This article originally appeared in the July/August 2014 issue of the Council’s monthly newsletter, Impact.
“Most of what we know about communications is wrong,” Nick Morgan writes in Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact. To communicate effectively, we have to disabuse ourselves of ideas we’ve held since the beginning of our careers and instead apply what the latest research into brain science has discovered. With a Ph.D. in literature and rhetoric, Morgan has taught Shakespeare at the University of Virginia, edited the Harvard Communications Letter for five years and, in 1997, founded his own consulting firm, Public Words. He recently shared his insights on the art of communication with Impact Editor Alan Crawford.
Q You tell an interesting story in the book about the Dalai Lama and what first piqued your interest in the science of communications.
A I was in grad school, and the Dalai Lama had become a big hero of mine, years before he became the kind of media figure he is today. He was to appear before a small group of about 35 of us, but about 75 showed up. The room was jam-packed. He was late, and we waited and waited. Finally, he came onto the stage, where there was a chair for him. But he didn’t sit in the chair.
Q What did he do?
A He sat on the floor of the stage, and he didn’t say a word. He just looked at each of us, one by one. He probably made eye contact with everybody in there. It wasn’t the least bit intrusive or creepy, but it was personal. We were dumbstruck. Then he let out a strange, unearthly laugh and said that because we had waited so long, he probably needed to say something profound.
Q What did he say?
A He talked for a while about Buddhism. But what I remembered wasn’t what he said but the incredible eloquence of his body language, of the way he connected with each of us on some deep, nonverbal level. Other people at the event said the same thing. And I realized that much of what we think we know about communications is simply wrong, and I wanted to understand it better.
Q And you discovered what?
A Recent brain research has revealed a great deal about the importance of gestures, of body language, but not in the sense that we can “read” people by how they cross their legs or whatever. What it reveals is that we communicate first by our gestures; the speech actually comes later. Our brains are constantly “translating” our sensory perceptions for us, but that takes longer than you’d think.
Q Why does this matter?
A On a practical level, if we’re giving a presentation, our body language is communicating more to the audience than the words we say. That’s why we need to unlearn a lot of what we think we know about making a presentation before a large crowd or even just talking around a table in a small group. And by that I don’t mean we need to practice our gestures more — quite the opposite.
Q How so?
A Let me back up by debunking the myth of “multitasking.” Brain science has discovered that, in fact, we can’t multitask.
Q We can’t?
A No, because our brains can’t bounce around like that efficiently. That is important for speakers to understand, but also for audiences. If you put a lot of text on a screen while you’re speaking, you’re asking the audience to keep shifting gears, from reading the slides to looking back at you and listening for a while, and then going back to the slides, and it’s terribly inefficient. Meanwhile, they’re tweeting. It’s inefficient the same way it is for a speaker to try to match his rehearsed gestures to his prepared remarks. Too much energy is lost, and it’s painful for everybody. Trying to multitask makes us less efficient.
Q How do we become more efficient?
A What we need to do is learn to focus on one thing at a time, which is the way to capture an audience. Bill Clinton, by the way, is a master at that, and Hillary Clinton is not.
Q In what way?
A I’ve seen them both speak at the same event, before a pretty small crowd. The occasion was an unofficial kick-start to her presidential campaign back in 2008. Bill wasn’t even supposed to be there. He had just gotten back from Africa. He was exhausted, and we were told he wasn’t going to be there at all. But then he showed up — this guy who wasn’t even supposed to appear and had every reason not to — and when he spoke, the room came alive. The energy was tremendous. But when Hillary spoke — and here she was, all fresh and ready for the big campaign ahead — all the energy left the room.
Q How do you account for this?
A Bill is a master at focusing on the audience, to the exclusion of everything else. He understands how to get everybody in sync on some fundamental, nonverbal level. He communicates his emotions, and people respond to that. Studies show that we crave a sense of community, and we welcome the opportunity to experience it. Bill gives people that opportunity. And so it can be created in ways that have very little to do with the words we say. No one questions that spouses can communicate on a nonverbal level, and something similar happens in business environments.
Q You say we pick up a certain vibe just sitting with other people in a conference room.
A We do, and the person whose vibe we are most likely to pick up is that of the boss. And one reason he or she is the boss is because they have a certain vibe about them that others respond to. For some people, it’s natural. But for others, it’s something they have learned either consciously or unconsciously over the course of their careers. Bill Clinton, again, is a master at this, but he had to work hard, especially as a public speaker, to develop those skills.
Q He wasn’t very good at this early in his national political appearances, was he?
A No, but he mastered it. Hillary, by contrast, hasn’t been able to do that yet. When she is speaking to a crowd, she seems to be thinking about too many other things. One on one, she comes off as a warm and very gracious person. But she doesn’t connect with an audience the way he does. There, she still has work to do.
Q Charisma, you say, can be learned.
A Yes, it’s not magic. It’s a question of developing skills that enable you to connect with others emotionally, not intellectually. That’s what the Dalai Lama did that night. Most of our decisions are made based on our emotions, and most of our messages are actually conveyed nonverbally, in how we present ourselves to others and, in a sense, how we give them an opportunity to share in our emotions, to touch us on a level that is deeper than the words we say. All this takes practice, which is why so many presentations are squandered opportunities.
Q Squandered how?
A The speaker spends a lot of time thanking everybody, expressing how honored they are to be there, etc., when, really, all they’re doing is trying to deal with their nervousness. That’s really for their benefit, not that of the audience. The audience has heard all that before. They want you to get to the story you have to tell. Think about how movies started back when Casablanca was made. Before the movie started, there were all these credits, right? But today, you go to a James Bond movie, and there’s 10 minutes of mayhem — car chases and bombs going off — before the title even appears. They’ve got us hooked. That’s what an audience today wants. That’s why we have to have a compelling personal story or tap into some emotion.
Q For example?
A For a while, Chris Christie was the voice of the angry blue-collar guy who feels squeezed. Christie was loud, he was entertaining, and he made good copy.
Q Barack Obama?
A On the campaign trail, he would bound onto the stage. He radiated charm and energy and charisma. But as a president, he seems to be this somewhat detached, self-protective, cerebral guy. He has this charisma at a campaign appearance, but we also want that passion in our leaders, not just our campaigners. And he hasn’t done so well switching it back and forth.
Q And to this day, not everybody quite believes his story.
A That’s right. People might not believe Obama was born in Hawaii, but nobody doubts that Bill Clinton was born in Arkansas. And the odd thing is that no one has a better social media operation than Obama. But he’s not really present in it personally. He needs to be a more personal president, and his communications team is brilliant at all that, which is really puzzling.
Q People always cite Ronald Reagan as the “great communicator.”
A That’s interesting, because what he did, as effective as it was three decades ago, wouldn’t work today.
Q Why not?
A Because his story wouldn’t hold up. He depicted himself in ways that were very appealing. He projected this image as a cowboy. He has this identification with World War II; but in reality, all he did was make movies during the war. That worked back then, but today, in this media environment, it would be revealed as fictitious. People wouldn’t buy it.
Q But he was an effective speaker, with a very reassuring delivery. How can people who aren’t professional actors train their voice without sounding affected?
A Training the voice is not an easy thing, but by a certain age, your speaking voice is already a kind of affectation. It’s the product of a lot of cues you’ve been given through the years. That means you can take control of it, and the results can be highly beneficial.
Q How so?
A I worked with a female executive in a very male-dominated industry. She felt her speaking voice wasn’t working for her when she was dealing with all these men. So she was deliberately lowering her voice, hoping to sound more persuasive. But we have found that when people do that, they often pitch their voices too high or too low, and that imposes a strain on their voices that makes them less persuasive.
Q So what did you do?
A We worked with her to find what is called her “main resonance point.” When she began to speak from that point, it imposed less strain on her voice. It was actually more effective. The goal is to be more persuasive, which means learning how to be yourself and how to connect with other people.
Reach Morgan at email@example.com or 978.310.7227.