Public Speaking Body Language
Use Your Body for Effect
Your Speaking Body
Your body language is important in public speaking.
Compared with communicating by email or phone, being in the same room adds another dimension. It is like the difference between radio and television.
What is Body Language?
By body language we mean how you stand, what you do with your hands and arms, your facial expressions and, very importantly, how you use your eyes.
Body language can have a considerable bearing on how the audience feels about you.
It impacts on the effectiveness of what you have to say. And it will reinforce the message. Or distract from it.
If you use it well, it’s a key component in making persuasive presentations.
Let’s look at how our body speaks.
Standing with feet slightly apart is a good default position to adopt. It gives stability and helps to stop involuntary swaying. A steady stance conveys an air of confidence and authority.
Nervous speakers sometimes stand on one leg with the other hiding behind it. Shy leg syndrome! This means that they are supporting most of their weight on the one leg. It looks odd and isn’t good for stability.
Some presenters prowl around while speaking.
Again, this is often the result of nerves, although some think it adds dynamism to their performance. The reality is that it can become distracting very quickly.
Movement is best kept for when it can enhance your words. For example, if comparing two aspects of something, just moving a couple of feet to one side while saying, “On the other hand …” can help to reinforce the contrast.
Hands and Arms
Your upper limbs are very useful for making meaningful gestures when presenting. After all, no fishing trip would be complete without us catching a fish this big!
However, it can be difficult not to wave your arms around without realising it. It may be OK if talking about windmills, but otherwise it becomes distracting very quickly and so should be avoided.
If you have the use of a lectern, hands can be rested lightly on it to give them something to do. Rested lightly, not gripped tightly with white knuckles!
An alternative, is to rest one hand in the upturned palm of the other, with slightly bent arms. This is sometimes known as the cup and saucer approach.
Hands in pockets is a no, no. It just looks wrong and can appear disrespectful to the audience.
In their attempt to avoid windmill status, some speakers stand with their arms held stiffly at their side. The problem is that it looks wooden and unenthusiastic. Some degree of animation is required.
The look on your face can convey additional meaning to the words. But this is something that is difficult to plan for.
The best solution is to speak in a manner appropriate to what you are saying. For example, if you speak excitedly or in a serious tone, your face will tend to adopt appropriate expressions.
What you can control is your smile. When you stand up to speak, take time to settle.
Look around at the audience and smile. It will start to form a connection with them. And it will also reassure them that you are confident about speaking to them, which is quite important.
Smiling at the audience will relax them and prepare them to listen to what you have to say.
Taking time to settle also provides the opportunity to take a deep breath. This is particularly important if you’re nervous, as it will help you to relax a little. It also allows time for you to organise your speaking notes.
Eyes are the part of your face that deserve their own heading because the way you use them can have enormous impact.
Arguably, they are the most important aspect of public speaking body language.
Speakers who just read from a script or only look at the floor won’t connect with the audience. In fact, they may give the impression that they are insincere and don’t believe what they are saying.
Studying the ceiling or looking over the heads of the audience at the back wall of the room is unlikely to have much impact on the listeners either.
In public speaking, eye contact is crucial and requires practising.
Aim to look briefly at every person from time to time.
Not just look in their general direction but look at their eyes. But only briefly. More than a second and they may start to feel uncomfortable.
Try to look at all parts of the audience equally, but on a random basis rather than appearing to sweep around like the beam from that previously mentioned lighthouse.
As the audience gets bigger, eye contact becomes more difficult to achieve.
Nevertheless, you should still strive to make everyone feel that you’re speaking to them directly. It’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at the front couple of rows. A conscious effort is required to look at all parts of the room equally, including the back row.
Read more about speaking with your eyes.
There is an additional benefit of looking at your audience.
You’re able to get a feel for how receptive they are to what you’re saying. Their body language will tell you if they are reacting positively. Or yawning!
If they appear disconnected, it’s time to make some changes. You could try upping the pace or increasing your voice volume. Maybe throw out a question to engage them.
A cautionary word though. There will always be one or two people who give the impression they don’t like what they are hearing. They’ll appear emotionless, or even frowning. Don’t worry, they are probably just concentrating very hard on what you’re saying.
Equally, there will be a few who are smiling at you or nodding in agreement. Avoid the temptation of looking at them only.
Speaking Body Language
Are you ready to speak Body Language?
Before you do …
Not exactly body language, but it’s worth rehearsing while wearing the clothes you’ll be in when delivering the presentation. Check to see that those big gestures can be made without causing any sort of a clothing malfunction.
And before standing to speak, make sure that everything that needs to be done up or hitched up has been adjusted!
Last updated 6th September 2023
This article looks at the various aspects of eye contact and body language in general, including research findings. It is more focussed on one-to-one communication but interesting nevertheless.
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