Don’t whimper! How to make the right impact


“This is the way the pitch starts…This is the way the speech ends…Not with a bang but a whimper” (apologies to T. S Eliot)

We get to watch a lot of presenters in action.   And a lot of whimpering.  Presentations that limp into life and stagger along, only to fizzle out leaving no impression behind apart from relief all round.  But it doesn’t have to be this way.  Here are three tips to give yourself some bang when you’re next asked to step up.

ENERGISE!  No-one gets to go anywhere in ‘Star Trek’ without the transporter.  Every presenter needs their own transporter.  It starts not with a piece of kit but a realisation.  You are responsible for generating all the energy in the room.  Not the audience.  Not the elegance of your content or the splendour of your Powerpoint slides.  You.  This means that a presentation is not a conversation.  Many wish and believe that it should be a cosy chat, act accordingly…and then are surprised when they lack impact.

To perform well, you need to be BIGGER in voice and body to provide that room-filling energy boost.  If it works, the audience will start to contribute their own energy.

If you are someone who is not comfortable “being bigger”, then learn how to do it from an expert.  It can be done and will be worth the investment.

Start (with a bang)…. “This morning ladies and gentlemen I am going to tell you about…” No!  Stop!  The start of a speech or presentation is a vital point – not to be wasted.  You have to get your audience’s attention.  Pull their thoughts away from wherever they are as they sit there.  So make it special.  Tell them a relevant story or anecdote – make it personal if you can.  Give them an ear-catching factoid or opinion.  Give them YOU, not just bland words and phrases, and they will listen.

Finish (with a bang)…. “and so that finishes my look at making widgets.  There is more coffee and tea…”  No! Stop!  Don’t waste the end.  It should be the culmination, the high mark, the pinnacle of your pitch or argument.  Make it so.  They will remember it more than anything else so be challenging, controversial, personal or funny (that doesn’t mean joke-telling).  Keep it simple and give them a ‘call to action’.

All delivered with energy.

Can you front up?

It’s the million pound question for anyone making a presentation. If you can, the impact on an audience, the creation of a positive impression and credibility engendered for you and your firm become palpable. And, of course, the opposite applies too unfortunately.

Having worked with and observed examples at both ends of this spectrum, there are some key things to get right. Here are three of the most crucial differentiators that will take you or your colleagues beyond the ordinary. Of course, there are more. If you want to know about them too, email me at and I’ll send you more ‘Fronting Up’ ideas.

Big IS beautiful

This is the ‘eureka’ realisation for some aspiring (and indeed ‘experienced’) presenters. A presentation is NOT a conversation; the rules of engagement for making one are very different. Yet many treat them as the same…and wonder why their audiences are underwhelmed.

As a piece of public, 100% one way communication, the onus is on the presenter to generate ALL the energy in the room. This means that you have to be much BIGGER than in the more intimate, two-way energised process of a dialogue. Bigger means using your voice, content and body to generate interest. To “be a bit more shouty” as one of our workshop participants amusingly put it. She didn’t mean actually shouting, but (for her) projecting her voice in a way that would make the greater impact required. Using hands and arms to create movement and animation. It’s a different mode of operation which needs to be recognised, learned and practised.

Metaphorically speaking

Facts are good, but on their own they are not the whole nine yards for the best presentations. Metaphors are underused pieces of rhetoric that yoke a powerful image directly to your content/message, enhancing the impact of that message. So Tony Blair could have said: “Education is vital to Britain’s success in the future” or as he did say….

“Education, education, education – then and now, the key to the door of Britain’s future success

Whether you like politicians or not, they are skilled in the art of making presentations that engage with their audience. Using metaphors and other devices – there are two more being used in this one sentence – that make powerful connections with all our senses. It works. Use them.

Tell your stories (and make them interesting)

In a lot of business presentations, evidence of action or use is an important component in bringing to life the service you offer. What a shame then that some presenters do not do full justice to this. The nearest they get is: “We do this type of work for companies like A, B, and C “. Not much life in that, is there?

In this context, fronting up consists of telling stories that really engage your audience in what happened. Describing the challenges faced by your client and how you and the firm helped overcome them, and the benefits that they received as a result. That way you will stand out.

Exploding the body language myth

Here is a falsehood almost universally acknowledged as true.

Body language (Non Verbal Communication) and intonation are overwhelmingly the most influential factors in how we communicate. To be precise, 55% of ‘the message’ we deliver is down to NVC (the Visual), 38% is HOW we say things intonation etc. (the Vocal), and a mere 7% is gobbled up by the actual content of our messages (the Verbal).

Over the past 40-plus years, the number of times that this has been written, presented, or otherwise re-told is legion and has made it “true” – a ‘fast thinking’ effect that appears to do the work of Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ proud.

So where did it all come from? Two research studies conducted by psychologist Albert Mehrabian in the late 60s both dealt with the communication of positive or negative emotions via single spoken words, like “dear” or “terrible”. People were asked to assess the credibility of these single words when delivered with elements that were often in conflict (e.g. “terrible” in a pleasant or happy tone). Mehrabian then combined the results of the two studies to obtain the ratio 55:38:7 that has not been validated by any further research.

Anybody spot the problem extrapolating from a limited study using one word to explore dissonance issues specifically…..into a universal truth about all communication?

Yes, quite. It isn’t the real world. I used to think about it in practice and doubted. For example, what would happen if I delivered a speech whose content was gobbledegook but with as much intonational and non verbal brio as I could muster? Presumably, I’d still be largely credible according to 55:38:7.

In an email to Max Atkinson, reproduced in Max’s excellent book ‘Lend Me Your Ears’, Mehrabian said: “I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled ‘corporate image consultants’ or ‘leadership consultants’ has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise”.

I prefer to see it this way. Excellent communication is a temple supported by three equally-sized pillars: our three Vs. For the temple to stay up, all three pillars have to be present and working well together, properly engineered if you like. Should any of them not be in proportion (or indeed dissonant), the structure risks collapse.

There are many other commentators who already have and will continue to debunk this body language myth that has become a seeming truth. Don’t you be fooled by its glib attraction.