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Body Language and Presence: The Secret to Owning a Stage

Body Language and Presence: The Secret To Owning A Stage

Being a strong speaker means filling your performance space! Here's how to use body language to achieve presence: the secret to owning a stage.

When you watch and listen to a great speaker, do you go home and thrill to the slides you've seen? Or are you still feeling the power of that person's presence? 

I'll bet you're aware—and maybe a little in awe—of how he or she physically owned the stage. What you were probably seeing, in fact, was literally the picture of confidence.

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The Physical Dimension of Stage Performance

The theaters in the most vibrant theatrical eras—the ancient Greek amphitheaters and the Elizabethan “thrust” stage—were designed for the audience’s response. In Athens, the playing area was circular, and the seats rose steeply so everyone could see and hear clearly. The thrust stage of Shakespeare's time jutted out into the house, so the audience was on three sides. The reason for both of these configurations from different theatrical periods is clear: the physical relationship of actor and audience is as vital as anything spoken by the players.

Consider, on the other hand, the modern conference center setup where you'll present (or listen if you're in the audience) at your next big event. It's huge, and the distance between speaker and spectators is absurd. Looking outward from the speaker's spot, there is row after row of seats leading to the back of the hall, each like an individual trench to be overrun in a questionable charge. Could any design be more effective in limiting the intimacy between speaker and audience? Where's the help for you in that when it comes to knowing how to connect with and influence an audience?

Owning Your Body to Own the Stage

And yet, your job in that convention hall is still to fill that stage with your presence. You have to own that space, just as you already own your narrative. And the only way to do that is to first acquire ownership of your body.

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As voice coach Patsy Rodenburg reminds us, “We know long before someone speaks whether we will listen to him or her. We know as soon as an actor walks onto the stage whether he will engage us.”1

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The first step is this process is knowing how to display confidence. There are many ways to do this that involve both mental and physical resources. But for a start: stand straight, open your chest area (don't hunch over), and move deliberately and energetically. How important is this? A recent study of presentations to raise venture capital found that the best gauge for predicting success wasn’t the person’s credentials or even their pitch. It was how strongly they displayed three specific traits: confidence, comfort, and passionate enthusiasm.2 

To gain practical knowledge of how to use the physical dimension for stage presence—to make it happen for you on stage—you need to understand the mind-body connection. Your emotional state especially is tied to what you’re doing and showing physically.

Feeling and Showing Works in Both Directions

We seem to understand this in terms of one direction, but not the other. You know, for instance, that the way you feel is often expressed physically. When you’re sad your face usually shows it, and you may even cry; when you’re happy you smile or there's a glint in your eye, etc.

But it happens in the opposite direction as well, so that the way you hold yourself and move creates an emotional response inside you. You can easily test this: Stand tall with your shoulders in place, your feel slightly apart, and your chest out. Don’t you feel confident and ready? Now, allow your shoulders to fall and your chest to cave inward; bend slightly at the spine, and place your hands one palm over the other in your crotch area. That posture is virtually an advertisement for powerlessness!

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As I say to clients, “How you stand affects your standing with your audience.” Your mind and body interpret the physical and the emotional as a continuous connection. After all, they have a lifetime of experience in linking your emotions and how you express them physically! Use this fact to show as well as tell listeners what you're thinking and feeling. 

The Body As a Source of Your Power

Rather than worrying about how you occupy a stage (as many speakers do), accept that body language is a tool for making what you say more evident. When you amplify your point with an appropriate gesture, the idea behind what you're saying becomes both stronger and visual. 

As TED Talks star Amy Cuddy puts it:

The way you carry yourself is a source of personal power—the kind of power that is the key to presence. It’s the key that allows you to unlock yourself—your abilities, your creativity, your courage, and even your generosity. It doesn’t give you skills or talents you don’t have; it helps you to share the ones you do have. It doesn’t make you smarter or better informed; it makes you more resilient and open. It doesn’t change who you are; it allows you to be who you are.3

Now a key point: If what your body is doing makes you feel a certain way, why wouldn’t it bring about a similar response in audiences? Your physical stance, posture, gestures, and movement cause an emotional response in listeners, as well as any information you're imparting.

So begin thinking of your body as part of your stage presence. In particular, practice the three techniques below. And here are six exercises to build your skills in body language for speaking.

  1. Stand and move with confidence. Improve your posture if you need to, and be aware of whether you’re sitting straight or slouching. Develop the habit of maintaining eye contact even if you’re thinking of what to say next. Some people find this a real challenge, as their next point often seems to be on the ceiling or the floor!
  2. Fill the stage. That really means don’t be afraid to use all parts of the performance space. It may be a few square feet at the end of a conference table in a meeting room, or the wide stage of a convention hall. Audience members’ brains are biased toward processing visual information, and you need to be tapping into that resource.
  3. Bring up the energy level when you start to speak. Actually, do it before you speak. As soon as listeners observe that you are an energetic person with something exciting to say, they will be excited to hear it!

Accomplish these three things and everyone will get a clear sense that you’re present and the owner of this stage. And that, my friends, is stage presence. 

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1 Patsy Rodenburg, The Actor Speaks (New York: St. Martin’s, 2000), 15.

2 L. Balachandra, “Keep Calm and Pitch On: Balancing and Moderating Affect in the Entrepreneur’s Pitch,” 2015. Manuscript submitted for publication. Quoted in Amy Cuddy, Presence (Boston: Little, Brown, 2015), 19.

3 Cuddy, 198.

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Cropped headshot for Speak for Leadership back cover -- 8.30.21

Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking and overcoming speaking fear. His company, The Genard Method offers live 1:1 Zoom executive coaching  and corporate group training worldwide. In 2022 for the ninth consecutive year, Gary has been ranked by Global Gurus as One of the World’s Top 30 Communication Professionals. He is the author of the Amazon Best-Seller How to Give a Speech. His second book, Fearless Speakingwas named in 2019 as "One of the 100 Best Confidence Books of All Time." His handbook for presenting in videoconferences, Speaking Virtually offers strategies and tools for developing virtual presence in online meetings. His latest book is Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership PresenceContact Gary here. 


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