By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
The TED phenomenon is very interesting to me. The niche involves hosting 20-minute talks by innovative individuals, some famous some not, in order to share “ideas worth spreading” on technology, entertainment, and design — very broadly defined, those three areas form the acronym for TED. The idea that in today’s day and age, someone standing on stage giving a speech could be attention grabbing is a little refreshing to me. In fact, secretly (or not so secretly, I guess, since I am writing it in my blog), I would love to give one myself someday (“Trial Persuasion Lessons for Everyone…” — think about it, TED-people). But not all TED talks are created equal. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a bad one, but some of the talks achieve stratospheric levels of hits through viral sharing, and others don’t. According to an innovative new study, the differences may be explained to a surprisingly large extent by physical delivery. What the speaker is doing with her hands and body seems to mediate a large part of the reaction. That has some clear implications for attorneys trying to hold the attention of jurors and judges in court.
A human behavior consultant with the firm Science of People sought to look at the question of what makes some TED talks more popular than others. Crowd-sourcing the task, Vanessa Van Edwards polled 760 volunteers. The panelists watched the talks under varying conditions, and answered a series of questions on content, credibility, and charisma. Matching those results with the physical delivery of the TED speakers, Van Edwards concludes that the speaker’s body language from the stage accounts for a large part of the difference between those that go viral and those that don’t. She distills the results down to five pieces of advice. In this post, I will share each of the five and also comment on how these principles can be applied in court.
#1 It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It
Vanessa Van Edwards asked some raters to watch the full TED Talks normally, and others to watch them on mute, without hearing the voice or the words. Remarkably, she reports that there were no significant differences in ratings. She takes this finding to mean that a large part of what we see as credibility and charisma is coming across via the nonverbal channel.
That being said, perhaps one concession we make for litigators is to acknowledge that it is both what you say and how you say it. Even taking Van Edwards’ finding at face value, context is still likely to play an important role. Unlike other audiences, jurors are working hard to base their decisions on the evidence. But the litigator who believes that this focus on content is so strong that style and delivery don’t matter is being unrealistic. Along with your tone, physical delivery plays a critical role.
#2 Jazz Hands Rock
Not all gestures are created equal, and I’d definitely discourage the wiggley-fingered “jazz hands” of Van Edwards’ title, but the point is that more gestures are better. The bottom 10 TED Talks in terms of views averaged 272 hand gestures during an average of 18 minutes, while the top 10 TED talks averaged 465 hand gestures, almost double, during the same span.
For attorneys, and for witnesses to some extent, that means that the wise use of gestures can help improve dynamism, which is an important component of credibility. Certainly a TED speaker is likely to have more latitude than an attorney or a witness, but even in court, the need to engage remains. A speaker who uses his body, as well as his voice, is going to come across as more powerful and more interesting.
#3 Scripts Kill Your Charisma
When you get one of those dreaded phone calls with a telemarketer on the other end of the line, it is easy to tell from the caller’s voice when they are reading from a script: The lack of variation in tone, pace, and emphasis is a dead give away that you’re receiving a canned pitch. Though the typical TED speaker is probably also giving a pretty tightly-planned presentation, it typically doesn’t sound that way. Van Edwards found that the greater the vocal fluctuation from the TED speaker, the greater the views of the presentation. Vocal variation led to ratings of increased charisma and credibility. In addition, the presence of any evident ad libs or other unplanned moments also increased audience attention.
Litigators need to plan their remarks, but should similarly strive to sound extemporaneous and conversational, because that is simply easier to listen to. In addition, some unplanned humanizing moments, including a reliance on humor but not jokes, can also help you form a connection to the jury.
#4 Smiling Makes You Look Smarter
TED speakers who smile more, even when addressing serious topics, are rated as having more power and greater intelligence. But what works is not a quick and nervous grin, but a sustained smile: 14 seconds or more, according to Van Edwards. Not only will the smile improve credibility, but as we’ve noted previously, it also improves the speaker’s mindset and attitude. Research participants who smile, even in a forced manner, experience a reduction in stress and an increase in happiness.
So, litigators, set aside that expression that reads “grim determination” or “stress,” and smile at the jury whenever it’s appropriate — no, not when describing a tragic accident, but definitely when you’re breaking the ice and when you’re otherwise conversationally laying out your case.
#5 You Have Seven Seconds
Van Edwards had some of the evaluators watch the whole talk while others watched only the first seven seconds. Comparing the two, the average ratings were equivalent. That suggests that reactions set in very quickly. Viewers arrive at a first impression, a durable “thin slice” evaluation, that doesn’t seem to change substantially through the rest of the presentation.
For openings, closing, and mock trial presentations as well, this underscores the importance of the “Silver bullet” at the beginning. The jury will clearly try to base their assessment on everything they are told, but the first words out of your mouth have to set a strong tone for your case. So save the introductions and the quotations on the importance of jury service for later, and start with the short version of your trial theme.
Now, it may be a good idea to take this research with a grain or two of salt. The findings aren’t published in an academic source, and Van Edwards repeats the chestnut that “Studies” (no cite or footnote here) “have found that 60 to 93 percent of our communication is nonverbal,” when we know that latter figure is based on an oft-repeated interpretation of data that that the original author, Albert Mehrabian, has disavowed. But looking at the TED Talk comparisons research on its own terms, Van Edwards’ findings track well with the findings of other studies (e.g., Maricchiolo, Gnisci, Bonaiuto & Ficca, 2009), suggesting that litigators do indeed have something to learn from the most successful TED talks.
Other Posts on Nonverbal Communication:
Photo Credit: urban_data, Flickr Creative Commons