Want to speak with the poise and confidence of a Fortune 500 CEO? Even our corporate top dogs need help with their presentations, and they get it from Tom Mucciolo. Tom is a highly respected speaking expert who specializes in performance and visual presentation for high-level businesses. He brings over 30 years experience, along with his work as an adjunct professor at New York University. He’s one of the few researchers in public speaking characteristics, and brings a no-nonsense approach to the importance of details like posture, positioning, gesture, and slide deck design.
If you’ve ever wondered how you can speak like a Fortune 500 CEO, this is the interview for you!
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For more great resources from Tom Mucciolo, click here to visit his site and blog at Media Net NY
Lauren Sergy: Mr. Tom Mucciolo, thank you so much for being here with us today. I’m very excited to have you onboard. I met you in Edmonton through a series of one-on-one coaching, as well as corporate training with a variety of our big companies over here. Just so that people have an understanding of the depth of knowledge you have when it comes to corporate speaking and public speaking, how long have you been in this industry for?
Tom Mucciolo: I started my company in 1985, so it’s been going on for 30 plus, 40 plus years. I started at a computer graphics company and we were designing slides at the time. Actual 35 millimeter slides, full over head. Electronic images were possible using certain devices but you used to have to rent a very large projector These huge Sony three colored guns projectors that had to be wheeled in with a truck! So there were no real portable projectors at the time. They started to come into existence around the early 1990s for the most part. Much of the work was actual 35 mm slide presentations color overheads, but they were expensive.
Starting around 1986 the director of training at New York Life Insurance asked me to come watch the actual presentation that he was giving. So I watched it and at the break he came up to me and said “it’s not really going very well I don’t know if it’s the colors or the fonts.” So I started to watch him as an actual presenter and I said “well John, it’s you. You’re all over the place and you’re doing things nonverbally that are very distracting.”
So I worked with him for an hour or two and he said “You know, you’ve gotta work with our Salesforce.” That really led to me adding all of the nonverbal communication skills that actually happen to people when they’re speaking, different from the content that they are presenting- which is a separate design issue. That is sort of what changed the focus of what I did. I started focusing on the delivery skills which were really plaguing people.
Lauren: For sure. And in terms of the delivery skills of corporate speakers. Because a corporate speaker I would say is a bit different than something you would see on the ever-popular Ted Talk stage. Maybe some of the mannerisms are similar but their purpose is quite different. So in terms of really top performing corporate speakers, what do you see them doing that lets you know that they are giving an outstanding business presentation?
Tom: I’ve had the opportunity to do some research and this area over several years and I have found that the ultimate skill that audiences prefer in a professional speaker is self-confidence. You actually attend a conference and you watch someone speak and you don’t really think that they own the material you are probably out. Probably not as interested as you were before.
[ringing] Oh I apologize for that. I didn’t think I would have a phone ringing behind me
Lauren: It’s the plague of our modern age. So that’s all confidence is really really critical.
Tom: Self-confidence is literally the biggest challenge for prisoners. Show not only in the way that they delivered presentation also shown and how they couch the material with their message. this is also where the scale comes in, if I had to pick the top professional speaker it would be if they really own the material in a way the audience already believes them to be an expert. Then you continue from there. If that piece is missing, I think you’re going to have a pretty big problem.
Lauren: I completely agree. When people ask me what is the problem with looking nervous and is it okay to say that I am nervous, my comment is if they are going to have confidence in your material you have to show them that you are confident and what it is you are saying. You have to basically tell them how to view you. So where are the top three mistakes – of course you mentioned confidence is the big thing – but the top three mistakes best corporate speakers make, what are those?
Tom: well I would say the initial mistake that they make is probably in the non-verbal parts of the communication. So that would be how quickly for example someone she’s the palms of your hands, you offer that concept of trust. That would be one element: if you look approachable, do you look immediate. Is there a way that someone can say “Gee, I would ask her a question. I would chat with her.” So that’s the first thing, are they connected to an audience or are they removed from an audience. That would be one of the first things that I would look at.
The other thing is do they interact in any way. I always ask the presenter are you prepare for questions? And they always say “Oh yeah they can ask me anything.” Well what questions will you be asking? What actual questions do you have for an audience so that they can get involved. And a lot of times these questions are a form of interaction that gets a group of people to say “Okay I’m willing to play. I am willing to participate.” if that occurs, the question issue occurs, and you have a chance for different voices speaking, sounds of people in the audience, there is a different energy when audiences respond. So that is a thing.
The last thing would be content piece could be a problem. If you have visual support, the question becomes: is the visual support readable or viewable? If it is readable it probably probably stands alone. We don’t need you as a speaker.
Lauren: Why would I sit there if I can just read a handout or look at it on screen.
Tom: If it really answers every question on its own, I don’t need you to talk. However, if the content is designed in a way that teases me but it doesn’t please me – if there is a way for me to go “Okay I’m looking at what you’re showing me but I really need more help.” – I would probably listen. So really good speakers remove the distraction of too much content that becomes readable, rather than just viewable. And that could be a downfall for the presenter if they begin to narrate to content.
Lauren: Especially if they’re accustomed to using PowerPoint slides as a script. I mean that happen constantly. They look at the image and they begin to describe everything exactly that is on the screen. That sort of distraction happens a lot.
Tom: Some people use the support as a way to get through the content that is fair. You’re not going to memorize it a table of numbers. But what you were going to talk about for those all those numbers, that is what you memorize.
My perspective is this: if you put something on the side because you thought you would forget, you probably went too deep into the weeds. You’ve seen it more than once and can’t remember it, I’ve only seen it once so how would I remember it? So I look at it by saying you probably went too detailed.
Now it’s different if you have a different kind of audience: maybe you were teaching something, you’re teaching a process. Everyone in the room are learners, They’re listening for a different purpose- they want to learn something. More repetition, people asking questions based on what they learned. That is different from the type of presentation you make to experience in the corporate environment. There really is no test there.
Lauren: Right. So when you are in the process of deciding whether or not to even use a slide tech, this is something I’ve heard quite often: “ PowerPoints are terrible! I switched over to Prezi and it has changed my life.” No that is also a pretty awful slide deck as well. So there is this debate almost, PowerPoint presentations and slide deck, are they the speakers friend or the devil’s work?
Tom: The concept of the tool you use to create visual support, is basically the tool itself. That is not the problem. that would be like saying you decided to write a letter to someone and you used Microsoft Word but you can’t write. The problem is you don’t know how to write not the software. You can look at PowerPoint the same. Whether it is PowerPoint, or Prezi or any other software you would like to create content with, it is really in the designer. We don’t want to be hung up in saying that PowerPoint is bad, it is just a tool.
However, I will agree that PowerPoint is bad. It is poorly designed and content is a problem, and now you have to present it. If Shakespeare used a better pen would his writing be any better? When I’m thinking about visual design, I’m thinking: is the content you are working with supporting you so you look like the expert and not the narrator. If the content is distracting, whether it be the movement of items on the screen, the amount of content, or the disjointed graphic elements that may exist, that would really be a problem for speakers.
Lauren: For sure, and to reiterate again, it is not the software people, it is you don’t know how to design a good slide deck.
Tom: You also asked another part of this question- “Do you even need a slide?”
This becomes a really interesting issue. If you have no visual content you could be a better speaker. It’s because there’s less to manage in front of you. You don’t have to advance the slides, or talk about the content you designed, you can just speak. yes some people do have speeches written for them and they just reading up a speech, using a prompter or a script, those could be a challenge.
But if you add visual design, you get one other element that gets really interesting that audiences prefer. The fact that it’s been designed makes it more real. It is a really interesting phenomena that if we read something in the newspaper, it actually happened. But if someone tells us that something happened, we might agree we might not. Once it’s in print, it’s been prepared.
There is a slight advantage to having some prepared material such as your way of saying “I have a visual version of this and I’m willing to show it to you and if you disagree with it it is already visual.” So it also gives you a second element. People can stop looking at you. Eventually they have to look away. So what can they look at? If they can look at content, they get the mix of visual design plus presenter and it is actually a pretty good mix. It is a critical skill for an audience.
It is kind of like watching a movie! You’re not always watching the faces of the actor, you’re also looking at scenery. So imagine a presenter who doesn’t want the audience always looking at them, they would like the audience to look at something else.
Lauren: You need a break from the face every now and then.
Tom: Like this interview, I think people will get tired of looking at my face after a while. So I will switch to another face. as you can see this is a different situation because we are chatting. But in a real presentation with visual support an audience starts at the presenter, look at visual content, they look off, they look at the presenter, they look off again. So this is an action by the audience to feel that they are involved in a holistic view of content.
PowerPoint is speaker support, not speaker. Just design it so that it supports what you are saying without saying what you’re saying.
Lauren: So to that end, if you had to just give a couple rules of thumb to people who just absolutely have no visual design sense, because visual design is a skill in it of itself, for those who have none, a couple of rules of thumb. What would your top be?
Tom: Let’s separate slides into two categories: ones that have graphic elements and ones that don’t.
The ones that have graphic elements. You just want to make sure that the graphic elements you use take advantage of depth. So imagine if you had slide content with a few words on it, would there perhaps be a photo in the background for some depth. that’s a possibility. that is one version of someone who is not a designer but they go “You know, I’m talking about teamwork I wonder what photo would fill the background.” Second thing is, another graphic element is columns. Picture the background colors of your slides are always darker than the foreground elements.
This is the rule of visibility from far distances. Kind of like how your road signs work: they’re darker from a distance bright letters. The credits at the end of the movie: white text on a black screen. The rule of visibility from a distance is when the backdrop is dark in the foreground is brighter so the presence of light that you. The absence of all light moves away. So if you have black text on a white screen your text is moving away.
So that brings us to the second problem: text. Slides that have a lot of texts. My rules are very simple: can you make sure no bullets are full sentences; make sure but no bullets wrap to a second line; that you have more than one indented sets of bullets, or else you will be nesting. There will be a sub and another sub and it will keep indenting until the end of the slide is reached.
One way to do that is can you make the actual slide readable, or I call it viewable so there’s not a lot of reading, but a person can step through the content in about eight seconds. Now you can leave the slide up for an hour. Let’s say that you had a bullet point that just said ‘data integrity’. I’m stuck. A split second I can read it but then I go “what are you going to say?” now I have to wait.
But if you have the Webster’s dictionary definition of data integrity, now I’ve got to read it. That means it’s the last problem a visual design, it is called respect. An audience starts listen to you speak, they say “you know I respect her, she’s an expert. I am going to listen to her. Whoa whoa look at that she brought slides. Oh my God look at all the words. You know what, I have respect for her so I’m going to do what she wants me to do. I am going to read that slide. I know you are talking young lady, but no I’m going to read your slide.”
Now that is exactly what is happening. Meanwhile you are saying “stop reading the slide and listen to what I am saying.” my first question with all speakers is: if the slide is very readable, do you even want us to read it. If you say yes that’s all, but no one would say yes. So you make the slides less readable. It triggers you for content. This goes back to- do you know the content? Did you go too deep into the weeds that you need paragraphs of information.
Now I am giving you generalities. There are many situations where people say “I am sorry. This is a working document. We are learning how to fix this.” Okay well that is a meeting, but usually in a presentation, usually you’ve got anywhere beyond 5 minutes of uninterrupted discussion where you are talking. That means it’s a presentation at that point. The simpler it is visually for the audience, the easier I believe the audience will have it in listening to you as a speaker.
Lauren: That is outstanding. So everyone who is listening, everyone who is watching your next slide deck, listen to this last five minute clip again and again and again. You will have an outstanding slide deck the next time you go to present.
Now, you also have some really excellent insight regarding position and proximity. Maybe some of this comes from your theater background, but when you were talking about that during our initial meeting, I was really blown away. Could you share a bit about how we as presenters should be working our space when we are presenting, like what do we need to consider when we are auditioning ourselves.
Tom: If you imagine the concept of proximity closer and closer that people get together, the level of intimacy rises. So obviously two people dancing have a different relationship with them to people on different sides of the room. So when a person is speaking, there is a depth factor that that audiences see when you were standing.
With some visual support, you have to imagine the proximity the audience. The visual support is typically behind you, There are some exceptions where it is above your head, but the typical scenario of someone presenting material- let’s just use a conference room as an example. Something is on the screen, You’re standing closer to the audience or a few feet away and they’re sitting at a table. This means there is some depth.
The body can create levels of intimacy by moving closer or farther away. Now a person shouldn’t move around a lot, but if they move in a fairly simply design spaces, moving closer to the audience, possibly between the screen and the audience, closer to the screen, now we get the concept of depth.
Just like the way cameras work. Cameras zoom, they don’t pan . so we use this technique to get closer. In the theater actors will use the technique of staging to get closer to the stage, farther away from people, sometimes they’re downstage closer to the audience. Without this movement, sometimes it is harder to really get a feeling of the reality of it. This is why I lectures are a really big challenge for presenters, because they are not moving. Therefore, audiences tend to not look at the speaker if they’re not moving they will look at the content. This means you will lose a lot of that body language.
I find the concept of of depth is very critical for affecting the audience. Just like in the movies there are wide shots and there are close-ups. If those things can exist from a camera’s perspective, they can certainly exist from the perspective of our eyes. And that’s a movement element.
So you can change these concepts over a course of time, as you may not have a big space to for that. Sometimes you are sitting like I am, so they’re really is only three spots I’m moving to. One is the way I am now, I can head back further and I could come closer. So when presenting, this becomes an amazing skill that people can adapt to create create non-verbal cues to become more effective as speakers.
Lauren: In terms of looking comfortable in front of people, because everyone get a little bit nervous up in front of their audience! It is not just the newbies; it is highly experienced CEOs as well. For looking comfortable and looking confident front of an audience, do you have a favorite position or stance?
Tom: So the goal is to get a chin over a knee. The Italians in art came up with the term ‘contrapposto’ which is making statues look like they are alive or have been alive or moving. So they basically shift the stance where the weight is on one foot but it is really not on the other foot. If you were to stand with both of your feet having the same pressure on the floor your chin would be in the center of your body. So you would find yourself having very symmetrical gestures, you would look very rigid, you wouldn’t look like you owned the content, you don’t have a relaxed.
But if you shift your stance to one foot, or you shift it to the other foot, your chin would actually be above your knee. And if you lifted your hands it would be perfectly three-dimensional. Different height, different depth. When people see a relaxed stance, not a lazy stance- not that you’re leaning on something, but if they see someone with a relaxed they say “that person owns the content.” Soldier stand at attention, generals relax.
Lauren: That is a really good way of putting it.
Tom: So in reality the first thing I look at is does the person look relaxed as a speaker. And if they do, when they move it is going to look natural should they choose to move closer or farther away. I need the rule of movement is very simple. When the slide content is busy you should be closer to the slide so they can compare your face to what is on the slide. If the slide content is less busy you can be closer to the audience. That allows a person to move occasionally.
You can use movement to your advantage, but these nonverbal cues are what audiences watch from the stand to see. Do you look relaxed? Do you look like you own the material? Lecterns are a problem because you tend to mirror the box itself when you are behind it. Lecterns only served one purpose if you go through history. They were developed for religion.
Religion works like this, things were all scrolls. There were only one of these giant scrolls and they were very heavy. Where could you put them if you want to use your hands? You have to put them on something. So they developed this box to hold the scrolls so that the people in the religious section could say the prayers, gesture to heaven if you will or upwards. Their hands will be free and these would be rested.
They also kept these lectern to protect people from their nervousness because the center of the body doesn’t close. We like to block the front of the body. A big problem happens for speakers is when they don’t have a lectern. They have one way to block the front of the body and it is with their hands. If your hands come together you are going to find so many problems as a speaker. Your breathing, you will start breathing during your phrases and not between phrases, you will start having more fillers, because your hands are in front of the body. The diaphragm lower part is compressed slightly, it is just not a good situation. The purpose of blocking the front of the body.
Lauren: so as much as possible ditch the lecterns stand like Michelangelo’s David. Maybe not fully. That sort of idea.
Tom: If you take a look at that relaxed stance from the Greek statues and Renaissance art you’ll see the same thing. The characters are in a position that looks like they could have been moving or are moving. This doesn’t mean everyone is like this, but I typically like to see presenters relaxed. They will be more natural.
Lauren: So bringing that home, I’m going to get you to distill this into one sentence. your number one piece of advice to corporate speakers, what would that be?
Tom: Shift your stance, show your palms, smile. That would be my advice.
Lauren: It is simple and it is beautiful. I love it so much.
Thank you for being here today, Tom. You bring a wealth of wisdom in this area to the show, to our viewers, to our listeners, I am sure that they will be able to make great of use out of this advice. Again, for those of you watching and listening go through this interview again, make notes. Your next presentation will be much better for it.
Now before we go, Tom, where can people get more of you?
Tom: I have a website: medianet-ny.com and it is also connected to a blog, Visually Speaking Blog, but the thing I like about the blog is I edit this learning module. It is basically free other than just putting in your email so you are not a robot. Pretty much you have access to a lot of videos and information about non verbal communication. There is hand out material, most of them are in narrative form, there is no pictures in this handout. They cover a lot of topics such as messaging, small group communication, things of that nature.
The only book that would serve a purpose for people right now, I was part of this research at New York University, was what are the twenty one skills audiences identify as being important for all public speaking, whether it be teaching or presenting. We built the first book based on student learners but it works for professional learners as well. It is called The Guide to Better Teaching. It is all twenty one skills, eleven of them in your personality, 5 in the content, 5 in the performance. There is even an assessment tool for you to measure your skills so you can improve.
That is available on Amazon. If someone was interested in developing or honing one or more of these twenty one skills, well it shows how would they do that. It is more than just having self confidence, it shows how you actually practice it.
Lauren: Well thank you so much and everyone head to medianet-ny.com I have got the links down below. Go to the Visually Speaking Blog; download that learning module. I did and it is wonderful. And I can attest to the quality of those twenty one skills and the evaluation tools. They are wonderful.
Of course for everyone out there, if you would like to hear more wonderful interviews from people like Tom who bring true expertise to your communication in a variety of circumstances head to laurensergy.com and sign up to receive the updates so you do not miss another one of these videos.
Again, Tom, thank you for being with us here this morning! Thanks to everyone who was watching, have a wonderful day.
Tom: Thank you Lauren! I really appreciate it! You take care now.
Lauren: You too, bye-bye!