If you're like most speakers, you may be neglecting one of your best tools for engaging and influencing audiences: your body. (Discover how to use body language to get listeners to respond to you positively! Download my free cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language.")
Even if you're comfortable using body language in your presentations, you may be focusing too narrowly on a single area. Gestures is what we all think of when we talk about body language. For many of the business people I coach and train, for instance, one question overrules all others: "What should I do with my hands?"
The short answer to that query is, forget about them. If you're zeroing in on your message and your fierce desire to get it across to your listeners, your gestures will emerge naturally from your content. If they do, those gestures will be organic, appropriate, and will achieve what they're intended for: to amplify and support what you're saying at that moment.
Here are five other areas in which body language strengthens your presence and authority:
- Use of space.
- Eye contact.
- Facial expressions.
- Openness and accessibility.
- Your relationship with your audience.
To take those in order: Do you "own" your space and come across as a powerful and comfortable speaker? Do you make solid eye contact so listeners feel you're talking to them? Are your facial expressions adding to the meaning of what you're saying? Is your stance open—not closed off—so your audience feels that communication flows freely in both directions? And do you approach your audience when you can, such as coming out from behind a podium?
The Bad and the Ugly
If you're aware of those beneficial aspects of body language (if you remember, for instance, that people judge your motives and intentions by your expressions and the look in your eyes), you'll be better armed to use body language as a communication tool.
If so, you may be able to avoid the following body language "Don'ts" when speaking. The fact that they're common doesn't make them any less harmful to the relationship between you and your audience, and in the end, to your effectiveness as a speaker:
- Stiffness or a lack of movement.
- Poor eye contact because audiences make you nervous.
- Looking down at your notes or manuscript too frequently.
- Closed hand and arm positions (fig leaf, clasped hands, etc.).
- Weak or tentative gestures.
- Speaking to your PowerPoint slides instead of the audience.
- Feet too close together so you look unstable.
- Legs crossed, so you sometimes lose your balance.
- Tiger-in-the-cage syndrome (pacing back and forth).
- Frequently tucking your hair back because it falls in front of your face.
- Gestures that follow important points rather than amplifying the point.
- Lack of any facial expression.
- Gasping for air because you forgot to breathe!
Do you recognize any of these poor body language habits in your speaking? Some of them are easy to fall into, and you may not even be aware you're practicing them until you see yourself on video. Still, they're no less distracting for your audience, and they chip away at listeners' focus and attentiveness on what you're saying.
That's exactly the opposite reaction than the one you're looking for when you present, of course. If you're practicing any of these detrimental body language habits, remember the five areas above that should strengthen your presence and authority instead. Learn to incorporate them into your delivery. Both you and your audience will notice and appreciate the difference.