Body language gives audiences a clear impression of you as a speaker. Learn in this article what your body language is telling others!
Visit a bookstore or search online for books on body language and you'll find a good selection ready to teach you about deciphering others' nonverbal cues. But why isn't there more on discovering what your own body language is broadcasting?
Certainly, the way we gesture, move, make eye contact, display facial expressions, and use proximity to those we interact with shapes their opinions of us. And nowhere is this truer than in the world of public speaking and presentations.
Body language matters whenever you speak in public. Your audiences are making decisions about you and what you say by the way you look, move, and relate to them! Learn how to boost your influence through nonverbal communication. Download my essential cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
Let's look at how this interaction between you and those you want to influence plays out when you speak in public.
Three Scenarios of How Your Body Language Influences Others
Imagine you're an audience member listening to a business presentation. Consider these three scenarios:
Scenario 1: "Busy Hands." In the first presentation, the speaker's hands are busy. They're positioned in the upper chest area, around two inches below the clavicle. And those hands are dancing.
One moment, they're reaching toward the audience with fingers outspread. Then the index finger and thumbs of both hands come together, as if the speaker is miming "Just so!" Next, they're forming a steeple with fingertips and thumbs touching. At other times, they're forming small, excited circles in the air with palms turned outward toward the audience.
As an audience member, are you paying attention to what this speaker is saying, or just watching the show?
Scenario 2: "The Belly-Rubber." Now imagine a professionally dressed young woman delivering a presentation at her company's annual sales meeting. She's poised and focused. Her points are concise and delivered forcefully. But while she's discussing the new product line . . . she starts rubbing her belly absent-mindedly.
That's odd, you think, bringing your attention back to the point she's making. But the belly-rubbing begins again a few minutes later while she's discussing an entirely different item.
After the third or fourth time this happens, would you even care what she's talking about—or would you just be waiting for the next belly rub?
Scenario 3: "The Incredible Folding Executive." Speaker No. 3 is a distinguished-looking CEO. He's discussing the pros and cons of a potential merger with a rival company.
He's not overly tall, just average in height—so why does he seem to be trying to shrink himself? He clasps his hands tightly while resting his chin on his thumbs, and by some magical technique, appears to be reducing his size by half right there in front of you! It's like watching a magician perform a slow-motion vanishing trick: "And now, ladies and gentlemen . . . The Incredible Folding Executive!"
Your Body Language Broadcasts to Others Who You Are
The three scenarios above are real, not imagined. In each of them, the speaker communicated important information to his or her audience. Whether the information was correct or incorrect, accurate or erroneous, doesn't matter. As the quotation states, "People are not persuaded by what we say, but by what they understand."
Talk about the importance of nonverbal communication! How you as a speaker use body language is a key skill in terms of the influence and impact you have on those you're trying to influence.
As an actor, I draw upon body language skills that are among the theater-based techniques for business presentations I use with clients at The Genard Method. It's simply not possible to divorce your body language from the impression you're making. And that includes key elements of your public speaking effectiveness such as your perceived level of confidence, leadership, and openness with audiences.
What Audiences Are Responding to About Your Body Language in Business
The impressions the above three speakers gave their audiences can be described as follows. In each case, these impressions led to a negative perception rather than a positive one. Obviously, this is not the outcome you're looking for in your own presentations! To avoid that situation, here are 5 body language errors that will sink your presentation.
Let's look at what those impressions were:
- An Open (Confident) or Closed (Defensive) Personality: The first speaker, the one with "busy hands," constantly reminded his audience that he was anxious, defensive, and tense. This presenter, in effect, couldn't speak for himself because his hands wouldn't let him! They pointed tensely toward the audience, or closed rank at the fingertips. At times, they actually seemed to be trying to push the audience away! Hand gestures that, instead, are relaxed and fluid tell listeners you're confident. Equally important, they help create an impression of openness. That helps make audiences more open to you in turn and more willing to be positively influenced.
- Focused or Unfocused: When you present to any audience, you need to be 100% focused on your message and its reception. Everything you say or do needs to contribute to that end. When you're fully invested in what you're communicating, you'll naturally use your body unself-consciously to amplify that message. Speaking while absent-mindedly rubbing your belly (or any other distracting habit) is a clear tip-off that you're unfocused and not really present for your listeners. How important do you think audience members feel under those circumstances? For help staying on target, download my free cheat sheet, "10 Ways to Stay Fully Focused when Speaking."
- Strong or Weak Self-Image: The Incredible Folding Executive wasn't able to disappear from center stage, however much he tried. To be a confident and dynamic speaker—one who displays a strong self-image—you need to command your performance space. That's true whether it's a conference stage, pulpit, or anything in between. You need to maximize your presence, not minimize it. Although you may not be trying to actually shrink yourself, you may unconsiously "draw in" your physical presence through self-consciousness. Practice in front of a mirror or a video camera to see if you're inadvertently doing so. If you are, your influence will be diminished.
Takeaways from this blog:
- Inappropriate body language can completely detract from your message.
- People aren't persuaded by what you say but by what they perceive.
- Open gestures indicate confidence; closed gestures appear defensive.
- Your movement and gestures should be in congruence with what you're saying.
- Leaders command a stage in physical terms; "shrinkers" project a weak self-image.
This article was originally published in 2012. It is updated regularly.
My previous blogs on this topic:
- 5 Body Language Errors that Will Sink Your Presentation
- "What Should I Do with My Hands?" -- How to Gesture Naturally
- Bill Clinton's Secret: Compelling Body Language
- Use Body Language to Appear Confident as a Speaker
- Body Language for Survival: How to Outsmart a Hungry Lectern!
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