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The Visual You: Why Body Language Matters in Public Speaking

The Visual You: Why Body Language Matters when You Speak


Your body language matters when it comes to persuading others in public speaking. Here are 5 body language secrets to help you speak with power!

Do you open yourself up to audiences in speeches and presentations? Or do you think only in terms of rolling out information? If that's the case, you need to be thinking in terms of your Body Language.

Too many speakers proceed exactly like the former. But the content you convey to listeners is only the tip of the iceberg. Data can only go so far in influencing audiences and strengthening your credibility. You on the other hand are a gold mine of information for those you speak to.

Your attitude, expertise, honesty, and good will, even how you feel about yourself come through loud and clear by what you're showing an audience. Think of a really good TED or TEDx speaker in a TEDTalk and you'll understand how much such a presenter is sharing about themselves with the audience.

In other words, your body language is helping reveal who you are.

Effective body language increases your impact and persuasiveness. Learn how in my Free Cheat Sheet, "The Body Language Rules: 12 Ways to Be a More Powerful Speaker." 

Let's look at how what you show audiences plays into how they perceive you. I'm talking about your gestures and movement, posture, stance, facial expressions, your use of your performance space, and even the vocal component of your presentations. All of these elements affect how listeners receive the signals you're sending, and how they respond.

Why Does Your Physical Expression Matter?

Nonverbal communication often punches above its weight in terms of what it reveals. People use it to judge your personality, your ideas, your organization, even the products and services you represent. It's a great reason why you should learn how to avoid body language "mistakes."

Obviously then, you need to pay attention to how you use your body, specifically whether it strengthens or weakens your case and the impression you make. In other words, when you speak you'd better be aware of what you're showing!

Below are 5 key components of using physical expressiveness effectively. These may or may not be secrets. But there's no denying their power to add or detract from the success of your pitches, presentations, speeches, remarks at meetings, and all other forms of public speaking.

1. The 'Visual You': Body Language in Action

The cues that help us decide to trust someone, accept what they say or show, and be willing to follow their lead are often not language related. Many of them are wholly visual. And so the "visual you" has great importance when you're speaking to others.

Physical information certainly predates language in evolutionary terms. For that reason, I always feel it's like a swift river, flowing underneath what you're saying. So the more you're aware of what you're displaying, the better you'll be able to confidently lead your listeners where you want them to go.

2. Why Content Isn't Enough to Persuade Audiences

It probably won't surprise you if I say that many speakers depend upon their content, not only to get their message across, but also to create the response they want in listeners. But how could that possibly work? People need to trust what you're saying if they're going to accept it.

That is, they're interested in your intentions and motives as well as your knowledge. One of the best ways you can convey your openness and honesty is not through words (since we know enough to question whether what anyone says is true), but how you relate to your audience in physical terms. 

Data may be essential, but it's almost never powerful enough by itself to persuade and build trust. What you show matters as much, and sometimes more. So the next time you speak, make a conscious effort to be sure your movement and gestures support what you're saying.

Need more information on how to improve? Download my newest free resource, "Body Language for Public Speaking: 6 Skills Building Exercises."  

3. How to Command Space in Speeches and Presentations

In my speech coaching practice at The Genard Method, I give all my clients and trainees the same advice, whatever their level of expertise: You need to get out of your head and into your body. That's because most of us are guilty of "Talking Head Syndrome," as though we were brains perched on a lectern, spewing out pure wisdom!

Of course, the reality is that you are a body in space when you present. And that body has a critical part to play in your effectiveness as a speaking performer. Here are four ways you can be a dynamic presence by "commanding space":

  • Make a strong entrance. Enter, move to your spot, and wait there until you gather everyone's attention. Then begin. People will be ready to listen.

  • Ground yourself.  Stand or sit with your feet at armpit-width. Feel how stable you are? Get your energy from the earth itself—you'll look and feel more powerful. Here's more on using grounding to look and feel more confident.
  • Use the two "public" circles of energy. A helpful visualization is the three circles of proximity to others. First circle is the intimate or private space. Second circle is interpersonal. Third circle is the most public of the three. Pay attention to your energy and spatial relationship to those you're speaking with. Adjust your "size" in terms of gestures, vocal volume, and how much space you take up. This is an essential use of body language.
  • Move with purpose. Use your space productively when you speak! When you're on a stage, move to a different spot for each main point. Occasionally, approach a questioner or the screen. Make the effort to get closer to your audience instead of staying stuck behind a lectern. Speakers who move with purpose not only make what they're saying easier to receive and retain, but they also get a big boost in terms of engaging their audience.

4. How to Speak With Power

An essential element of effective public speaking is strong vocal dynamics. ("Verbal" concerns what you say, and "vocal" with how you say it.). Powerful speaking starts with proper breathing. Stability, energy, and strength all start with sustained breath that is then "colored" by the voice. Click here for my Free Cheat Sheet, "The 5 Key Tools of Vocal Dynamics." 

The truly reliable way to achieve vocal power is to use your breath to support and project your sound. So practice some breathing exercises: Place your hand around 9 inches from your mouth and "touch it" with your breath. Now speak to cover that distance, gradually increasing it—6 feet away; across the room; and finally to a point outside the window.

Just make sure that the breath you're using to project your voice comes from the diaphragm or belly area, not from your throat. That's the way to produce a strong, healthy, and sustained sound. Here are some more techniques for developing a warmer and more pleasant voice.

5. Handling Nervousness for Public Speaking

Confident speakers look the part. Nervous speakers do too. You need to look like the former instead of the latter.

If you suffer jitters just before speaking, or even during your presentations, you need to find a way to calm yourself quickly and reliably. And you definitely should be aware of where you fall in the nervous-to-confident range. To display an open, focused, and strong image when you speak, see my article "Body Language Secrets: What Self-Image Are You Broadcasting?"

To relax nervous clients, I take them through my 5-minute technique for calming your nerves before speaking. Here's another way to avoid appearing nervous when you speak: Simply tell yourself you're going to broadcast confidence instead. It may be difficult at first to envision doing this, but you can; and with practice, you'll get better at it.

Assume a strong stance, move with purpose, and make your gestures clean and strong (and don't use too many of them). Remember: when you appear confident, the audience will have confidence in you in turn. And you yourself will feel a greater level of self-assurance.

Now you're using the visual you to maximize the language of your body for public speaking!

Key takeaways from this blog:

  • Your content may only be the tip of the iceberg concerning your influence.
  • People gain information about your motives and judge you by what they see.
  • You can command space by moving with purpose and using energy effectively.
  • The powerful voice you need begins with good diaphragmatic breathing.
  • If you feel nervous, concentrate on looking confident. It truly will help!

This blog was originally published in 2012. This is an updated version.

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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in theater-based public speaking training. His company, Boston-based The Genard Method uses performance techniques, through in-person and online training, to help executives and leadership teams embody presence and confidence to achieve true influence. In 2020 for the seventh consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as one of The World's Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speakingwas recently named as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." Contact Gary here


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