Sometimes success in business comes down to small things with big implications. And they can hit you right out of the blue, from unexpected directions. I’d like to tell you the story of how I was reminded of this recently.
It’s a true story, and it has a very happy ending. It didn’t start out that way, though. It began with a problem some of my clients who speak as leaders come to me for help with: how to overcome their anxiety concerning speaking in public.
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The Demands of Speaking for Leadership
The executive I was working with was a European businessman, and he was in an enviable position. Extremely successful in his industry, he had been asked to write a book on leadership. When he came to me, he was in the process of researching the book, and had traveled to the States with a two-fold purpose: to gather material, and to get help dealing with his stage fright.
It should have been an exciting time for him to take a break from his day-to-day business activities and pursue something close to his heart. He even had multiple invitations already from business groups and companies to discuss his book after publication.
But first there was that problem of being terrified to speak in public. It was a mindset that had been with him since his youth, and he’d never been able to overcome it. Part of that was due to his busy schedule since he'd never been able to devote time to the problem. But now with all the interest in his book, he knew he had to come to terms with his speech anxiety.
Fearless Speaking and the Importance of Body Language
With professionals who have this issue, I conduct a two-day intensive executive coaching program. The Fearless Speaking program uses a number of approaches to train clients how to overcome speaking fear, and one of them is the use of effective body language.
An interesting aspect of fear of public speaking—and one that keeps me focused and, I hope, attentive to each client’s needs—is that people manifest speech anxiety differently. For instance, some people have a high level of anticipatory anxiety; while for others the fear hits like a tidal wave only when they begin speaking. Other presenters indulge in negative self-talk and need to learn how to construct positive coping statements. And some people experience a physical reaction that’s far above average.
My leadership author client felt that his body language was a central element of his discomfort and self-consciousness. And he was right. He tended to make repetitive, weak gestures, his eye contact was barely in evidence, and he even had a habit of turning his body away from his audience—a clear visual representation of how unpleasant the speaking situation was for him.
Among the other techniques I worked with him on in our two days together, I introduced three simple yet powerful body language “tricks” for speaking for leadership. And they made a difference! Here they are:
Trick #1: Ground Yourself in a Position of Power
I wanted, first, to address his tendency to turn away from listeners—and so broadcast reluctance to speak rather than enjoyment at the opportunity. So I showed him the technique of “grounding.”
Grounding means to stand with both feet facing forward, at armpit-width. It’s a strong, well supported position that brings with it a feeling of readiness and engagement on the part of the speaker. Try it yourself now: Stand at first with your feet side-by-side so that they’re touching. Now cross one leg over the other; now stand in a “hip-shot” position with one hip thrust out. Finish up with a grounded stance with your feet parallel to each other and at a distance from each other that gives you stability. Do you feel the difference in these stances in terms of your own self-confidence?
Just as important, a grounded stance gives the impression of steadfastness to an audience. If you look like you’re confident, steady, and in control, your message will gain a level of truth and reliability that it may not have had before. A subtle body language addition to your speaking performance? Perhaps. But as I said earlier, it’s a small thing with possibly big implications.
Remember, your nonverbal communication has a huge effect on your influence as a speaker! Your audiences are making judgments about you based on the way you look and sound. To understand how to impact listeners the way you want to, see my article on the 5 key body language tips of public speaking.
Trick #2: Show that You’re Engaged with the World
This body language trick comes straight from my career as an actor. It involves opening your upper body to your audience.
When you speak in public, you have the same goal as an actor playing a major character: to demonstrate leadership to your audience. A big part of that comes from posture, carriage, and how you seem to feel about yourself as well as your attitude toward what you're saying. In other words, it has to do with how you hold yourself and display yourself to others.
It’s too easy, in our lives spent at desks, in front of keyboards, crouched over smart phones and tablets, and stuffed into airplane seats, to become round-shouldered and closed off to the world around us. Again, check yourself, this time in front of a mirror.
Are you standing straight with your torso in alignment, looking confident as you face others? Remember this: how you stand affects your standing with an audience! Now, try this subtle change: start out just a little round-shouldered, then bring your chest up and consciously “open” your chest area to the world. Don’t wrench your shoulders back; but do allow them to drop into place.
This visual element of openness to an audience can boost your perceived level of confidence and competence—and it can absolutely give you more of the appearance of a leader. In fact, once you’ve done it, you may consciously decide never to go back to that slightly round-shouldered habit again!
Finally, a word on using gestures to add strength and immediacy to your leadership messages. It involves learning a little control, and shedding some of your self-consciousness.
When clients and audiences ask me how to know if they're using too many gestures, I tell them to remember a simple rule: Any gesture that amplifies or supports what you’re saying is good, and any gesture that calls attention to itself or detracts from your message should be avoided.
But you can go further than that, using gestures to “punch” the important points you’re making. At the same time, you'll be adding some poise and professionalism to your talks in terms of what the audience is seeing. To do so, start out in the “neutral position.” This means with your hands at your sides, and with palms turned toward your body. Start speaking from this position. Yes, it will feel awkward at first; but from the audience’s point of view it looks perfectly natural.
Now, bring your arms up and make a gesture only when you feel an overwhelming need to do so. You can think of it this way: Only gesture when you can’t NOT gesture any longer, when you're compelled to express that point physically. Make that gesture clean, i.e., make it definitive with some precision—and don’t weaken it through repetition. Once you’ve made the gesture, let your hands return to your sides.
Two things happen when you do this: your gesture arises organically from the strength of what you’re saying at that moment; and your hands are only in evidence when you want them to be seen. Once the gesture is completed, the hands “disappear” again at your sides. As you move from practice to the real speaking situation, you may want to loosen your control a bit, and add more gestures so you're not too statue-like. But starting from the neutral position and using spare, clean gestures will absolutely make you look more in control. You'll seem comfortable in your position of leadership, and aware of how to make your important points hit home.
Accepting the Challenge to Speak for Leadership
These three body language techniques weren’t the only things that gave my client more confidence in his speaking abilities from the two-day executive coaching workshop. But they were strikingly successful in terms of what we saw when we watched his practice sessions on videotape.
And they brought about an equally important change in his thinking. In fact, that’s the happy ending to this story. My European executive had been previously accepted into an MBA program, but had held off enrolling because he learned that 40% of his grade would depend on class participation and team presentations.
Only a few days after he completed the Fearless Speaking program at The Genard Method, he emailed me to say that he had formally accepted his spot in the MBA program. “I’m so glad I did it!” he wrote. Me, too.
Want to master the art of speaking for leadership? Discover The Genard Method's Voices of Leadership Program. And if you'd like to dramatically improve your confidence and focus as a speaker, please visit the Fearless Speaking page on our web site.
I've helped thousands of people just like you become stronger leaders and speak with authority. You can also take a look here at my book Fearless Speaking—the 12-day self-guided program to help you overcome stage fright!
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