A few years ago, a colleague and I gave a “Lunch & Learn” presentation on nonverbal communication skills for W.I.F.S. here in Portland. We wanted to make it entertaining and engaging, so we (and by “we,” I mean “I”) thought it would be hilarious to start the presentation wrong. The idea was that I would begin the talk using completely amateurish nonverbals. Then we would use me as an example of what not to do.

It all sounded like a great plan, until I actually had to get up in front of 50 professionals and act like a complete and total ditz.

I just about had a panic attack.

Memorize a speech? No problem. Stay calm during an AV malfunction? I can handle it. Public speaking? Bring it on. But deliberately come across as unprofessional and clueless? Scary.

I almost couldn’t do it. “Whose idea WAS this!?!” I hissed, right before we began.

The funny thing is that the set of nonverbals (what I refer to as Approachable—fluid, open, palms up, weight and head to the side, etc.) that I utilized in my opening is what actually comes more naturally to me. I mean, I was exaggerating to make a point. I don’t think I’ve ever been THAT horrifyingly terrible (no, really, it was BAD—purposefully bad) at presenting in real life. My point, though, is that “Approachable” nonverbals used to be very comfortable for me. Using “Authoritative” nonverbals (straight posture and flat voice) didn’t come easily to me. But after training and years of practice, when I was in a situation that required those nonverbals, doing it “wrong” was crazy hard.

The good news is that I pulled it off. I was SO unprofessional and incompetent, that had I not been stopped (which was part of the script), I’d have ended up being pelted by dinner rolls, if not cutlery. The whole audience joined me in heaving a collective sigh of relief when my co-presenter interrupted my horrid speaking and we proceeded to demonstrate the right way to deliver information.

So here’s what I learned: 1) Effective communication skills, though they may seem unnatural at first, get easier and more comfortable over time; 2) Being nonverbally incongruent is downright painful for you and your audience, even if you can’t put your finger on what’s wrong; and 3) If you think making a fool out of yourself is a brilliant way to make a point in public, convince your colleague to play that role. Especially if you’re speaking at a luncheon where everyone has steak knives.


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