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Four Scientifically Proven Habits Of Powerful Presenters

There's no shortage of speaking tips out there, but scientists are now figuring out how best to combine them.

[Photo: Flickr user Alan Levine]

What makes someone a great presenter? Why do some speakers seem to effortlessly captivate their audiences, while others struggle just to keep them awake? It turns out that scientists have answers to some of those questions—many of them based in habit. And like any habit, those communication skills can be learned, practiced, and perfected. Here are four that the most powerful speakers have mastered.

1. They Gesture With Purpose

One of the leading experts on gestures is the University of Chicago’s Dr. David McNeil. He has shown that the way gestures interact with spoken words combine to produce meaning in the minds of audience members. The very act of gesturing, he's found, boosts the brain’s ability to process information and formulate thoughts.

But not just any gesture will do. Great presenters know that gestures need to seem natural—they need to show intentionality. Gestures should visually illustrate your words. A common trap many presenters fall into is using the same gesture over and over again, which can quickly become a monotonous distraction.

[Related: Here's What Your Gestures Are Saying While You Speak]

Many speaking coaches recommend recording yourself delivering a presentation in order to get a handle on how you gesture. But don't just watch the video back once. Review it three times. The first time, study your verbal and nonverbal signals to see whether they match up: Are they in sync, or do your gestures contradict your words? At the second viewing, turn the sound off and focus on what your body movements convey.

Finally, watch your performance for a third time with the video sped up to 1.5x or 2x the normal speed. This will exaggerate your gestures and help you notice any awkward movements, body language, or gestures you might have missed.

2. They Move With Power

Certain movements, researchers like Dr. Amy Cuddy have found, don't just create the illusion of power; they can actually subtly alter our body and brain chemistry in order to enhance performance. Studies have shown, for instance, that striking what Cuddy calls a "power pose," like placing your hands on your hips, can trigger an increase in testosterone, which typically amplifies feelings of confidence.

We're used to thinking of body language as a reflection of inner emotions, and that's largely true. But we now have reason to believe that it cuts both ways: If you're feeling one way and you purposefully adjust your movement and posture in order to project a different emotion, your mental state will actually catch up with what your body is representing.

So think of the nonverbal behaviors you can deploy that signify power. An executive who puts her arm over the empty chair next to her, for instance, is claiming space, which both denotes power and makes her feel more powerful. You can also try and observe the way you naturally move when you feel extremely confident—another reason videotaping your performance can be so helpful. This way, you'll figure out how to use your movements and poses more intentionally to create the inner and outward effect you're after.

3. They Swap Filler Words With Pauses

The most powerful presenters often combine two of the most common pieces of speaking advice: They don't just avoid common filler words like "um" or "ah," they substitute the points with a dramatic pause. Many of us use filler words and phrases when we're transiting between thoughts. And as we practice eliminating them, we're often prone to rushing from one idea to the next, or else just speaking in a slow, rhythmless monotone.

One way to avoid those annoying filler words without compromising the pace of your delivery is to incorporate pauses. Silence may be golden, but it's also uncomfortable—especially if you're the one responsible for it. But clearing room for a brief silence whenever you're tempted to say "uh" not only gives you time to move on to the next idea, it also lets your audience mentally digest what you've just said.

As speaker Craig Harrison aptly puts it, that can help turn "the monologue of the speech into a dialogue with the audience."

4. They Know Pictures Can Be Worth Even More Than A Thousand Words

Research has shown the human brain is better at both comprehending and remembering messages that involve imagery—something scientists call the "picture superiority effect."

Its impact can be profound. In his book Brain Rules, neuroscientist John Medina writes that when a speaker skillfully deploys an image that represents the words they're saying, audience members' recall capacity can skyrocket by up to 65%.

So don’t just verbally explain a concept. As you do, display an image that illustrates it, and then explain the picture. This way, the image will inform your words and your words the picture. The likelihood that listeners will remember your message long after your presentation is over will be much greater than had you just stood up and talked for 20 minutes.

Practice these habits and you won't just give more memorable presentations—you'll also become a more memorable presenter.

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