Crossing your arms is OK

A few years ago, I conducted media training for an organization that was potentially facing a strike. I was asked to provide one day of training for management-level employees who would manage strike sites as representatives of the organization. Prior to the start of my portion of the agenda, the company’s director of human resources spent about 45 minutes talking to the group about the logistics of managing the strike.

Later, when we discussed body language in broadcast interviews, I crossed my arms and asked if this was appropriate body language for someone delivering a presentation or being interviewed on television. Everyone said it was inappropriate; I looked closed.

Business woman standing, smiling, with her arms crossed
I turned to the HR director and asked if she would ever stand in front of a group and present information with her arms crossed. She said she would never do that. I asked the group if she would ever do that, and they all said that she was far too professional to ever do something like that.

However, that was exactly what she did. I had been sitting at the back of the room at the time, with my video camera on a tripod, so I turned on the camera and recorded her after she crossed her arms while talking to the group. When I played back the tape, everyone was surprised that they hadn’t noticed she had committed what is often known as a body language “sin.”

The point I made to this group was that, because the HR director was communicating effectively and being herself, they did not even notice the body language. It was natural for her. Her body language was consistent with who she was and what she was saying.

If you were standing outside her office, she may have her arms crossed, but she would be listening with that special brand of attentiveness reserved for those who are truly in the “people” business.

Every of us is unique. Each of us has our own way of standing, talking and conveying our messages.

We need to “be ourselves” when engaged in a broadcast interview or presentation of any type. This is how we convey our personality, and this builds the trust that makes our message believable.

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Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
As Canada's most experienced, credentialed and effective media training consultant, Eric Bergman provides services to clients globally from his base in Toronto.

Contact Eric if you’re interested in having your spokespeople be more relaxed, authentic, credible and believable during broadcast interviews and all types of presentations.

Simple trick to improve presentations? Turn off the projector

There is one nightmare that nearly every presenter has both experienced and witnessed—one thing of which audience members are terrified when they walk into a presentation.

Boredom.

Not only do presenters often bore audiences, but in the worst circumstances, presenters bore themselves.
Letters P P T with a red cross through it

An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review entitled “
The #1 Killer of Meetings (And What You Can Do About It),” Peter Bregman describes the journey he took to stop boredom and enhance engagement during his presentations. His conclusion is simple. If you don’t want anyone to be bored during your meetings or presentations, there is one simple thing you can do: turn off the projector.

Bregman’s transformation began after a two-day off-site meeting several years ago as he both watched and delivered slide-based presentations. In each presentation one of two things occurred: the audience tuned out or they poked holes in the presenter’s content.

“People tune out because nothing is required of them,” he explains in the article. “Or they poke holes because, if they don’t tune out, it’s the most interesting thing to do when someone is trying to prove there are no holes.”

After his experience, Bregman was determined to find a better way. “Over time,” he says, “I identified a single factor that makes the biggest difference between a great meeting and a poor one: PowerPoint. The best meetings don’t go near it.

“PowerPoint presentations inevitably end up as monologues,” he continues. “They focus on answers, and everyone faces the screen. But meetings should be conversations. They should focus on questions, not answers, and people should face each other. I know it sounds crazy, but I’ve found that even the hum of the projector discourages dialogue.”

Presentation lessons from Jack the Ripper's walk

During a trip to London, England with my family, I had the pleasure of participating in what's known as a Jack the Ripper walk. Not only was it fun, it was an excellent reminder of presentation effectiveness.

At a designated spot overlooking the Tower of London, we met our affable Cockney guide, Pete. He was a character, our Pete, and he would have looked out of place in most boardrooms, training rooms and classrooms.

But the communication skills he demonstrated were exceptional, and should be envied and emulated by anyone who has to prepare and deliver presentations to others. We can all learn from “our Pete.”

wall in london separating east from west
Pete used statistics sparingly
After he gathered his flock, he led us to our first stop—the remains of the old Roman wall that has traditionally divided London's east-enders from the rest of the city. "In 1888, half the children born on the east side of this wall didn't survive until their first birthday," Pete told us. "It was said that, for every 100 yards you traveled east, life expectancy dropped by a year."

I’ve often said that statistics should be to presentations as spice is to a meal—used sparingly. Too much ruins the main course, the story.

Pete told stories well
To illustrate his love of history, he told us a story of traveling to Hadrian's Wall as a school boy. (Hadrian's Wall is the roman wall that has traditionally separated England from Scotland.)

It was not a pleasant field trip, Pete informed us. It was raining. It was cold. He was miserable.

He was walking along the wall when he came to some Latin graffiti scratched into its side. He got out a piece of paper and his pencil, and rubbed the inscription so he could bring it to his Latin teacher.

When the Latin teacher read the inscription, he smiled. "You didn't enjoy yourself at Hadrian's Wall, did you," the teacher said. "No, sir," Pete replied.

"Apparently a man named Devinius wasn't enjoying himself either."

Pete clearly stated outcomes up front
Within a minute or two of gathering us together, Pete told us he hoped we would gain two things. First, he wanted us to learn more about life in late 19-century London, the city of his birth. Second, he wanted us to better understand why he’s so proud to call London his home.

We gained both, in spades.

Pete knew that pausing is important for him and us
Pete paused to think before speaking. This enabled him to choose his words carefully so that each word out of his mouth added value.

Pete paused after he spoke. This allowed us to think about what he’d just said. He allowed us to process one thought before giving us another. He didn’t try to overload us with information. The entire presentation was two-way and receiver-driven, while adhering to the principle of “less is more.”

Pete used visuals sparingly, and well
When he brought us to a new location, he would introduce it and give us time to look at it. “This is not where one of the murders happened,” he told us in one case. “But if we went there now, you’d all be disappointed because it’s a parking lot. This is what London would have looked like in Jack’s time.”

He would pause to allow us to look around and let our imaginations work. When we started coming back to him, he continued his presentation.

He showed half a dozen pictures from his smartphone for emphasis. But again, he would tell us what we were going to see, then showed it. When he showed the picture, he moved the phone from person to person around the group, letting us absorb it. During those times, he never said a word.

Pete answered questions clearly and concisely
While he was always polite, he thankfully kept his answers short. This enabled many of us to ask a lot of questions. We learned from each other’s curiosity, which only added to the educational experience for everyone.

Pete demonstrated excellent presentation and communication skills. He provided lessons of value that could be applied to every boardroom, training room, meeting room, conference hall and lecture hall on the planet.

So, if you’re ever in London, look up our Pete and join him on his walk.

For the price of a movie ticket and pop, you’ll gain insight into parts of London that most people don’t see. You’ll begin to share Pete’s love for his city.

And, if you watch Pete at work, you’ll gain insight into communicating effectively with others during all types of presentations from one of the most unlikely but effective of sources.
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Media training consultant Eric Bergman in front of his motorcycle near Lake Ontario with the Toronto skyline in the background
Eric Bergman has helped his clients shape their presentations strategically and tell their story effectively for more than 30 years. If enhancing presentation success is important to you or your organization, contact Eric to learn more.


Tank, Bucket and Trough:
Secrets to presentation success

To improve your ability to present your ideas effectively—to inform and/or persuade any audience—it’s important to understand two ideas.

The first is that the true value of any presentation can only be found in what comes out of the presenter’s mouth. The second is that the only thing that matters is how information goes out of the presenter’s mouth into the long-term memory of individuals attending the presentation.

Believe it or not, tapping into how people listen is the secret to presentation success.

How listening works

Listening involves both working memory (sometimes incorrectly called short-term memory) and long-term memory. When we listen to someone with the
Water pouring from a tap as a metaphor for presentation success
intent of understanding and retaining what they’ve said, we take small amounts of information into working memory. From there, we move each snippet of information to long-term memory—to find or create a place for that information in our existing cognitive framework so we can retain it and use it later.

When working memory is engaged with long-term memory, listening stops. As humans, we can either listen to what someone is currently saying, or we can process what the person has just said. We cannot do both; we cannot listen and think at the same time.

Any information not moved from working memory to long-term memory will be lost. It will not be retained, regardless of the best intentions of the person attempting to communicate, or how important that information is to the person or people attempting to listen.

If you’ve ever attended a fantastic presentation that you felt provided incredible value while you were there, but shortly after the presentation can’t remember a darn thing the presenter said, you’re familiar with what happens when working memory is overloaded. Nothing is retained; even the value you thought you were receiving cannot be later recalled.

The hitch to this process is that working memory is overloaded, which can happen very quickly, nothing is retained. Information spills out, never to be retrieved.

One Bucket at a Time

The best way to understand how this works is to think of the sender of information (the presenter) as someone with a tank full of water that he or she would like to get across to a series of troughs, which represent the long-term memories of individual audience members. The only thing that has a chance of being remembered by the audience is water that makes it from the sender’s tank to the receiver’s trough.

The water has to be transported from tank to trough one bucket at a time. This represents how working memory takes small amounts of information to long-term memory, where it can be recalled later.

The audience fills their small bucket with information from the presenter. When the bucket has reached its limit, the bucket is taken to the appropriate trough and emptied.

Any water spilled while the bucket is on its way to or from the trough is lost forever. The process is repeated until the tank is empty or time runs out.

There are a couple of twists to this analogy. First, each bucket can only be filled at a conversational speed. If information comes too quickly, a spring releases at the bottom of the bucket and everything spills out, never to be retained. Working memory is overloaded.

Second, the spring gets sprung if the information is filled past a specific line on the bucket. Again, working memory is overloaded.

Either of these—the information coming too fast or too much information—overloads working memory. The presenter’s information never makes it to the trough and is lost forever.

You fill too quickly if you don’t pause during your presentations. The audience needs time—in silence—to move each small piece of information from tank to trough.

You fill past the line by showing the audience any form of written information while talking to them. Every slide that’s shown or used when someone is talking—every situation in which there’s something for the audience to read, to think about, to decode or to decipher—comes with a cognitive cost that results in working memory being overloaded. When working memory is overloaded, very little (if anything) makes it to the trough.

As researcher Dr. Christoph Wecker puts it, there is a “speech suppression” effect of PowerPoint. His research demonstrates that, when slides are used—even using what he calls “concise” slides that are less cluttered and fewer in number than the vast majority of slides you’ve seen in your life—the audience does not hear large portions of what the speaker is saying.

If you want to improve the amount of information that makes it from your tank to their trough—if you wish to increase your ability to inform or persuade any audience—you will be most successful if you do it one bucket at a time.

Don’t deliver a presentation to your audience. Have a conversation with them, and they will better retain and use your ideas long after you have left the room.
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Media training consultant Eric Bergman beside his motorcycle with the skyline of Toronto in the background
Eric Bergman has been helping his clients embed their ideas in the minds of audiences through speeches and presentations for more than 35 years. Contact him if you’d like to take your communication skills to the next level through his presentation skills seminars, workshops and one-on-one coaching.

The Ten-Pushup Rule Improves Communication

pushup team
During my media training and presentation training programs, I often introduce a slightly tongue-in-cheek training tool I call “the ten-pushup rule.” The rule immediately underscores the value of succinct answers.

The rule is simple. The person answering a question gets a maximum of ten words for the answer. Any question; ten words. Since question-and-answer sessions are recorded during training sessions, it’s easy to keep track.

For every answer over ten words, the person answering is told at the start of the exchange that he or she will be required to do ten pushups per word at the end of the exchange.

This is an amazing tool; I’ve witnessed its positive impact thousands of times during media training and presentation skills training.

(Only one person has ever actually done the pushups—a particularly fit CEO who was training for a triathlon and took a little break with fifty self-imposed pushups.)

When there is a word limit on answers, the person’s behaviour immediately changes. He or she listens more carefully, which never ceases to amaze me. Think about it. When there’s a limit on the length of the answer, people focus more attention on what’s being asked. Their listening skills improve.

The person answering the question communicates more effectively. He or she has no choice but to exactly and precisely meet the needs of the person asking. This creates a two-way, receiver-driven exchange that adheres to the principle of less is more—all of which are important to helping others understand.

The person answering the question doesn’t have time to anticipate where questions are going. He or she deals with one question at a time. This prevents anticipating where the person asking the questions is ultimately going (which I often tell clients really only works if you are capable of reading minds).

Finally, clear and very concise answers can potentially provide a layer of protection. For example, providing succinct answers during interviews with print journalists—with whom the greatest risk is being misquoted or quoted out of context—limits the context and, in my experience over the past 25 years of media training, significantly reduces the risk.

I have used the ten-pushup rule as a training tool thousands of times. It has never failed to improve someone’s communication skills.

Limiting the length of answers will feel unnatural, certainly, but short answers can be significantly more effective in helping people grasp an idea, sort through technical information, or just generally better understand what you're trying to say.

Try it. During your next work-related conversation in which it seems the other person doesn’t understand, self-evoke the ten-pushup rule whenever they ask a question. Pause, and find a succinct answer to what the person is asking. Match the answer precisely to what’s being asked. (Of course, if you’re unsure of what someone is asking, seek clarification.) Answer the question asked, and only the question asked. Stop talking.

In the vast majority of cases, there is an inverse relationship between understanding and pushups. Whether you’re answering questions from a colleague trying to understand or many people during an important presentation, the fewer the pushups you’re required to do, the better the individual or members of the group will understand what it is you're trying to say.