David JP Phillips on body language and emotion in virtual presentations

Photo of Paul Sephton
April 20, 2021
Reading time
15 minutes

Today, we will be talking with David JP Phillips – international author, speaker and coach – on the skills it takes to communicate with others. Best known for his book and seminar on how to avoid “death by PowerPoint,” David and I are going to be discussing the value of storytelling in the working world, why introverts are usually better presenters than extroverts, and how to master presenting over video in virtual meetings.

Paul Sephton: I think one of the starting points which I would love to dive into is one of the areas you’re most well-known for, and that is PowerPoint. You have your very, very popular “Death By PowerPoint” TED Talk, which has reached millions of people, and yet today we still have a rampant spread of death by PowerPoint. What made you so interested in our brains digestive system and the cognitive processes which make us understand, process and remember information?

David JP Phillips: I’m not entirely certain, but I’m pretty sure it was influenced by my parents because they both where highly intrigued and interested in psychology, and the pedagogy, and the andragogy of learning and philosophy. I think these were areas which they liked, and they had books about these areas in their library. I picked them up now and then, and I was force fed a couple of them as well. I think that just ignited my interest that there was something hidden between our ears, that if I understood that then I could understand the world in a better way.

Paul Sephton: If you were to crash course someone in terms of PowerPoint and the stories that they attach to those presentations, either from a visual perspective or the storytelling side of it, what are the big red flags that you just see time and time again coming up?

David JP Phillips: I’d say that not being connected to your emotion, as a presenter, is probably one of the biggest major mistakes out there. When you’re speaking to a person, the purpose of speaking to that person is to somehow engage them. If it’s a friend, you want them to become connected to you. If you’re a salesperson, you want to sell something, you want to move somebody in a particular direction. If you’re a leader, you want to move your employees in a particular direction. Every single time we speak, we have a purpose of creating an imprint, probably. We don’t do it from an egoistical perspective only.

Each time you show an emotion, you have your audience in a particular direction.

Based on that, we need to create a change in the person, and change comes from emotion. That can be done in two ways, either by content or by delivery. Now, a lot of people put a lot of time preparing their content, but sometimes, sometimes they do prepare a story, sometimes they prepare images, and sometimes they prepare videos, all which create emotional effect. But, what they lose out on is attaching their emotion to it, because we have mirror neurons as listeners, and we copy other people’s emotions. So, when you’re up on stage, you have to show that you’re passionate, you have to show that you’re proud, or you have to show that you’re pissed off about something. Each time you show an emotion, you have your audience in a particular direction.

I think that is probably one of the major mistakes that people do. They believe that just reading their transcript or just reading from the PowerPoint is enough. But nah, you’ll never move a person through that.

Paul Sephton: You also speak about inducing emotions through body language and so many other queues, and you’ve built out a really comprehensive framework of 110 core communication skills. How did you unpack this, and layout these skills? And perhaps, if you can take us through some of the key ones, which you think are most valuable in today’s context?

David JP Phillips: Yeah, absolutely. The journey started about 10 years ago when I was coaching my clients, and I started to see a pattern in their skills that they use. Some of them tilted their head when they were listening to me and some didn’t. I started figuring out why they did that, and which one was the more correct one. After a while, I concluded that tilting your head while listening is way, way, way more empathetic. I asked the people who did not tilt their head to start tilting their head and just see what the response would be during the week, when they were talking to be. They came back to me and they said, “My God, there is a difference. People talked to me more passionately.” I’m like, “Wow, that’s incredible.”

And then, after that I started seeing patterns in how people used skills. And after that, I started writing down these skills. I thought, “Maybe there’s a limit to it, maybe it’s not infinite. Maybe there’s a number.” I came to 160 skills which I found, and then I packaged that and I grouped them into 110 core skills, as you put it. The conclusion of that, then, is this: that the more of these skills that you use in a pod interview, on stage, in a video conference, the more engaged the people are listening to you, the more they want to listen more to what you are saying.

The respect isn’t there anymore, and because the respect isn’t there anymore, you have to work so much harder as a presenter to gain their attention.

The interesting thing with video conferences versus live is that, when you did it live, people showed some level of respect. They forced themselves to look at you and listen to you. Now with video conferences, you do not have to force yourself like that anymore. You can type an email while you’re talking to somebody, you can be looking at your mobile phone under the corner of the table, you don’t even have to hide it very well. But, the respect isn’t there anymore, and because the respect isn’t there anymore, you have to work so much harder as a presenter to gain their attention.

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We haven’t come into this, but there’s a neurochemical called dopamine, which drives our anticipation and it drives our hunger for anything new happening in our life. It’s as short as eight seconds these days, eight seconds. Which means that if nothing new happens in the video conference every eight seconds, they will start to lose interest and look at something else, their brain wants them to look at something else. You can’t do changes in your presentation every eight seconds, it’s almost impossible. But what you can do is you can modulate your voice every eight seconds, easily. And by so, constantly, for instance, change your melody, will make them more engaged in what you’re saying.

Paul Sephton: You speak about tricks of the brain, and one of the terms you use which I really like is that of a boxer, and how if you study the greats, they have their sequences which they use as knockout moves. I’m sure that we could skill up managers better with regular cadences, and having these sessions to release dopamine. But, what are some of the key in-the-moment techniques that I can use, like intonation or volume, or any changes, to really keep someone’s attention?

Find your emotion for the meeting, find your emotion for each bullet that you go through because that emotion will power your facial expressions, your gesture and your voice.

David JP Phillips: Well, your voice, and your body language and your facial expressions are all powered by your internal emotion. So I’d say key number one: find your emotion for the meeting, find your emotion for each bullet that you go through because that emotion will power your facial expressions, your gesture and your voice. That would be the easiest way.

But to give you a very technical answer, I’d say that when people ask me, “Which of the 110 skills is the most important?” I usually say number 24, which is filler sounds. We use filler sounds when we are uncertain, when we’re lying, when we’ve lost our train of thought, when we can’t remember what we’re saying. The problem with that is that when you’re presenting something that you’re sure about, you’re certain about the subject, you know the subject really, really, really well but you add filler sounds, you give the idea, non-verbally, you transmit that you don’t really know what you’re talking about because you’re adding all these filler sounds. At the end of the day, people can even become so bored with your content that they’re counting your filler sounds because that brings more dopamine than listening to the content itself. I’d say number one would be to remove the filler sounds from whatever you’re saying.

And then, an interesting thing is melody, which is a different skill of these 110, which means that you change the way you speak and the way that your words come out. Maybe a bit faster, maybe a bit more melodic, maybe not as melodic, in a different melody they may come out. Changing your melody over and over again, maybe to two or three different versions, will also grab attention as you go along.

A laugh, an emotion of some kind is usually a really good way to end whatever you’re presenting or talking about.

Now, looking at the beginning and the end, as you asked me that as well, I would say that you should never, ever, ever, ever, ever start your presentation without having a clear objective, a why which makes the people listening hungry. When you launched off your “why” where you go, “The reason for this meeting is,” and then you say your why, and they will feel their why. They should go from, “Ah, this was going to be boring, but now I’m excited!” If you cannot identify the why for the meeting and make the audience excited about it, maybe having a meeting, having a presentation is not the right way, maybe just sending an email with the status update. Yeah, I would say just start your presentation with a strong why and an attention grabber. And then, end your meetings with a strong summary and something upbeat, just something that you leave them with. A laugh, an emotion of some kind is usually a really good way to end whatever you’re presenting or talking about.

Paul Sephton: You speak about a powerful meeting, and how fillers can often detract from that. Fillers detract from our credibility, and “um” is the most obvious one which we might use. I think another thing, which I always tied to the “um” is how we use our hands. There’s that famous Will Ferrell scene in Talladega Nights where he’s being interviewed for the first time after winning a race and his hands float here and he just goes, “I don’t know what to do with my hands.”

So often, you see people presenting and are either in constant gesticulating motions, trying to do something with their hands, or they have them neatly behind their back. But, if we think about the fact that we only have a video frame and our hands are one of the few ways we can engage with people through video and virtual conferences, what are some of the tips you would give for what we can do with our hands to avoid these deadlocks or just completely lose people by going wild?

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David JP Phillips: Now, if you have a camera and you have a wide angle, and it encompasses your entire being, then you can use your hands as much as you desire. Use them for functional gestures. Show that things are fine by showing five fingers – things are better by showing that your hand goes up – show things are worse by showing that your hand goes down, use functional gestures. But, if you’re cropped into a camera, using a lot of gestures will just show bobbing shoulders, which is just more confusing than anything. In that case, keep your gestures calm if you’re cropped where you just see the shoulders and top of your arms, maximum. And instead, use facial expressions.

We should be incredibly fluent in facial expressions, but we’re not. What’s good with that is that there are massive amounts of improvement opportunities for the absolute majority.

What I’ve found interesting with facial expressions is that it seems like there’s only one in 20 which have good facial expressions, maybe even less. It seems like it’s the last non-verbal skill we use, somehow, for some reason, which I don’t understand because we watch faces all the time. We should be incredibly fluent in facial expressions, but we’re not. What’s good with that is that there are massive amounts of improvement opportunities for the absolute majority. So, have a look at your own facial expressions, record yourself, see which kind of facial expressions you use and if you use any. If not, then start becoming conscious about your facial expressions.

A favorite of mine is watching a movie, and then I see a facial expression and I pause, and I try to copy that facial expression. Before COVID, maybe I was walking by somebody on the street, I saw their facial expression and just as I passed them by, I picked it up just to try it. As you start becoming conscious about facial expressions, you start moving your face, you start activating your facial muscles, your facial expressions start to appear and come out.

Paul Sephton: When you talk about the value in presenting, David, how do you think our communications have changed and what could we maybe do to focus on them more? Because if anything came from this year, I think they’ve grown more important in the digital space, and in the ways in which we connect and form a sense of bond with different people.

David JP Phillips: Well, I think that’s the thing. What I feel most sad about, in my profession in this world, is that we are not given equal opportunities to learn how to communicate and it impacts your entire life. We just talked about the professional bit now, but it impacts your entire life. If you’re a good communicator, that will impact your relationship with your spouse, it’ll impact your relationship with your kids, it’ll impact your relationship with your friends. It’ll impact your relationship with yourself because if you’ve learned how to communicate correctly with yourself … I’ll just give you one example.

Let’s say that you’re heading for a wedding, you’re going to do a speech in the wedding, during the wedding and you’re nervous. You keep saying to yourself, “God, I’m nervous. God, I’m nervous. I’m so nervous. The anxiety is so strong in me at the moment.” What studies have shown is that, by just rewording those three words to “I am excited” instead – “I am excited, I am excited, I am excited, I am excited” – science has shown that you perform better in presentations, you perform better in memory tests, you perform better in math tests, you perform better when singing, if you just change your perspective of anxiety to excitement. Because they’re the same biological and hormonal state in your body, they create the same state, it’s only your definitions of the differences.

Communication rules our life, our present and our future. Those who are good at it will out-perform those who are bad at it.

Communication rules our life, our present and our future. Those who are good at it will out-perform those who are bad at it. I’d say this: take this year and just elevate your communication skills as much as you possible. We get so many opportunities to do it. When I’m talking to you for instance, Paul, I can practice one particular skill out of the 110 and just feel how that feels. And, if I’ve done that for four or six weeks, or maybe eight, it becomes part of me. And then I take another skill, and then another skill, and another skill. I would say that that is important.

A very specific answer to your question is that these days, it’s important for us to bond with people. When we’re not close to each other, physically, we lose out on oxytocin. Looking a person in the eye creates oxytocin, touching creates oxytocin, hugging creates oxytocin. We miss out on that when we’re sitting home along and we’re not seeing each other as much. But, there are other opportunities to create it, and that is by listening attentively to somebody who’s sharing something personal. Or, sharing something personal yourself. Or, having eye contact over the camera. Both those will create a bond between you. And if you don’t acknowledge that, you can become depressed because you’re sitting at home and you’re not getting that emotional hit of oxytocin. You have to create it, and do so by speaking to your friends more often about personal thing, and being personal, sharing personal stuff.

Don’t bond with others by speaking badly about others, it’s just sad. Do it in a positive, good way instead.

An interesting little tidbit is that oxytocin has a dark side, and that is that we bond also by talking badly about other people. If you and I, Paul, we would like to bond more quickly, we would talk badly about your competitors, for instance. Maybe I could have initiated the call by saying, “Yeah, I use these headphones and I use those headphones by that company, oh my God they’re rubbish. Jabra, on the other hand, oh my God they’re brilliant.” If I’d started off doing that, we would have created a quicker and stronger bond for this interview. People tend to use that strategy to bond with each other, but it’s a very, very nasty and instinctive way of bonding. I would just like people to be aware: don’t bond with others by speaking badly about others, it’s just sad. Do it in a positive, good way instead.

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Paul Sephton: A great example you gave of a positive or good way would be to be vulnerable, or to listen intently when someone else is being vulnerable.

While we have touched on where we can bring emotions into the workplace, if I shift back from the personal side into, maybe not a workspace, but an environment where I’m meeting someone for the first time and I’m wanting to springboard my relationship with them, or accelerate that point of trust, because I think it comes down so much to trust. What are some of the tips which you might be able to offer to build out further than that vulnerability or intent listening? What are one or two ways which I might be able to rapidly form a sense of connection with someone when we’re so reliant on more virtual or vocal connections these days, even if we don’t have video, and we don’t have all of the in-person queues which we’re so used to forming connections through?

David JP Phillips: I would answer that it comes down to emotional investment. And what I mean with that is that we like to be around people who make us feel great, it’s always been that way. If you have a look at your friends, you look at your top two or three friendships, I promise you that they’re all there and they’re giving you positive emotions and positive emotional investment into the relationship. Knowing that, that is key and core for us in all our relationships, I would say a very quick way to bond with another human being is to give them that emotional impact. So, how do you do that?

Well number one, you pay them respect. You talk about things that you know that they like, you talk about things that you’ve read up upon. You, Paul, many times during this interview you brought up very specific things that you’ve obviously read up about me, you’ve watched the videos. That shows that you pay me respect, and I like you because of that. You’ve also given me compliments, which we know is connected to serotonin which, again, elicits an emotion. Giving people compliments, paying respect, showing that you’ve read up on them (in a non-freaky, stalking way of course).

Secondly, laughter has shown that 80% of all our laughter is with other people. Laughter is an absolutely crucial social lubricant. When people laugh at something that you say, you feel valued. Laughing in a conversation is a very high level social lubricant to use, I’d say that.

Try to find the common ground that you and others have, and they will bond more quickly to you.

Number three: find a common ground. Find something that you’re both interested in. We human beings look at the world from our perspective, so if I find somebody else who likes golf and I like golf, they must be more similar to me and therefore I like them, because they value the same thing. Therefore, try to find the common ground that you and others have, and they will bond more quickly to you.

And then, number four I’d say is value. We enjoy people who can give us value. At the end of day, that’s what the point of life is: to gain value, to grow and prosper in life, and we usually do that by gaining value. If you meet someone at a party and you understand that that person has great connections, which would be of immense value to you, you will be more interested and more inclined in bonding with that person than a person that you meet who has no value to give you at all. Sad to say, but that’s our perspective of things. So, when you are in this discussion, I would say that the fifth thing is to somehow discretely show that you can be a value for this person, in some way.

There are many other ways. When I teach this in my course, I go through 20 different skills that you can use to bond and create respect between you and another person. These are, I would say, four of the more important ones.

Paul Sephton: Fascinating insights. Thank you for sharing them with me, David. That’s all we have time for today. We’ve been speaking with David JP Phillips, diving into the way the brain reacts to the stories we tell, how to present in virtual environments so that everybody listens, and how successful communication will better every area of your life. If you liked the episode, subscribe to The Soundbar so that you can be the first to know about upcoming episodes of the podcast. Thanks for listening, and cheers for now.

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