If you were fortunate enough to attend this year's PRSA-Houston Media Day 2003, you may remember an interesting discussion about the relative importance of presentation or interview content versus the way the information is presented (tone of voice and nonverbal cues).

The presenter alluded to what she described as a well-established study conducted by a researcher at the University of California Los Angeles. She said the study's 30-year-old findings, which had withstood the test of time -- discovered that the impact a speaker has on an audience is based seven percent on content, 38 percent on verbal (volume, pitch and pace) and 55 percent on nonverbal (body language, appearance, personal space).

After some of my colleagues -- especially those involved in investor relations -- scoffed at the notion that the message is less important than delivery, I did some poking around about the study. I found that it may not be appropriate to apply Albert Mehrabian's study to media interview training or public speaking training because it specifically addressed situations in which our body language conflicts with our words. Moreover, the study examined interpersonal communications between two or three people, not presentation settings or interviews.

To put it simply, Mehrabian found that a person's positive message carries significantly less weight if he or she is emoting negativity through their tone of voice or body language. Is it appropriate to extrapolate that finding to presentations and media interviews? Absolutely, if we are suggesting that our message and mannerisms need to be consistent. However, it is wrong to suggest that Mehrabian's study found that our messages are relatively unimportant!

Still, DPK Public Relations believes it is extremely important to be aware of the way we appear and the way we speak. We recommend considering the following factors when preparing for your next media interview or presentation:

Make Steady Eye Contact: Face the audience and -- unless you are delivering bad news -- be sure to smile. A smile adds energy and tends to help you pump up the volume, making it easier for them to hear you and you will be able to project your voice far more easily to the back of the room. The main reasons presenters don’t face their audiences are:

  • They are reading their notes 
  • They are looking at their PowerPoint Presentation
  • They are writing on a flipchart (It is better to speak, then write)

Use Appropriate Hand Gestures: Many people wave their hands around when they talk, it helps to convey meaning and give emphasis. Using gestures can illustrate your passion about what you are saying, which in turn encourages your audience to pay attention. As a general guide, a good use of gestures is to make them careful and meaningful. You should try to avoid the following:

  • Pointing with your finger into the audience - This is usually perceived as aggressive. A better gesture would be to nod or extend your entire hand.
  • Covering your mouth - Sometimes people do this as a comfort gesture or to look thoughtful. This gesture will get in the way of your message.
  • Jingling change in your pockets - Nothing good will come from putting your hands in your pockets during a presentation. Unload your pockets beforehand.

Shoulders Back, Chin Up: Nerves can mean that speakers feel short of breath and start to hunch over. Others may naturally slouch. When you are making a presentation, it is important to stand up straight in order to get the greatest power from your diaphragm, which is the source of your voice control. Standing up straight will also make you look taller and more confident.

Movement: When people get nervous, distracting actions start to appear, such as rocking from side-to-side, shuffling, pacing up and down, and leaning. It's enough to drive someone watching you up the wall! You can use this energy to your advantage by moving away from the lecturn and moving into your audience. The key is to make eye contact and connect with your audience. Make it meaningful.