If you want to know what not to do when presenting, start with Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Treasurer Joe Hockey, Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and former prime minister Julia Gillard.
So says Louise Mahler, a former opera soloist who coaches politicians and global corporate leaders on “vocal intelligence” and body language.
Mahler kept the audience laughing during her keynote speech at the Australian Human Resources Institute national convention last week, with caustic observations of Australian presentation sins, but she had a serious message too.
She argued that up to 93 per cent of communication was in voice and body language, yet still Australian leaders refused to change. ”They think ‘It’s not the authentic me.’ But it’s not the ‘authentic them’ it’s the habitual them”, Dr Mahler said.
“People are always asking me who does this [presenting] well in Australian politics,” she told the crowd. Her answer: “Nobody.”
The voice of power
US and UK leaders tended to be more open to improving, she said. Recognising that most people associate low, slow and loud voices with power, the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher traded her thin, reedy voice for a deeper one. Gillard stuck with her famous high, nasal voice.
Mastering an easeful position
Mahler argued that US President Barack Obama was a “world genius” at the neutral position.
He stood balanced on two feet, with feet forwards. This was preferable to resting more on one foot which looks too casual and uninterested.
Obama held his arms in front of him, with one hand clasping his wrist. This helped him avoid the “fig leaf” (holding ones’s hands clasped in front of one’s genitals) or worse still, the all-too-common“flashing fig leaf” (lifting clasped hands up and down over the genitals).
Mahler said holding your hands behind your back suggested you had ”something to hide”. It was fine to leave hands by your side but many people ended up doing strange things with their left hand, she said.
Doing weird things while speaking was a real problem, because people had trouble processing mixed messages and switched off.
The art of breathing deeply
Abbott was prone to breaking his breathing too often – giving an impression of lying. “Of course he’s thinking and doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. I don’t care. We are listening to the sound and that break in the air lets people jump in and be suspicious of motives.
“[Former US president] Bill Clinton never broke his air until he said ‘I did not. Have Sex. With that woman. Monica Lewinsky.’”
On political dogs and chooks
Most people suffered some kind of jamming of the jaw when under stress. Mahler suggested presenters follow former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s example of smiling with her mouth open. Hockey had a tendency to press his lips together and push his lower lip up. The result was an aggressive, bulldog expression.
Shorten had recently started just raising his upper lip. Mahler told the audience “it’s not a political comment” but the expression was that of a “rabid dog”.
Gillard “left her power behind her”, pushing her bottom out and her head forward, Mahler argued. “In the voice world that’s called the chook. It’s the equivalent of putting a rope around your neck and pulling it,” she said. Lawyers were also prone to the aggressive chook pose.
And corporate gorillas
Business people fared no better under Mahler’s critical eye. Men often stood with their legs too far apart; with their legs and arms crossed over. Research on gorillas showed the former pose was designed to signal the size of the male’s genitalia, while legs crossed showed sexual defensiveness.
Not everyone appreciates Mahler’s unsolicited feedback. Recently she explained to a corporate leader what he was doing wrong. “It went over,” she said, “like a cup of sick. But we all get into these patterns. We all do things that really don’t work.”
This article was originally published in the Australian Financial Review.
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