When you're preparing for an important speech or presentation, do you spend time perfecting your argument? Doing so may be one of the least productive uses of your precious time. In fact, it may actually harm your performance.
I was reminded of this recently when I read an article from Stanford Business School online entitled "The Way You Stand Can Affect Your Standing." I've been using those exact words (adding . . . "with an audience") for years in my coaching and training. So I was delighted to land on Kathleen O'Toole's article that echoed my own sentiments so closely. (To learn how to influence listeners by mastering nonverbal communication, download our cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language").
Using Your Energy Productively
So how should you use your time prior to that all-important presentation or speech? Going over the exact words you say is almost guaranteed to gum up your ability to think on your feet and speak clearly and compellingly. As a former actor, this is a fact I've learned the hard way more than once. Practicing your lines backstage just before going on will lead only to something close to a stale recital of your lines. What you really need is preparing to live in the moment.
For actors, that means living the character's life in the moments of the play, as each one unfolds, second by second. If you're a business speaker, you can benefit from theatrical techniques for business training, and you can also learn to live more in the moment. You can do so in two ways:* (1) Learning to be comfortable standing in front of other human beings as you speak and try to persuade them; and (2) Paying attention to body language and learning how to use it effectively yourself. Focusing on either or both aspects of nonverbal communication will be far more productive for you than trying to perfect your argument at the last minute and looking and sounding mechanical.
Gaining Status and Being Perceived as a Leader
According to Deborah Gruenfeld, a social psychologist at Stanford Business School mentioned in the O'Toole article, "Your status is determined by physical attributes and nonverbal cues. People decide if you are competent in less than 100 milliseconds." It isn't the quality of your argument that will persuade people, she says. It's how you convey it. For instance, your vocal qualities affect what people perceive regarding your message about five times as much as the words you use. (Kathleen O'Toole, "The Way You Stand Can Affect Your Standing," Stanford Business School online, Spring 2012, p. 31.)
What are those vocal qualities that give you "standing" and power? I typically teach 5 key vocal tools that can make your voice more lively, interesting, and command attention:
- Energy and emphasis
- Pitch inflection
- Rhythm and pacing
- Pauses and silence
- Vocal quality
Do you use these tools to achieve vocal expressiveness that will help keep your listeners listening? Variety is what you're looking for here, for a well-energized vocal style that includes varied pitch, pacing linked to the sense (and excitement or thoughtfulness) of what you're saying, the use of silence for effect, and a well-modulated vocal quality that has, if not richness, a pleasant sound on the ear. It is perilously easy to forget that the voice is a critical aspect of body language, and many people do forget. Make sure a good vocal package is part of your effort to be perceived as a leader, and to gain status because of it.
Broadcasting Confidence Through Your Physical Presence
So is it really possible, as the title of this article suggests, to gain not only status but confidence through effective body language? In my mind, there's no question that this is so. Ask yourself, for instance, what it is about a dynamic speaker that grabs our attention and compels our interest? Such speakers clearly possess authority. But how?
They broadcast such authority and confidence clearly in physical terms. Most speakers know their topic, and many business and professional people are passionate about what they're saying. The key, however, is externalizing such deep commitment to one's message. And that means using nonverbal communication effectively.
Audience members aren't mind readers. They will take away what we give them. If we invite them to give us low status, they will. But if we use body language to stand and move with authority, that impression is what they will take away from our speech or presentation.
Some Practical Tips for Effective Body Language
- Learn how you occupy space: Use a mirror as you stand and move while practicing your speech. Do you “take” the space that’s allotted to you as a speaker, or do you try to minimize your physical presence? Become large enough that you own the stage on which you speak.
- Improve that posture! If posture (your “standing”) is a problem for you, imagine that there’s a piece of string tied to the top of your head that goes upward into infinity. Someone up there is tugging gently and steadily on the line, straightening you up in a slow continuous process. None of the “Ten-shun!” of a military snap to attention should be present here. Your posture should be upright but not stiff.
- Use open rather than closed movements: Employ gestures that are inclusive rather than exclusive (e.g., an open palm offered to a questioner rather than a pointed finger). Take a step in the direction of someone who speaks to you from the audience, or at least lean towards them.
And please, don’t be afraid to come out from behind the lectern if you feel the need to do so. Here are some more tips on dealing with lecterns when you speak. Remember, you're allowed to use the empty space on the stage or podium! (Incidentally, a podium is the platform you stand on when you speak; a lectern is the structure you stand behind.)
Finally, remember that just as emotions produce physical responses, the opposite is true: If you assume a confident and authoritative pose, you’ll actually feel more credible and professional, and your audience will see the difference immediately.
* Actually, there are many ways to become better at living in the present moment; this article happens to discuss two of them.
Key takeways from this blog:
- Trying to refine your words up to the very last second is counterproductive.
- Learn instead how to stand and move comfortably in front of others.
- Like actors, business speakers need to live in the moment to be effective.
- Powerful body language can improve not only your status but your confidence.
- Learn how you occupy space, and use open gestures to look good.