Have you ever seen a speaker so uncomfortable that he tried to disappear in front of an audience? I have—and it was quite an amazing sight.
Fortunately, you and I can learn from this person's painful experience about what we should, and shouldn't, reveal in public when we speak. Let's look at the "body of evidence" in his case and others.
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The Incredible Folding Man
The gentleman was a powerful CEO who nevertheless didn’t speak much in public. But he was addressing a fairly large audience that day, which is why he was attempting that disappearing act. It was a terrific demonstration of how body language reveals what each of us is thinking and feeling. Here’s what happened:
I was part of a group attending a conference in the city where the CEO’s company is located. As the head of one of the corporate sponsors of the event, he was asked to deliver some remarks. It should have been an enjoyable opportunity to gain exposure for his company. Instead, it was clearly a nightmare for the poor man.
He did something I’d never seen before and haven’t seen since: he tried to fold himself out of view. As he stood in front of us, he began to crouch down, pulling his elbows in close and placing his hands tightly together, one palm over the other . . . and then kept going! Incredible as it seemed, I swear he got smaller and smaller as we all watched.
It was obvious—to me at least—that here was someone who wished he were anywhere but on that stage. Since he couldn’t actually disappear, he did the next best thing, managing to occupy the least space he could negotiate. What a great if unintended illustration of the power of body language to override the content of a speaker's presentation! (To learn more about unproductive speaking habits you may be practicing, see my blog, "5 Bad Public Speaking Habits to Break in 2015.")
Most of us are fascinated by body language when it reveals things about other people. Of course, that means there are some very good reasons why you should pay attention to what your own nonverbal communication is displaying, especially in speeches and presentations. Below are three of them.
You Can’t Hide when You Speak in Public . . . So Why Try?
The 1940s and 1950s movie actress Rosalind Russell said that acting is standing up naked and turning around slowly. That’s a colorful way of relating a truth that CEO was experiencing: there’s simply no way to hide who you really are when you’re in front of an audience.
That’s a good thing, of course—because audiences don’t want information as much as they want you. Otherwise you could email them your presentation and not be there to explain the material, put it into context, and let listeners know why it matters to them.
Like every actor, I’ve had my own share of painful experiences on stage. I remember an audition in particular when I too tried to hide. I was portraying one of Shakespeare’s characters, and at the end of my three minutes, the director said: “I couldn’t see you.” I immediately understood what he meant: I’d layered so much “characterization” onto my audition piece that he couldn’t find the actor underneath.
So simply accept the fact that you’ll be “standing up naked, turning around slowly” for your audience. The only way your body language will get you into trouble then is if you try to put something over on everyone. Share your honest feelings with them and your desire to offer some interesting information, and that’s what you’ll express physically. If you’re on the beam, your physical expressiveness will be natural and supportive of your topic.
Okay, Everybody: Reach for the Sky!
Here’s another recognizable physical response: Did you ever notice that whatever the culture or situation, people around the world raise their hands over their head to indicate a win? It's an apt example of the universality of body language. Rocky Balboa was onto something on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and 39 years after the movie Rocky, tourists still recreate Sylvester Stallone’s triumphant gesture.
Like Rocky, you are an Everyman or Everywoman when you speak in public, probably not a great orator but an ordinary person rising to the occasion. Amy Cuddy’s popular TED talk taught us about power poses and the increase in positive hormones and the decrease in negative hormones they foster. Interestingly, the reaching-for-the-sky gesture and power poses share an ingredient: their sheer size.
So be bold when you gesture while speaking. Tentative hand movements especially are weak and convey no conviction and precious little confidence. Audiences love a confident speaker more than almost anything. Be that speaker!
Body Language Expresses Emotion More Powerfully than Words
In terms of what you’re showing an audience, corporate speechwriter Richard Dowis had this to say in his book The Lost Art of the Great Speech: “Words convey information; nonverbal communications add meaning to the information.” Think about that, then ask yourself this question: Are you a speaker who thinks that your content is delivering your message all by itself?
It isn’t accomplishing that feat, of course. You’re the one delivering the message. Yes, you use information to get that message across, but you use something infinitely more important: yourself. And that includes one of your most powerful tools of nonverbal communication—your body.
The spoken word is a rich vein of meaning. But in another sense, words are poor things. They denote sense well enough; but how effectively do they give the full flavor of what you’re saying? To do that, you need to use two other all-important tools: your voice and body language.
Gestures, movement, facial expressions, your position on stage—all of these elements of body language should not only convey your meaning, but support or amplify it to a power beyond the ability of words alone. It's one of the acting techniques stage performers use to such telling effect. And it can help foster the charisma, executive presence, and leadership you're looking for as a speaker, since it reveals how you feel about both yourself and your listeners.
Leaders know that body language is one way to demonstrate leadership qualities when speaking in public. To convey the message that you can lead, read my blog, "Body Language and Leadership: Do You Show the Right Stuff?"
So there you are, in the arena of your speech or presentation, performing for an audience.Thank goodness your body is revealing everything it is! Embrace that fact—glory in it and use it to your advantage and your audience’s. Just like that CEO, you’ll never be able to disappear no matter how hard you try.
Anyway, your audience wouldn’t accept it for a minute.
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