Use Positive Body Language

One distinction between public speaking and writing is that as speakers we can’t hide—we are right out there for everyone to see. And that can cause a little (or a lot) of "performance anxiety." Our body language (the "picture worth a thousand words") sends powerful messages to an audience whether we intend it or not. So, how do we intentionally get our bodies to speak positively in favor of our message? Here are a few suggestions.

  • Start with good speaking posture. When in doubt, stand tall and erect with conviction. A recommended posture is erect, leaning slightly forward and with the weight distributed equally on the balls of both feet. The feet should be spread about shoulder width. Standing tall and comfortably erect conveys confidence and improves breathing and voice quality. If your feet are too close together you will tend to sway and tire.
  • Relax, be your everyday self. Notice the way you move your body and hands and your facial expressions in your everyday conversations with the people you know, like, and are comfortable with. Learn what are your natural movements and their impact on others. Use those same natural movements and facial expressions as your "core moves" in your presentations. But make them a little bit broader to accommodate a large space and a larger audience.
  • Try hard to "weed out" negative body messages. Do not "lock up" or stand rigidly, rock back and forth, shift from foot to foot, slump your shoulders, let your arms droop at your sides, force an unnatural smile, jiggle coins or keys in your pocket, fidget with pens, glasses or other equipment, force an unnatural smile, stand with your arms crossed, or in the "fig leaf" posture (with your hands crossed in front of you defensively). Keep your hands away from your face, hair, and other body parts.
  • Use gestures to enliven your presentation. They must be visible (above the waist or lectern). They should be natural, but they can be developed with practice. Unconscious movements or distracting gestures (repetitive, nervous, too small, hesitant, too quick, or mannered gestures) detract from presence. The keys to good gestures are naturalness, relevance, and variety.
  • Try for a little variety in your gestures and movements. Some people’s gestures are very repetitive. This is almost always unconscious and is generated often by nervousness. The problem is that they can bore or worse distract an audience. To start, you will need someone observing you (though videotape will do) to discover if you tend to do this. Once you identify the problem, you simply have to be a little more conscious and wean yourself off the repetitive gestures. We can all benefit, however, from more variety in our gestures. Learn to use your less dominant hand, feel free to slip your hand into your pocket or behind your back, hold a pen or a notepad (but not so long as to become a boring gesture). Use your fingers to count out serial points. Observe gestures you like used by others and see if they can naturally fit into your own repertoire.
  • Get some movement going (just not too much). When you can, move about. Be graceful, but also be purposeful (as a way to unfold your message). Do not move while making important points. Do not pace. Do not let movement result in turning your back on the audience. If you can, move closer to the audience, but only if that is comfortable for you and them.
  • Decide how you will work with (or without) the lectern. There is a powerful connecting message when speakers move out from behind the wall of the lectern and "expose themselves" to the audience. When circumstances permit, you should move away from the lectern for at least a part of your presentation. There will be occasions when no lectern is available. However, a lectern is often provided and sometimes its use is mandated or at least helpful. It can be used with positive effect. Determine how you look behind the lectern. If you are of smaller stature you may disappear back there. If you are very tall you may need to stoop to be able see your notes. Both are problems that need adjustment. Don’t cling to the lectern. Rest your hands lightly on the lectern. This is a good position from which to gesture naturally. Stand back a little so you can move and will not have to look down to see your notes. If you must stay with the lectern, move to one side or the other rather than always squarely behind it.

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