Try this simple experiment: Stand and expel all the air from your lungs until they are completely empty. What did that action do to your posture? You probably assumed a concave and “caved in” appearance, making you appear weak and irresolute. Now, slowly fill your lungs up to their full capacity. . . .
Did that straighten you up? Do you feel more capable, prepared, and stronger? I bet you do—and I guarantee that’s how your audience will perceive you!
You just used breathing, posture, and stance to change your level of credibility and authority with an audience. Incredible, isn’t it?
Let’s talk some more about how the use of space, and with it, time, can affect your listeners’ perception of you as a public speaker.
Controlling Space. What the brief exercise above accomplishes, is to introduce the concept of controlling space. When speaking in public, most of us travel down twin roads with an uncertain destination: the sheer information we're delivering, and our nervousness. If we think about using the body in public speaking, it’s to reflect how uncomfortable we are in front of all these people, and that we don’t know what to do with our hands and arms.
Powerful speakers, however, go far beyond this elementary awareness of nonverbal communication. They understand how greatly physical presence affects credibility and believability.
Speakers who “command space” in this way positively influence their listeners’ responses to them and their message. The more comfortable such speakers appear to be as they stand and move, the more likely audience members will identify with them. Conversely, of course, awkward speakers just make us feel awkward as well.
And when we as audience members are that uncomfortable with a speaker, we tend to resist their critically important message as well.
Good speakers, on the other hand, reach their level of comfort by occupying an appropriate amount of space. They strike a balance between diminishing their authority by folding in on themselves, and gesticulating wildly or pacing back and forth like a caged animal (what I call “the motivational speaker syndrome”).
You can experiment with what it feels like to stand and move powerfully as a presenter. Here's how: pay attention to what it feels like for you physically when you’re doing something familiar and enjoyable. Commit those physical sensations to your muscle-memory. Now recreate them at will, but this time pretending you’re standing in front of an audience. With practice, you’ll begin to teach your body some of these “new tricks”!
Managing Time. Just as we want to control how we occupy space, we must keep a firm grasp on time as an element in our presentations. On the most basic level, this means keeping to our agenda, so that we don’t lop off important parts of our talk because we’re up against the clock.
To give an example of what not to do: I once coached a partner and a vice president of a consulting firm, then attended the conference the pair was speaking at. The partner (who presented first), couldn’t resist going down the path of questions that took him off his topic, until the time left for his partner had evaporated completely.
In your practice sessions, get to know what 5, 10, and 20 minutes feel like in a speaking situation. And keep in mind that time is extremely subjective to a speaker—stretching out like salt water taffy or compressing shockingly—while remaining basically objective to audiences.
Also learn how to pace your presentations. Confident speakers take the time they need to cover important points; nervous speakers fly through everything too fast. That is, practice using pauses and silence. You may think these two tools are unnecessary intrusions into your stream of speech, but just the opposite is true. Listeners need permission to take a “mental breath” now and again.
Managing your speaking time well is one of the ways you keep audience members attuned to what you’re saying. Pauses in vocalization and intelligent pacing alert your listeners when new and important points are coming up.