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"Be a voice not an echo." - Albert Einstein

5 Body Language Errors that Will Sink Your Presentation


Your body language can help make or break your presentation. Here are 5 common errors you should avoid at all costs!

Want to be a dynamic speaker or presenter? Then you'd better learn body language!

Listen, there's a lot of paint-by-number body language advice out there, especially concerning reading what you're seeing. Follow those tips if you want to stay confused and in the weeds. ("She just tucked her hair behind her ear. What does it mean?")

If, on the other hand, you want to understand how true leaders move when they speak in public, you have to take a different approach. At The Genard Method, I tell my executive speech coaching clients to forget the how-to advice. How many leaders do you know who hold themselves and move in specific ways because someone told them they ought to do so?

You should understand this general rule instead: do what you find natural in terms of movement and gestures. Make it strong, limited, and controlled . . . but be sure you know how to make your body language natural and effective.

Want to engage, persuade, and inspire audiences? For those purposes and more, you need to understand how to use body language. Do you broadcast confidence, self-control, and leadership? For must-have tips on using body language effectively in public speaking, see my essential ebook Body Language to Look and Feel Confident.

Key Body Language Errors and How to Avoid Them

In terms of prescriptions, it's more helpful to learn how to avoid the errors that will brand you as an amateur. This article discusses five of those errors. Avoid them at all costs if you want your speech or presentation to be the stuff of history, rather than sly grins and rolling eyes (nowthere's an easily read gesture!).
You should avoid key body language errors for effective public speaking.

1. Splitting Your Focus

Appropriately enough given its title, this error involves poor eye contact. You've seen this again and again: the speaker splits his or her attention between the audience and their notes (or alternatively, the PowerPoint screen). It looks like this: A few words delivered to the audience, then a quick glance down at the page or the screen, some more words to the listeners, back to the page, another remark to the by-now suffering audience, then another glance tossed toward the screen, etc.


Why is this speaker doing this? Is her name written on her 3 x 5 cards? Does he need to remind himself of his title and the company he works for? The answer is self-consciousness. Audiences are often strangers, and one's notes (or the PowerPoint screen) is a familiar life preserver—one that speaker will hang on to for dear life! But your greeting is THE section of your presentation where you open a communication channel with your audience. Give them 100% of your eye contact as you talk straight to them. You're saying things you don't need to look down to discover. So don't. Here's how to dramatically improve your eye contact to become more successful as a public speaker.

2. Weak or Unbalanced Stance

Take a look at this photograph from October 2005:

How politicians use body language when appearing in public.

The gentleman on the left is the late Sen. Arlen Specter. But who is that in the right of the photo? If you guessed Harriet Miers, you hereby receive the Fairly Recent American History Award. As you no doubt recall, Ms. Miers is the former White House Counsel who President George W. Bush nominated for a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. The nomination was withdrawn quickly, however. Could it be because of Ms. Miers's stance in this photo?

Compare the two newsmakers in the shot: Sen. Specter, feet planted firmly on the floor, hands at sides, ready to wage political warfare for party and country. What might we say about Ms. Miers stance? Clearly, it's weak and literally unbalanced. If you stand like this, you'll never make it to the Supreme Court! Okay . . . I know that did the trick to convince you not to look like this when you speak.

Body language mistakes can give audiences a negative impression of a speaker.

3. Closed Gestures

Self-consciousness often causes us to "close" our gestures when presenting. Few activities equal public speaking in our minds in terms of leaving us exposed and vulnerable (it's actually a great opportunity, but I did say "in our minds," didn't I?). So what do we do to protect ourselves?

We begin to close shop. This often involves holding our arms and hands somewhere in the region of our breastbone, and gesturing weakly. What it's really doing from the audience's point of view is giving them example after example of you clasping your hands or otherwise creating a literal barrier between you and your listeners.

Want more on how to use body language effectively when you speak? Go here to find out whether you're committing any of the 7 Deadly Sins of Nonverbal Communication.

The most notorious of the closed gestures is the "fig leaf" position, meaning the speaker places his or her hands in front of, er, the place that he or she would most like to . . . Well, let's just say they put their hands where those fig leafs appear in old illustrations and on ancient statues. Now, in the spirit of venturing across the political aisle, here are two individuals giving us a lovely rendition of the fig leaf position as they wait to speak:

Hillary Clinton's body language is part of why she is a poor public speaker.

Fig Leaf Position

4. Poor Use of Space 

You may be the CEO of a multinational corporation; or you may be the administrative assistant of that CEO, tasked with reporting on where the company should hold this year's annual retreat. In terms of public speaking, you are equally a leader. Leaders command the space that is due them. They use the space that is rightly theirs, employing their physical position in relation to their audience, the points they are making, their visual aids, and the segment of their talk they are currently delivering (their clincher, for instance, should be given "down center" as we say in the theater).

Shy or reluctant speakers, on the other hand, don't command either space or their audience's attention. They may even try to diminish their presence by folding in on themselves until they occupy a tiny invisible space--just as though there's a force field past which they aren't allowed to venture. Download my free cheat sheet to learn more on the 5 essential speaking techniques of leadership communication.

5. The Tiger in the Cage Syndrome

Finally, let us learn a lesson from the world of bad motivational speakers. Too many of these speakers stride the length of the stage, gesturing wildly in an attempt to substitute excitement for value. You've seen them; and you've heard them as they shout something desperate like "Give it up!" to make you believe there really is something of worth going on in the room.

Most of all, avoid the back-and-forth-back-and-forth-back-and-forth marathon that such speakers inflict on captive audiences. My goodness, I'm exhausted just thinking about it. But don't go overboard on the other side of the ship, remaining stock still in an example of the Block of Wood Syndrome. This is especially dangerous if you're speaking behind a lectern, since that structure, thinking you are made of wood as it is, will try to absorb you.

In terms of what we reveal in our nonverbal communication rather than what we say, you could do worse than remembering what a lifelong student of human behavior had to say on this point:

"Though we may lie with our lips, betrayal oozes out of us at every pore."

That was Sigmund Freud.

Takeaways from this blog:

  • Body language is an essential tool of all dynamic public speaking.
  • Avoid the "rules" for recognizing others' motives through their body language.
  • Effective speakers stay grounded and focused in terms of eye contact and stance.
  • Leaders command space by their physical relationship with their audience.

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Body Language Techniques for Public Speaking

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Tags: body language,gestures,public speaking tips,nonverbal communication,Public Speaking Techniques,use of space,body language errors,The Genard Method,Dr. Gary Genard

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