Before you even start speaking, and throughout your speech, use your body to establish and cement your credibility.
Your body is your most powerful instrument for convincing an audience of your sincerity, earnestness and enthusiasm.
You are able to control every muscle that is attached to your skeleton. Use this ability to your best advantage.
(You cannot control the non-skeletal muscles (eg your heart). Learn to hide any negative aspects of this lack of control !)
Psychologist, Dr Albert Mehrabian, researched the relative impacts of verbal and non-verbal communication. He determined that, when a message is inconsistent, or unclear, or incongruous, body language will play a major role in the listener’s determination of the real message. The interpretation of body language will contribute 55% to the interpretation process.
Every successful presentation will require effective body language. The top 5 tips are as follows :
- Body language must add value to you and to your presentation. Any aspect of body language that interferes with you relaying your message to your audience is negative for you, and needs to go (or to change).
- Your audience will sum you up, and make a judgement of you, within about 7 seconds of you appearing before them. You will not have said very much. Make your body language count. The way you dress, your grooming and general appearance, your smile and your eye contact all add up to your success, or otherwise, in creating a good first impression. Remember that your presentation starts long before you say your first word. You might have mingled before the start of the event, or you might have to walk up to the stage in order to speak. Your audience will be forming their first impression during their first moments of interaction with you. Behave accordingly.
- Eye contact is the most crucial aspect of body language in persuading an audience of your authenticity and credibility, of your interest in them, and of the value of your message. Losing eye contact should be avoided at all costs.
- You will not be judged as authentic and credible if your gestures appear fake. They must be natural (or practised until they appear natural).
- In most instances, you will be feeling nervous. You have adrenalin coursing through your body. Moving your body – your head, your arms, your legs – will allow you to convert your nervous energy into physical energy.
Use the following guidelines to develop the effectiveness of your body language :
- Never turn your back on an audience.
- Stand firm. Stand solid (but ready to move, when your speech demands it). Do not stand with one hip jutting out, no matter how relaxed or casual you might feel. Keep your legs slightly apart, with one foot ahead of the other.
- Keep your shoulders relaxed. When we are nervous, our shoulders tend to rise towards our ears. When you breathe, do it from the diaphragm, and don’t raise your shoulders. It might help to rotate your shoulders to loosen them before you are called upon to speak.
- Keep your head up. If you need to look at your notes, lower your eyes, but not your head.
- If you don’t know what to do with your hands, keep them at your sides, ready for the next gesture – but not hanging limply and unnaturally.
- Never cross your arms. This gesture shuts an audience out.
- Don’t put your hands on your hips unless you are making a point that requires this. This is referred to as a “power pose”, and immediately indicates arrogance and an air of superiority.
- It is important that your hands, and particularly your palms, be visible. This is a centuries-old display of trust and absence of threat. Don’t put your hands behind your back. Women should never put their hands in their pockets. The matter of men putting their hands in their pockets is a contentious one, and opinions differ. A good compromise is that it is acceptable for men to have one hand in a pocket (as long as the thumb is not out of the pocket), but never both. In fact, if the speaker is intimidating for the audience, the more relaxed posture, with one hand in the pocket, might ease this effect. Ideally, however, both hands should be visible.
- Be aware of your mannerisms, ie moving your body in a way that adds no value to your speech, or possibly that distracts the audience from focussing on your speech. Examples here are fidgeting, flicking of hair, clicking a pen, tapping on the lectern, rocking on the feet, rolling feet outwards, etc. (These examples are most often a sure sign of nervousness. If you become aware that you’re guilty of any of the examples, stop immediately.)
- As you develop your eye contact with your audience, focus on one person at a time, hold the gaze for 3 to 5 seconds, and then move on. Don’t stare, don’t follow a predictable pattern as you shift your gaze (for example, going along one row, looking at every person, and then moving to the next row), and don’t flit anxiously. Make your eye movements natural. If you are addressing a large audience, look at sections of the crowd rather than individuals.
- Smiles go a long way to creating connection. Try, always, to smile before you start your speech. Then, if your speech topic allows it, smile (naturally) during your presentation. (Never drop a smile immediately – make sure that your smile is sincere, and that it shows in your face and in your eyes.)
- Resting your hands lightly on the lectern is natural. Gripping the lectern so tightly that your knuckles are white is not natural. White knuckles are a dead give-away of your nervousness. Avoid this trap.
- If you are partially behind a lectern, or any other barrier, stand with confidence. Do not allow the audience to perceive that you are hiding behind the barrier.
- Stand tall. It is natural, when you are nervous, to tend towards a foetal position – to round your shoulders, to keep your hands close together in front of your body etc. Posture is very important in creating a good impression and, importantly, in making you feel confident. Bending your neck will make you less audible, and interfere with your eye contact. Keep your entire spine straight.
- The centre of the stage is your anchor point. Moving left or right, or forward or back, is perfectly acceptable, as long as it does not become repetitive (like a dance, which will distract the audience), and as long as you remain visible to the entire audience.
- Move with purpose. Use your movement to emphasise your points. For example, if you have three points to make, try making each one from a slightly different position – to the left, in the centre, to the right, perhaps.
- Dress for success (and always for your own comfort). As with any other aspect of body language, your dress must enhance your credibility, and must never detract from your message. The rule of thumb is to dress one level up from your audience – if your audience will be dressed casually, you should wear smart casual attire, for example. It is never acceptable to dress casually. Shorts and slip slops are out. Whatever you wear, it must be clean and neat.
- Make sure that your facial expression reflects your words and your message. If, for example, you are telling a sad story, you cannot sneak a smile at your friend in the front row.
The following are some common faults of inexperienced/ineffective speakers :
- Gripping/leaning on the lectern,
- Rocking backwards and forwards,
- Emphasising points by rising up on tiptoe,
- Performing a square dance,
- Standing on the sides of your shoes,
- Adjusting hair/clothing,
- Fiddling with coins/jewellery,
- Frowning, and
These are physical manifestations of nervousness, and are potentially extremely distracting.
Gestures send strong messages. The following are common interpretations of a few gestures :
- No gestures Nervousness/Almost total lack of interest/engagement
- Crossed/gripped arms Defensiveness/Defiance/Lack of interest
- Hands on hips Control/Competitiveness
- Constant hand to face Lack of confidence
- Hand over mouth/touching nose Self-doubt/Lying
- Hands in pockets Lacking in confidence/Sloppy/Disrespectful
- Wringing of hands Plea for clemency
- Pointing Scolding/“I am superior”
Just as you practise SAYING your speech, practise, also, DOING your speech. Practise your gestures. Use your body to amplify your message.