How fully do you use body language when you speak?
For instance, have you thought about the link between what you’re saying and how you express it physically?
From job interviews to high-stakes presentations, audiences are judging you by what youshow them. To improve your confidence and influence in your important speeches and presentations, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
Today more than ever, you run the risk of becoming a talking head when you deliver important content to listeners, ignoring nonverbal communcation. Interestingly, though, you probably have content expertise coming out of your ears, and don't need to spend as much time perfecting it as you do.
The aspect of public speaking you probably do need to improve is body language. That's partly because like all of us, you may be so focused on deciphering others' body language that you forget how vital your own physical expression is. That’s true not only in terms of how you’re perceived, but how the information you deliver is received and retained by others.
The physical expression of your ideas, in other words, is as vital to engagement and understanding as is the content of what you’re saying. So here are 5 tips for using body language to more effectively inform, inspire, and influence your audiences, from meetings to speeches to presentations of all kinds.
Be Aware of Using Body Language in Public Speaking
As with everything else, awareness is the first step toward improvement. In public speaking, that means starting to think in terms of consciously using body language when you speak, rather than only delivering content.
This means more than suddenly becoming self-conscious of how you move when you’re standing in front of an audience. Instead, start to think of the physical expression of your topic in both the planning and execution phases. Plot your stage positions in relation to your main points, for instance, and think about the statements you’ll be making that probably need gestures to strengthen them. Don’t plan those gestures (or they’ll begin to look artificial); just grow your awareness.
Recognize when You’re Using Relaxed Body Language
One of the best ways to become more naturally expressive when you speak is to learn to recognize the ways you move instinctively. The more you become comfortable with how your body positions itself and moves, the more organic and comfortable your body language will become when you speak in public.
Notice what types of movement come naturally to you. You can do this most easily in low-stakes situations: when you’re chatting with friends, or any other encounters where you’re relaxed and unselfconscious.
Become aware of how your body reacts when you get animated. Telling stories, jokes, or discussing a topic you’re passionate about are good choices. Take note of how you hold yourself, move, and gesture. Whatever you're doing is the way you use body language when you’re relaxed and appropriately activated.
How to Use Gestures in Public Speaking
Once you’re more relaxed in your own skin when speaking in public, you can incorporate gestures as they’re meant to be used: to support and amplify the points you’re making. Simply speaking, that’s all gestures are meant to do.
Do you get hung up about using gestures when you present? Many speakers do. Like every speech coach, I hear time and time again the old question: “What should I do with my hands?” The answer is: Not much, apart from using them to strengthen the point you’re making.
Here’s a simple plan of attack where gestures are concerned: Start out with your hands at your sides (what I call the “neutral position”). Only bring your hands up when you feel an urgent need to add movement to what you're saying, i.e., when you can’t not gesture any longer.
Now use whatever gesture comes naturally, keeping in mind that your arms and hands should stay close to your core, and not wave wildly out to the sides. Think of it this way: if you create the conditions for the gesture, the actual gesture will take care of itself. And the chances are good that it will be appropriate, strong, and memorable. Here are some valuable tips on how to gesture naturally.
Why Movement is Important in Public Speaking
As you consider how to use body language to be physically expressive, remember that your movement on stage is part of the mix. Speakers who stand statue-like in one place; those who wander aimlessly or step back and forth repeatedly; or presenters who pace relentlessly in what I call the Tiger in the Cage Syndrome, are all ignoring the value of purposeful movement in public speaking.
Did you know that distance by itself can create an understanding in another person (or audience) concerning how you feel about them? Speech experts often recognize three measures of the distance between speaker and listener(s): intimate, conversational, and public. Which of these levels of distance you maintain between you and those you speak to depends upon the situation and your relationship with them, of course.
Stage position and movement are especially worth thinking about in public speaking. You should use the stage purposefully in terms of your main points, moving to a different position for each one to aid audience attentiveness and retention. At the same time, consider whether your audience sees you making an attempt to get closer to them. You may not be able to achieve the intimate distance mentioned above, but you can certainly foster a feeling of conversational distance rather than the formal "public" kind. And ask yourself whether you can step out from behind the lectern, a serious barrier between you and your listeners.
Facial Expressions and Voice Are Part of Body Language
As my last point concerning greater physical expressiveness, I urge you to think about facial expressions and voice as part of body language. Too often, speakers don't think about them in terms of body language at all!
We human beings rely on facial expressions to make judgments concerning the trustworthiness, motives, and emotions of others. And that certainly includes those who speak to us to sell us things, persuade us, and discuss issues that we share an interest in. If you haven’t thought about this before, ask yourself if you have an expressive face. People will be getting information from what your face is doing, whether you’re aware of it or not. Use a mirror or video camera to help yourself.
Equally important, consider whether your voice achieves the coloration and expressiveness that are vital to the points you're making. There are subtleties of what you’re saying that can’t be communicated in any way other than through your voice, an amazingly flexible instrument. Tape yourself, in audio only so you won’t be distracted by visuals, and consciously use the 5 key tools of vocal dynamics.
Work with a speech coach or acting coach to realize your full vocal potential. Whether you do that or work alone, add voice to the other areas mentioned above to make your body the essential communication tool it’s meant to be.
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