One of the nice things about doing what I do is that frequently, I get to sit and listen to other people communicate their research. Sometimes they manage to do this despite their visual aids, and sometimes they manage it despite the non-verbal messages they are conveying.
I listened to someone speak recently and was blown away by how strict she looked. Facially, sartorially, and even her body language: it completely distracted me from the science, which was a shame, because it was interesting stuff. But I couldn’t get past the visuals.
So okay, I’m exceptionally distracted by the visual stuff, but it’s the job of a good presenter to get past that kind of thing straightaway. First impressions count; in fact, making a good first impression is particularly important, since even if observers are wrong in their initial assessment, they may conveniently overlook evidence that contradicts it. It’s essential to make an effort when presenting in front of people you don’t know: we’re less likely to cut strangers a little slack, and more likely to assume that their behaviour relates to personality, rather than the situation.
Here’s the politically incorrect bit: physical appearance can present an obstacle. On the one hand, stuff what people think — because seriously, it should be about the message, not face- or body-fascism. But on the other, it’s increasingly hard to separate style from substance. If you know that your face is severe, it’s probably worth making an effort to be warm and animated, so your appearance doesn’t do all the talking: when we don’t know much about someone, we tend to form judgements based on their face. There’s also a persistent myth that we get the face we deserve, and I would imagine it’s pretty hard to decouple that from the quick judgements we form about strangers.
Seth Godin argues that you have to love your audience – that the presenter who loves his audience the most, wins. I’d add that if you don’t love — or know — your audience, you need to learn to fake it, because they can tell.