Want to be a more powerful presenter? Avoid the 6 worst body language mistakes of public speaking that will weaken your leadership and influence!
One of my mantras with clients is, “You have to get out of your head and into your body!”
That's because if there’s a fundamental error that prevails generally in speeches, presentations, pitches, lectures, and other types of public speaking, it’s the Talking Head Syndrome.
Contrary to what too many of us seem to believe, our bodies, as Sir Ken Robinson said, aren’t merely vehicles to get our heads to our next meeting. They are fundamental tools of communication—and that means we need to know how to use body language effectively.
To understand just how much good body language matters, pay attention the next time you’re passionately trying to get a point across. You'll easily grasp how essential physical expression is to your message.
Body language tells people how you feel about them, your message, and even about yourself! Learn how to master nonverbal communication. Download my free cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
Using Body Language Well
So why do so many presenters have trouble using their bodies productively? Among the culprits you might find, you can blame our educational system. Reading and writing (along with math and the sciences) are heavily favored in our schools—in fact, they make up the bulk of the curriculum. Art and music are poor relations. And apart from sports, an “educated” use of the body in forms such as dance and oral expression is hardly present at all.
When we enter professional life, we start to get an inkling of the importance of body language and nonverbal communication. An exciting speaker, for instance, gives us instant insight into how vital dynamic physical expression can be.
6 Classic Body Language Mistakes of Public Speaking
So how can you reach that level of effectiveness? Below are six classic mistakes to avoid in using body language when you speak in public. These body language errors are both easy to commit and apt to weaken your leadership and influence. I call them “the 6 worst” body language mistakes because of that level of importance and impact.
These aren’t the everyday goofs of, say, crossing your arms too much or glancing down—the stuff of erroneous “expert” guidance concerning body language. Instead, pay attention to the advice below if you want to light up a stage and give a memorable performance. And while we're at it, here are some body language secrets every presenter needs to know.
1. Neglecting to Use Body Language when Speaking.
Just realizing that your body is a key speaking tool will help you avoid a too-static performance. A talk without anything happening visually is boring to look at. That’s not a small consideration in our increasingly visual age.
Here’s what I suggest: make some of your practice sessions specifically about moving. Don't worry about making it realistic. Give your entire talk, for example, while walking around your practice space. Or swing your arms when you have the urge, allowing the passion in what you're saying to lead the way. The idea is to free yourself to use your body in a liberating way. Afterwards, practice more realistically, using the new freedom you’re beginning to explore.
2. Planning Your Movements Ahead of Time.
The only true physical expression in a speech arises spontaneously. So even if you become more conscious of body language while speaking, you should never plot out your gestures beforehand. The one exception: take a different position on stage for each main point. But scripting your body language (rather than your stage location) will certainly look that way.
Concerning your hands and arms, create the conditions for the gesture rather than the gesture itself. What you do physically at each moment in your speech will then happen naturally and organically, and will look and feel right.
3. Moving Without Purpose in Your Presentations.
“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” Hamlet told the traveling players. In other words, make your actions appropriate to what you’re saying. Do that, and each action will have a purpose. Don’t take the motivational speaker approach and prowl the stage in an attempt to create excitement that doesn’t otherwise exist.
Here are some examples: Let’s say you’re speaking from a PowerPoint deck. Where would it make sense for you to approach the screen to point up something significant? Discussing two sides of a question? — Give each side in a different spot, then re-occupy the “side” you’re coming down on in terms of the answer. Question from the audience? Approach that person by a step or two to listen to the question, then step back to open up your response to everyone.
4. Failing to Command the Stage when You Speak.
This is a clear mandate of leadership in public speaking. Whatever the content of your message, your physical presence—call it executive presence or stage presence if you like—needs to match your material in terms of impact. For more on this topic, here's my earlier blog on the relationship between body language and leadership.
As a speaker, you not only have the right to use all of the space available to you—you must actually command the stage. If you use only some of the space, or stand stock-still, you'll seem inhibited by the setting. Imagine that you, the person farthest from you, and everyone in between is enclosed in an invisible bubble. It's a bubble of energy; and your job is to fill it with your presence. That may mean larger movements and gestures than you’re used to. So become comfortable with it. Your job is to turn people on. So keep the electricity flowing.
5. Not Amplifying Important Points with Gestures.
Too often, we think that words alone will convey our meaning. But they seldom do. In fact, that’s why you have a voice and other means of physical expression—to bring your points to life.
I use a simple exercise with my speech coaching clients. It’s called, “One Point, One Gesture.” Write out a brief paragraph of something you believe passionately and that you want to persuade others about. Now choose the most important thing you’ll say in this mini-talk. Without thinking about the actual movement beforehand, speak your idea out loud, using a SINGLE GESTURE when you make that point.
Did your gesture support or amplify what you were saying? I'll bet it did. So allow your gestures to emerge naturally from the critical points you're making. Try to make your gestures few in number and well defined. And allow them to emerge from your physical core rather than from far outside your center, like waving your arms in the air. Your talk will gain focus and power.
For more on using body language to inspire and activate listeners, see my
Learning Guide, "How to Use Body Language and Gestures as a Speaker." Use this essential tool for more powerful speeches and presentations!
6. Staying Tight.
Through our body language, we show audiences how we feel about ourselves and how we want them to think about us. So an audience is never to blame concerning their impressions of us, and through us our company, product, service, or ideas. And appearing to be a non-relaxed speaker is not a way to get an audience on our side.
Podium or not, it’s a mistake to take the statue approach to public speaking by not moving at all. Equally bad, however, is to create movement—I don’t know how else to describe it—because you think you have to move. I’ve seen speakers, and so have you, who seem to be thinking, “I was told to move around while speaking, so here's something."
Just as emotions elicit physical responses (when you feel sad, you cry), the opposite is true: if you assume a posture or stance, you’ll feel the effects of that pose or movement emotionally. Staying loose while allowing your physical expression to flow will boost your comfort and confidence. Just as important, you’ll look to the audience like you’re enjoying yourself. Believe me, they’ll respond in kind.
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