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How to Avoid Negative Perceptions



During the Republican primary for the New York gubernatorial election, Carl Paladino, who ultimately won that contest (but lost to Andrew Cuomo in the general election), sent out a campaign mailer impregnated with a foul smell to convey his message, “Something Stinks in Albany.”

The dubious political stunt was the subject of a New York Times article called “All Politics Is Olfactory,” written by Peter Liberman, a professor of political science at Queens College of New York and David Pizarro, a professor of psychology at Cornell. Professors Liberman and Pizarro used the stunt as a point of departure to discuss the larger matter of how negative reactions can influence people’s judgment. But the article contained a scientific fact applicable to presenters: The way humans react to foul smells is actually a defense mechanism to protect the body against contamination. The reaction, as the article described it:

[C]an be seen in its characteristic and universal facial expression: the wrinkling of the nose, curling of the upper lips and protrusion of the tongue. Wrinkling the nose has been shown to prevent pathogens from entering through the nasal cavity, and sticking out the tongue aids the expulsion of tainted food

This is not to suggest that you avoid any such negative reactions by spraying your presentation environment with sweet fragrances, but to be aware of how all humans react to stress, including you. Whenever you step up to the front of the room to present—a stressful situation to say the least—your body will react defensively with a rush of adrenaline that causes: • Your heart to beat faster, distorting your sense of time

• Your eyes to sweep the room, making you appear furtive
• Your hands and arms to wrap your body, making you appear defensive
• Your mouth to go dry, making it hard for you to speak

What to do about it? If you’ve followed this blog, you won’t be surprised at the answer. I’ve said it before but, because of the universality of stress in presentations, it’s worth repeating the solution: Default to the one communication situation that most humans find stress-free: conversation. Treat every presentation as a series of person-to-person conversations. A vase of fresh flowers in the room wouldn’t hurt.

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