Public Speaking Body Language
Using Body Language to Effect
Our Speaking Body
Beware your body!
Body language has a significant part to play in public speaking.
Compared with communicating by email or phone, being in the same room (or on Zoom!) adds another dimension. It is like the difference between radio and television.
Non-verbal communication, aka body language, plays its part in conversational speaking. And if we’re speaking to a roomful of people, it’s even more important.
Therefore, effective communication needs body language to aid the message, not hinder it.
Want to know how it works?
Using Body Language
Body language can have a considerable bearing on how the audience feels about us. It impacts on the effectiveness of what we have to say. And it will reinforce the message or distract from it. If we 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.
Some speakers have a shy leg: it tries to hide behind the other leg! This means that they are supporting most of their weight on one leg. It looks odd and isn’t good for stability.
Some presenters prowl around while speaking. 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 should be for a purpose only. 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
Our 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, the problem is that many speakers are unable to speak without waving their arms around. This may be OK if talking about windmills. But otherwise it becomes distracting very quickly and so should be avoided.
If we 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 of the audience.
In their attempt to avoid windmill status, some speakers stand with their arms held stiffly at their side. The problem with that is that it looks wooden and unenthusiastic. Some degree of animation is required.
The look on our 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 we can control is our smile. When standing 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.
Most audience members would be nervous if asked to speak in public, and so may be concerned that the speaker will mess up. That will be awkward for everybody. Smiling at them will relax them and prepare them to listen to what you are going to say.
Taking time to settle also provides the opportunity to take a deep breath. This is particularly important if we’re nervous, as it will help us to relax a little. And it allows time to organise speaking notes.
Eyes are the part of our face that deserve their own heading because the way we use them can have enormous impact.
“There was something about her eyes that went beyond radiance. They locked onto you and were utterly mesmeric.” So said Alastair Campbell when he and Prime Minister Tony Blair first met Princess Diana.
Few of us can hope to have the effect that Diana had on people. But we can still use our eyes to influence the audience.
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 appear to be sweeping around like the beam from a lighthouse.
As the audience gets bigger, eye contact becomes more difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, we should still strive to make everyone feel that we’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.
Speakers who read from their notes, study the floor, ceiling or back wall of the room are unlikely to have an impact on the listeners. Eye contact is crucial and requires practising.
By looking at the audience we’re able to get a feel for how receptive they are to what we’re saying. From their body language we’ll see if they are reacting positively. Or yawning!
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 we’re saying.
Not exactly body language, but it’s worth rehearsing while wearing the clothes we’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.
Use Your Body
Remember, how we use our Body Language in Public Speaking is an important part of delivering the message. It’s good to adopt a steady stance rather than to wander around or stand with one leg behind the other. If we adopt a stable position and stand upright, it will also help with voice projection.
Hands should be fairly still unless being used to make a relevant gesture. Smiling is good, and most importantly, we should maintain eye contact with the audience. We want them to feel we are speaking directly to them. To feel that this is about them, not us.
Are you ready to speak Body Language?
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