Delivering your presentation

Great presenter? Try this little-known hack for added subtlety and impact

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Lend me your ears and your eyebrows

You might laugh at this.  I hope that you do. It’s a brilliant introduction to the importance of facial expression – in this case, the eyebrows, to a presenter. Stay with me, it’ll be worth it.

In a previous post I shared some fascinating academic insight on the importance of facial expressiveness in being understood by international audiences, and any audience really. Expressiveness is that subtle mix of physical, verbal and facial expression that adds emphasis, power and believability to a speaker in front of an audience. Facial expression is of course one of the most important non-verbal cues that people use to balance what is said and what is meant by the speaker.

In the best speeches and with the best speakers, meaning is delivered deliberately, when the words and the ‘music’ of vocal tone and non-verbal behaviour work together. In the worst, the words and music contradict, leaving uncertainty. So when a speaker says, ‘You have to enjoy working here to be good at what you do…’ it only sounds believable if she looks and sounds like that simple statement is true for her.  if she doesn’t sound or look like she means it then the point of the phrase and the power of the message is lost.

Sometimes though, you want to add a little subtlety to the mix. Sometimes you want to say a really strong message to an audience, but in a gentle way.  That’s a great skill for the leader, the consultant or the motivational speaker.

The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. Neal Stephenson, author, cyberpunk, strategist.

Here’s how the eyebrows can help you be subtle in the delivery of a tough message. Try saying ‘no’ in the eyebrows down and then the eyebrows up way.  What happens? Doesn’t it seem like everything softens when you lift and speak?  Does it seem that even the gentlest phrases harden when your brow darkens and falls? It does for me.  Try it with any harsh or hard phrase, and see what happens then too.

The ability to leave a tough message sinking slowly into an audience’s subconscious, like a depth charge, is a handy tool to have in your bag for tough crowds and difficult situations. There are other ways of doing it, of course, but this hack is a great skill.  It’s the same skill shown by Mark Anthony (in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar) when Anthony trashes Brutus in Julius Caesar’s funeral oration.  A masterclass in subtlety, doublespeak and faint praise. I bet Mark Anthony had his eyebrows raised when he said, with a terrible smile,

Brutus is an honourable man, they are all honourable men.


The ability to add believability and impact to a bland sentence, and to take impact away from a powerful one, when necessary, is a next-level skill for the pro speaker.  Here’s a simple way to add the kind of flexibility that you’ll need if you want to move people and mountains. I hope you like it. Practice the skill with your friends, and perfect strangers.  Practice adding intensity to even the most (‘is that your daughter’) kind of phrase, by keeping your eyebrows down; and lightening very strong phrases, by raising those caterpillars to the roof. Let me know how you get on.


Jim Harvey

Jim Harvey

Managing Director at The Message Business
Jim is the MD of The Message Business, a company which helps FTSE 100 companies to sell themselves, and their products better. Speech writer, Prezi trainer and designer, coach and consultant, Jim also finds time to be a proud father and husband.
Jim Harvey
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