it also casts a spell on you as the speaker. Stories are natural repositories of emotional content. They can be funny, sad, surprising, joyous, or infuriating. Stories are proven to connect and persuade us.
And our delivery style tends to match the content of the stories we tell. We do not have to contrive abstract emotions. They flow naturally. Imagine if Phil Davison had stopped to tell a story about real people who faced real situations. Imagine if he had told us about these people using real details, like settings and dialogue and plots. Perhaps he would have stopped raving at his audience. Suddenly, he would have seemed like real a human being connecting with other real human beings.
Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.
His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.
Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.
In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.