What’s a Presenter without an Audience? – The Uncertainty Reduction Theory as Applied to Presentations


What’s a Presenter without an Audience


“The beginnings of personal relationships are fraught with uncertainties.” Charles Berger, a professor of communications at the University of California, believes that when strangers meet, their first concern is to reduce uncertainty, so they can anticipate the behavior of the other(s).


It’s hard to communicate with people we don’t know, frustrating even, because we don’t know what to expect from them. We don’t know what a stranger likes or doesn’t like, and we don’t want to offend or ruffle feathers. But we still want to get our points across.


Well, the same thing happens when we deliver presentations. Most of the time the presenter is talking to a group of strangers, and for sure this can make for uncomfortable moments. Will audience member A be offended if I say something that audience member B is on board with? Who ARE these people I’m talking to, anyway?


Because we all know the feeling, we want to share with you an idea that goes to the heart of the dilemma: Charles Berger’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory, as explained in A First Look at Communication Theory by Em Griffin.


Your goal as a presenter is to reach people’s minds and hearts, to make them think and feel, to make them want to do whatever you want them to do. But to make an audience want to respond to what you have to say, first you have to reduce the level of uncertainty between you.


But how?


Berger proposes eight axioms that clarify the connections between the idea of uncertainty and relationship development: verbal communication, nonverbal warmth, information seeking, self-disclosure, reciprocity, similarity, liking and shared networks.


Berger’s axioms are:


Axiom 1 – Verbal Communication: “As the amount of verbal communication between strangers increases, the level of uncertainty for each person in the relationship will decrease. As uncertainty is further reduced, the amount of verbal communication will increase.”


The first words of a presentation are always the hardest to come up with and to say. You’re nervous because you don’t know your audience, and you’re not sure if you’ll be able to grab their attention. So your own uncertainty level is high. But this is also true for the audience. That’s why the first few minutes are so important. To counteract the uncertainty, rehearse the first minutes of your speech until you know the thing by heart. This way you’ll feel less tense. After the initial impact, as Berger says, if verbal communication has increased, uncertainty on both sides will naturally decrease. You and your audience are not strangers anymore.


Axiom 2 – Nonverbal Warmth: “As nonverbal affiliative expressiveness increases, uncertainty levels will decrease. In addition, decreases in uncertainty level will cause increases in nonverbal affiliative expressiveness.”


As we’ve said before, a presenter’s nonverbal communication is hugely important. When nonverbal signals increase (the number of nods and smiles, for example), the uncertainty level decreases. So a sense of assurance increases for both presenter and audience. Also, signs of warmth like: a confident and welcoming tone of voice, prolonged eye contact and leaning toward the audience help to increase that assurance. This is why it’s so important to be aware of the impact of body language and use it to bring an audience closer.


Axiom 3 – Information Seeking: “High levels of uncertainty cause increases in information-seeking behavior. As uncertainty levels decline, information-seeking behavior decreases.”


When you start a presentation, the audience is listening hard to what you’re saying, how you’re saying it and how you’re acting. They’re trying to get to know you and understand you, so they’re continuously gathering information. If the first few minutes are pleasant, your audience will relax. Now they feel they know what to expect and can focus on what you have to say. They can concentrate on your message. The same goes for the presenter. At the beginning, the presenter needs to pay attention to the audience, but once it’s clear how the audience is responding, relaxation can follow. And, once again, the importance of a good beginning is underscored.


Axiom 4 – Self-Disclosure: “High levels of uncertainty in a relationship cause decreases in the intimacy level of communication content. Low levels of uncertainty produce high levels of intimacy.”


Here Berger is saying that we tend to express our values, feelings and thoughts when we have a good idea of what we’ll be getting back. Although this fourth axiom applies more to personal relationships (with friends and family, for example), it can be applied in the context of a presentation. It’s important that an audience feels welcome enough to ask questions. And the more welcoming and friendly the presenter is, the more likely the audience will ask questions and be willing to participate in conversation.


Axiom 5 – Reciprocity: “High levels of uncertainty produce high rates of reciprocity. Low levels of uncertainty produce low levels of reciprocity.”


When we don’t know people, we’re careful about what we say and how we say it. We wouldn’t want a stranger to know something embarrassing about us, for example. But among family and friends we can be more relaxed and not so worried about sending a wrong message or filling uncomfortable silences. But in presentation situations, both the speaker and the audience are in a highly uncertain situation. So the goal here is not to expect a high level of reciprocity. Instead we should be trying to encourage any kind of reciprocity, so that everybody is comfortable enough to deliver and receive the message.


Axiom 6 – Similarity: “Similarities between persons reduce uncertainty, while dissimilarities produce increases in uncertainty.”


In a presentation it’s important to know in advance as much about an audience as possible. Knowing what an audience tends to like and care about will help a presenter to establish points of contact that can reduce distance/uncertainty. If you know an audience is mostly senior managers who like to sail, for example, use sailing analogies and metaphors in your speech. They’ll be more attentive and they may even like you better as a person because now they feel they’re listening to a fellow sailor.

Axiom 7 – Liking: “Increases in uncertainty level produce decreases in liking; decreases in uncertainty produce increases in liking.”


Axiom 7 tells us that the more an audience knows about a presenter, the more they’ll appreciate the presenter as a person. And so it’s important to use personal stories to illustrate messages, so a listener can feel closer to a presenter.  Since we all tend to do things that the people we like ask us to do, the chances of moving an audience from point A to point B increase significantly once they simply like us. Getting them to feel closer accomplishes that.


Axiom 8 – Shared Networks: “Shared communication networks reduce uncertainty, while lack of shared networks increases uncertainty.”


This last axiom was added to Berger’s theory by communications scholars. It suggests that as two people communicate with each other’s friends and families and networks, the level of uncertainty goes down. It seems that the more people are part of the same networks and groups, the more they feel they know about each other, and so the less uncertainty there is. Applying this to the world of the presenter: try to learn things about the groups and networks your prospective audience is involved with and use this information in your presentation. Knowing the people you’re dealing with and the worlds they live in can make a presenter more confident and increases the chance of success.


So even before you think about the message you want to convey, even before you open a PowerPoint file, even before you start writing the speech, know your audience and think about the best ways to reach them. Learn about them, learn about their likes, learn about their dislikes, learn about the groups they’re involved in, learn about their values, their cultures. If you can do this, you can create and deliver outstanding presentations.