Think your influence is only in your words? Your nonverbal communication is all-important! Here's how to master body language for powerful public speaking.
Your words need to take up dwelling in your listeners. How is that going
to happen if you don't embody them? What you do with your audience
is more dance than conversation.
— Jana Childers
You want to move your listeners, don’t you? That means you have to move!
Like an actor demonstrating bodily the action of a play, you should move when you speak in public to create a visual component to the forward momentum of your ideas. Your body is one of your key means of communication; and if you don’t employ it, you diminish the strength and impact of your presentation. You also make it more difficult for yourself to show what you feel. As audiences, we depend upon that visual demonstration to see that you’re committed and passionate about what you say you believe.
Are You Interesting to Watch When You Speak?
Do you know why some salespeople keep a mirror by their telephone at work? It’s because they know that their facial expressions can be “heard” on the other end. These people are often taught to smile before they pick up the receiver (or click the “Answer” prompt on their cell phone), so that they will sound friendly when they say hello. It’s just one example of how what you do physically is reflected in people’s responses to you.
When I’m working with a client on using body language, I often suggest that they practice in front of a mirror. I tell them to give their talk exactly as they will when it’s time to perform the speech—including forming all the words—but without vocalizing. In another words, they should look exactly as they will in performance, including movement, gestures, and facial expressions, though it will all be delivered in silence. Then, I suggest, they should ask themselves some questions:
- “Am I an interesting speaker to watch, apart from what I’m saying?
- “Do I have an animated presence . . . or am I too statue-like?”
- “Can people tell how I feel about this topic just by looking at me?”
- “Do I display enough passion to back up my ideas?”
- “Do I appear to be reaching out to the audience to connect with them?”
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The Physical Dimension to Your Speech. All of these questions touch upon the physical dimension to your public speaking. Audiences depend upon your eye contact, facial expressions, gestures, stance, posture, movement on stage, and generally, a “reaching out” to them. You should never plan out your gestures or facial expressions. But you should be aware that you have a physical presence and not just get up there and deliver information while remaining as wooden as the lectern.
Speaking to groups is an opportunity (of course!) to connect with others who share your interest and passion for a subject. And your nonverbal expressiveness is an indispensable part of that exchange.
Just How Important Is Body Language?
We’re told that nonverbal behaviors constitute 60 to 65 percent of interpersonal communication.1 A famous study claimed that the number can be as high as 93 percent, at least when discussing feelings or attitudes.2 And one well-known researcher claims that at least 90 percent of emotional messages are nonverbal.3
With numbers like these, it’s hard to dispute that a strong undercurrent of audience response depends upon what you display as a speaker. In other words, a large part of your influence depends upon what you are showing, not just what you’re saying. It’s the old idea that “it isn’t what you say, but how you say it.” Among the tools for speaking memorably include the vocal dynamics I've discussed previously. But another equally powerful one is your ability to incorporate physical expressiveness.
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Lessons From a TED Talk. You can see this in action in what is currently the seventh most popular TED Talk: Jill Bolte Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight.” The title of the talk is a clever play on words because Dr. Taylor—herself a brain scientist—suffered a massive stroke in 1996 at the age of thirty-seven, requiring an eight-year recovery.4 Dr. Taylor’s talk demonstrates her unique viewpoint and experience. That is, she both experienced and observed the deterioration of her brain’s language and cognitive abilities over a four-hour period after a blood vessel “exploded.”
Apart from her remarkable recovery—demonstrated by her incisive and fascinating speech—her TED Talk is a lesson in how to translate one’s spoken content into the physical expression of that material. Dr. Taylor is particularly effective at using her arms and hands expansively in a way that reflects the size and scope of her topic. If you watch the talk, you’ll also notice how she moves within the tight red circle (the hallmark of TED Talks), while pivoting regularly to display her upper body to every part of the audience. Here’s a speaker who understands the need to move while speaking on the public stage!
Presenters who move are certainly more interesting to watch than those who are “talking heads.” But using body language while speaking actually involves a more fundamental issue. It’s this: physical expression—along with other forms of nonverbal communication—has the power to transcend cognitive thinking. For one thing, it’s capable of producing a gestalt or wholesale comprehension of a concept without a complex thinking process leading to a conclusion. Such forms of expression can be very powerful, even explosive “Aha!” moments. One way they can be generated is through a presentation that’s literally embodied by the speaker.
So, pay attention to the care and feeding of the physical aspects of your speaking persona. If you haven’t ever thought that you need to express yourself physically as well as intellectually in a presentation, I hope this article convinces you. As modern dance pioneer Martha Graham put it, “The body says what words cannot.”5
1 Joe Navorro, What Every Body Is Saying (New York: William Morrow, 2008), 4, quoting Burgoon, 1994, 229-285.
2 Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1981), 75-80.
3 Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (New York: Bantam, 1995), 97.
5 Amy Cuddy, Presence (Boston: Little, Brown and Company), 2015, 40.
Excerpted from my book, Speak for Leadership: An Executive Speech Coach's Secrets for Developing Leadership Presence in Public Speaking. Get a signed copy here.
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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 Speaking, was 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 Presence. Contact Gary here.
Main image credit: Ali Karimiboroujeni on Unsplash.com