“All the great speakers were bad speakers at first,” Ralph Waldo Emerson, American 19th century essayist
Living in Switzerland, I’m lucky to have access to, in my opinion, the best chocolate in the world. Imagine, you’ve just taken a bite of your favourite, creamy chocolate. How does it taste? How does it feel in your mouth?
I like to compare the unique, comfortable ‘mouthfeel’ of my favourite chocolate with how it feels to speak rehearsed words with comfort and familiarity.
Mouthfeel is a fundamental sensory attribute which, along with taste and smell, determines the overall flavour of a food item. It refers to the physical sensations in the mouth caused by food or drink. With chocolate, the mouthfeel depends on cocoa butter content. Some chocolate connoisseurs use intense, mellow, buttery and clean to describe the mouthfeel.
Your favourite chocolate just ‘feels’ right in your mouth. Your brain anticipates the mouthfeel, taste and flavour before you’ve even put it in your mouth – and if it’s not the chocolate you expect, its feels wrong, it’s not ‘yours’.
With words and phrases, the mouthfeel depends on which ones are used. Do they belong to you and what you’re saying? Are they familiar? Do they ‘feel’ right? Do they express your passion, and the tone or style that fits your message, audience and chosen channel?
Rehearsing is an important part of your preparation to speak. It helps with both your vocal and physical preparation as it also has the beneﬁt of reinforcing your vocal muscle memory so you remember your words, strengthening your brain-to-voice connection. The rehearsed words with smooth delivery give you that perfect word ‘mouthfeel’.
You may have observed a presenter that you admire and thought that they have ‘natural’ ability and skills to be able to speak so eloquently and appear so ‘slick’. Don’t be fooled – they’ve honed their skills and messages through many many hours of practice and rehearsal. When the words ‘feel’ natural to the speaker, they appear comfortable and natural to the listener.
The more you sense the phrases orally, the better you deliver them and the tighter your communication becomes. That’s how good speakers come across as natural presenters; they’re comfortable with their words, so they’re comfortable with speaking them in any situation. They’ve found their perfect ‘mouthfeel’.
In my book Scientifically Speaking, I go into more detail about choosing your words and refining your messages, together with the importance of practice and rehearsal and also cover several other aspects of how to speak about science with confidence and clarity.
We now have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, so we haven’t got long to make our point!
Our attention span is rapidly declining, twenty years ago we were happy to focus on something for 12 seconds but this dropped to eight seconds fifteen years later, no doubt with the advent of smartphones and the increase of social media. A report by the UK communications regulator found in 2018 that the British check their phones every 12 minutes and another survey found Americans apparently check it every 10 minutes. We are constantly bombarded with an abundance of information from multiple sources and our interest in topics lasts for less and less time. A Danish study found that in 2013 Twitter hashtags trended in the top 50 for nearly 18 hours but within three years they had less than 12 hours of popularity. With all this permanent distraction we have less and less time to make our point and ensure its heard. So how can we do this and be effective?
Prepare your message in advance
Preparation is THE key element, if your audience is only listening for a short amount of time, it is critical to decide what the one key thing is you really want to say. Then think about how you want to say it. Make sure that your comments are real words, and that they are pitched at the right level for your target audience. Can you encapsulate your key message simply and clearly in under ten seconds? If not, then have another go at the message.
Get your key message out quickly
Given we have exceptionally short attention spans it’s critical you don’t bury your point but instead state your main message early and upfront. You can always back it up afterwards with greater depth of detail, but be sure to say first what you want your audience to remember.
Repeat and repeat
When we speak to the media or give a presentation, we obviously have longer than mere seconds to talk, so use this time to repeat your message as often as possible, within reason. By repeating your message several times, you have more of a chance of it being heard in between people checking their WhatsApp groups.
True to the message of this blog, I’ve kept this advice short! However, if you’d like to learn more, you’ll find lots more information in my new book, Scientifically Speaking, available here.
“I am here live, I am not a cat”, Rod Ponton, lawyer, Texas, USA
The Covid-19 pandemic has without a doubt caused enormous devastation to millions of people around the world and the consequences are still unfolding. But it has also revolutionised at breakneck speed, before most of us were even ready, how we communicate to each other remotely from the safety of our homes.
This has had a personal impact, but most notably a professional one too. Before the pandemic, the stock price of Zoom was below the $100 mark, by October 2020 the price had more than quadrupled to $500 a share. Zoom has become one of the most widely used platforms the world is using to speak to not only our families and friends, but also our colleagues and most of us 18 months ago had probably never even heard of it, let alone used it every day.
Earlier this year when COVID-19 still had most of the world within its deadliest grip, we were gratefully entertained by the mishaps of the lawyer Rod Ponton in Texas, USA, who was attending a remote court hearing with the unfortunate filter of a cat replacing his image. This hapless experience gave us all an extremely humorous respite from the gloom of the pandemic, not only because it was completely adorable and zany, but also because we can all relate to the perils of Zoom and particularly filters our children may have put on when they were using it to talk to their friends.
Zoom, and platforms like it, have been a true lifesaver and without them we literally couldn’t have carried on conducting business as well as we have since the pandemic started. But its also meant we have had to massively restructure how we communicate, not only because we’ve had to learn multiple new technologies, but also, we’ve had to understand how presenting or speaking to people virtually is different to how we speak when we’re in the same room. Presenting to a screen when you cannot see or hear your audience can be disconcerting in the beginning, you have no gauge of how your presentation is being received, no visual cues, you are literally presenting to yourself.
However, there are some advantages, such as no distractions from the audience, no mobile phones ringing, you can entirely focus on what you are presenting. Also, for those who find it nerve-racking presenting to a large audience, there is no stage to climb onto, no bright lights shining in your eyes, its all from the comfort of your home. Lastly of course, no travel is required, and you can participate with great ease at any time of day or night and attend more meetings in different locations.
Although we have all gotten more experienced and competent at Zoom, I would still like to share some tips so we can hopefully avoid the pitfalls of presenting remotely (and avoid being a cat or some other creature!)
- Buy a decent webcam that can attach to your monitor, if you use one, and shows your face straight on – there is nothing worse than a camera looking up from below, it’s extremely unflattering!
- Always check in advance what your camera is showing and adjust your background accordingly – is there a plant behind you that looks like it’s coming out of your head?
- If your background is clearly domestic, then find a neutral background picture you can show, like a cityscape or a picture of an office
- Always log on to your meeting at least ten minutes beforehand to check your audio and microphone and to catch and rectify any unsuspecting filters that may be lurking from previous users
- When you’re presenting everyone can see your face much more closely, so a neutral, friendly expression is best and if someone else is speaking, remember everyone can still see your reactions
- The mute and camera pause button is especially useful should someone unexpectedly disturb you
- Remember to leave the meeting! Don’t assume the host will close it for you and you say something by mistake whilst everyone is still listening!
These are just a few basic tips. I could easily list more, as the capabilities of remote platforms are endless, but these pointers should have even the most techno-phobic presenter prepared!