I'll see my client's question today about whether she should sit or stand while making a presentation, and raise her a presidential debate.
It's the third Romney-Obama debate I'm talking about, the one that took place Monday night. But first, that question about whether you'll deliver a more effective presentation by sitting at a conference table, or remaining on your feet and moving. It's a question I'm often asked. (To learn how to speak dynamically and make what you say unforgettable whether you're on your feet or on your seat, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Captivate an Audience.")
My answer to this frequent question is always: "If you have the choice, stand. If expectations or tradition are otherwise, or if you have a condition that doesn't allow you to stand, by all means sit. You can still be dynamic; and yes, you can still use movement and gestures effectively.
But why deny yourself full use of that communication tool par excellence, your body?
The Real Deal
We're none of us talking heads; and so in-person presentations aren't occasions for all concerned to read to themselves silently. Speeches are community events, and part of the excitement is watching and listening to it all take place in real time, like a theatrical performance. In fact, presentations are theatrical performances. (Which is why you should be aware of your physical presence, and avoid the 5 body language errors that will sink your presentation.)
If speeches weren't communal events, wouldn't we be emailing each other our slide decks and white papers and waiting silently by our keyboards while our "audience" responds? In a sense, the body in performance is the performance where speeches and presentations are concerned. Stance, position, movement, gestures, voice (produced physically), eye contact, facial expressions, use of space, proxemics (the study of physical distance between people)—all of these components not only contribute to, but in important ways constitute the speaking performance. So by all means, be aware of the body language image you're probably broadcasting!
For the complete effect and maximum reception to occur on behalf of your audience, your full body should be used, not only the half that your listeners can see when you're sitting down. The body is also a tool to help audiences retain information, as when you position yourself in different parts of the stage for different segments on your talk.
Then there's passion and commitment to your message. For a quick and effective example of this in action, watch this video of Hans Rosling discussing statistics in a style you probably haven't encountered before:
Hans Rosling, "Stats that Reshape Your World-View"
In webinars and elearning as well, your body is an essential tool with regard to your effectiveness, since your voice immediately reflects what you are doing physically. In other words, to sound exciting, move! Read about it here in my recent article on using body language when speaking virtually.
Romney v. Obama: The Debate Format Suffers a Body-Blow
Let's return to the presidential debate that I mentioned earlier and use it as our prism to see what happens when speakers are forced to deliver their speeches sitting down.
You may have noticed if you watched this debate a curious reversal taking place: Mitt Romney, the challenger, sat poised and steady, content to let his voice and words convey his messages. President Obama, the incumbent, looked like the challenger: leaning forward, gesturing continually and attacking his opponent verbally throughout the contest. With the incessant recent polls as a backdrop, these seemed to be strategic choices made by each candidate.
How effective could they be though, given the physical limitations a sit-down debate imposes? Contrast this third debate with the second in the series, the town-hall debate where Obama and Romney at times seemed close to coming to blows.
Nothing like that was in evidence in the third debate, in large part because each candidate was denied much of the use of his body. Tim Stanley of the U.K.'s Telegraph said that, apart from the horses and bayonet moment, it was "essentially a debate without incident." And this two weeks before the election, when we can finally get excited about the choice we're about to make!
Your audiences need you physically as much as any other dimension of your speeches and presentations. So, my answer to the question is: stand whenever you can. Make it physical, but make it real as well.
Fergus McClelland, British voice trainer and former Royal Shakespeare Company actor, tells the story of companies that encourage their salespeople to stand on their desk so they'll sound more activated and energized. They may come across that way. But I think the chances are better that they just sound bloody scared.
Key takeaways from this blog:
- If you have the choice to sit or stand when presenting, standing is better.
- Your body is a key tool of communication, and you should use it that way.
- Physical components not only contribute to, but in sense are your presentation.
- Speaking virtually benefits from full-body involvement as well.
- Sit-down debates are good illustrations of how prohibiting movement limits ideas.