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The Visual You: Why Body Language Matters when You Speak

Nov 11th, 2012 by Gary Genard

When you speak, are you aware of what you're revealing?

If you think it's only your content—or even mostly your content—you're mistaken. The information you convey to your listeners is only the tip of the iceberg: the raw data that speaks for itself but can't go any further than that. You, on the other hand, are a gold mine of information for your listeners. Your attitude and expertise, personality, honesty, good will toward the audience, and even how you feel about yourself are coming through loud and clear by what you show an audience.

In other words, in the phrase we all know so well: your body language. That includes body position and movement, gestures, stance, facial expressions, and even the vocal component of your presentation. (To be sure people respond to you well and have a positive perception of you, download my cheat sheet, "Dr. Gary Genard's 5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language.")

Why Does Body Language Matter?

People not only gain a wealth of information by your display of nonverbal communication that stands apart from your content. They're also judging you, and through you the ideas, organization, and products and services you represent. For that reason, you should become familiar with the 5 body language errors that will sink your presentation.

This knowledge should serve as a reminder that you'd better pay attention to how you use body language. You need to know whether it's strengthening or weakening your case, along with the impression you're making on others. In other words: when you speak, you'd better be aware of what you're showing!

Below are 5 key components to understanding body language and using nonverbal communication effectively. These may or may not be "body language secrets" in terms of your knowledge. But there's no denying their power to add or detract from the success of your speeches, presentations, meetings, and all other forms of public speaking.

1. The "Visual" You. Here are photographs of two women "on stage":

speaking poise   natural gesture

What are the impressions you get from each of them? Each of these speakers/performers demonstrates confidence and a strong level of comfort in her performance-—what we might call "poise."

The truth is, the cues that help us decide to trust someone, accept what they say or show, and be willing to follow their lead are often not language related. Many of them come from nonverbal communication, including visuals such as body language. And so the "visual you" has great importance when you're speaking to others. Intangibles such as those named above both predate language in evolutionary terms, and run like a swiftly moving river underneath what you're saying. The more you're aware of the visual you you're displaying, the better you'll be able to confidently lead your listeners where you want them to go.

2. Why Content Isn't Enough. Do you depend too much upon your content to convey your message and the response you want from your listeners? Many speakers do. They think that once essential information is conveyed, the people receiving that information will think, feel, and do what they should based on that information.

But how can that be? People need to know not only what is behind information being delivered. They also have a strong need and desire to understand the speaker's intentions and motives, and whether that speaker is more interested in the audience's benefit or their own. These components of communication come through strongly in body language and the other aspects of nonverbal communication. In fact, they are communicated in almost no other way.

Words alone don't persuade people of these things, because audiences have learned not to trust words this blindly. And data may be powerful, but it's almost never powerful enough by itself. What you show matters as much and sometimes more. So the next time you speak, make a conscious effort to be sure your body language display supports and doesn't detract from what you're saying. If you're not sure whether it does, ask friends and colleagues to give you feedback.

3. How to Command Space. At The Genard Method, I give all my clients and trainees the same advice, whatever their level of competence or expertise: You need to get out of your head and into your body. That's because most of us are guilty of "Talking Head Syndrome," in which we act as though we were brains perched on a lectern, spewing out pure wisdom! Of course, the reality is that you are a body in performance when you present. And that body has a critical part to play in your effectiveness as a speaking performer.

Here are 4 ways to "command space" when you speak to allow this to happen:

  • Make a strong entrance. Enter, move to your spot, stand (or sit) there, then begin. People will be primed to pay attention.
  • Ground yourself. Stand or sit with feet at armpit-width apart. Feel how stable you are? Get your energy from the earth or floor itself--you'll look and feel more powerful. Here's more on using grounding to look and feel more confident.
  • Use the 2 public circles of energy. First circle is an intimate or private use of energy, as you're emitting only enough for yourself. Second circle is interpersonal energy. Here, you put out enough energy to encompass your conversation with another person. This energy level is appropriate for, say, speaking with someone before or after a meeting or at a conference. Third circle is the most public of the three. You're already familiar with the fact that you need to create more energy to fill a larger space like a hotel conference room or an auditorium. Start to pay attention to the level of energy you're using when you speak to others. Then consciously use the two "public" circles described here in terms of the size of your gestures, your vocal volume, and how much space you take up when you speak. It's an essential, if often unconscious, use of body language.
  • Move with purpose. Use your space productively when you speak. Move to a different spot for each of your main points. Approach a questioner or your PowerPoint screen. If speaking of a timeline or chronology, move from viewers' left to their right. Speakers who move with purpose not only make what they're saying easier to receive and retain, but they also get a big leg up on engaging their audience.

4. Speak with Power. An essential element of effective body language is strong vocal dynamics. And that begins with proper breathing. Breathing is not only the source of life. It's also the basis of effective body language in terms of its vocal manifestation. Stability, energy, and strength all start with effortless and sustained breath. Click here for 4 ways to achieve vocal power.

The truly reliable way to achieve vocal power is to use your breath to support the sound you create and to project it effectively. So practice some breathing exercises: Place your hand around 9" from your mouth and touch it with your breath. Now gradually increase the distance--6 feet away, across the room, filling the whole room, and finally choosing a point out the window and speaking "to" that point. In other words, you're increasing the amount of breath you're producing and using it to energize your voice without putting strain on your throat. That's the method of producing a strong, sustained, healthy voice.

5. Handling Nervousness. Confident speakers look the part; and nervous speakers do too. You need to look like the former rather than the latter. If you're someone who suffers a bout of the jitters just before speaking, or even during your presentations, you need to find a way to calm yourself quickly and reliably. And you definitely should be aware of where you fall in the nervous-to-confident range. To display an open, focused, and strong image when you speak, see my article "Body Language Secrets: What Self-Image Are You Broadcasting?"

To calm nervous clients, I usually take them through a progressive relaxation: starting with the top of your head and relaxing each part of your body in turn going downward. Imagine that a warm wave of relaxation like lava is releasing the tension in each part of your body. When you get to your fingertips and toes, allow any remaining tension to flow effortlessly out of you.

The other way to avoid appearing nervous when you speak is to tell yourself you're going to broadcast confidence instead. It may be difficult at first to envision doing this, but you can do it; and with practice, you'll get better at it. Take a strong stance, move with purpose, and make your gestures clean and strong (and don't use too many of them). Remember: when you appear confident, the audience will have confidence in you in turn. And you yourself will feel a greater level of confidence. How's that for understanding why body language matters when you speak?

Key takeaways from this blog:

  • Your content may only be the tip of the iceberg concerning your influence.
  • People gain information about your motives and judge you by your body language.
  • You can command space by moving with purpose and using energy effectively.
  • The powerful voice you need begins with good diaphragmatic breathing.
  • If you feel nervous, concentrate on looking confident. It truly will help!

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Now that you know why body language matters, are you ready to fully engage and influence your audiences? To broadcast confidence in everything you show and make what you say unforgettable, download my free cheat sheet "5 Ways To Captivate An Audience." Discover how to become a more exciting and memorable speaker!

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