Body language means more than gestures. Learn the secrets of using your performance space to make your talks come alive!
Recently, I coached a client who had a remarkable story to tell.
It was a business success story, and it had all the elements to gain an audience's interest. There was an urgent goal to be met, and obstacles and challenges along the way. There were moments of uncertainty and despair. But finally, with the team working together tirelessly—and never doubting their purpose—there was triumph and joy at an extraordinary success.
So why wasn’t this entrepreneur’s success story as exciting as it could have been?
One reason was that I as the listener didn’t witness the events unfold from his point of view. I don’t mean in terms of visuals on a screen. I’m referring to his own involvement and emotional response concerning the experience he wanted to share with his audience. That is, I’m talking about the physical expression of his story. And that, of course, means body language.
Body language matters not only in getting your message across. It's also a vital component of how audiences perceive you, and even how you feel about yourself! To maximize your use of this essential speaking tool, download my free cheat sheet, "5 Secrets of Powerful Body Language."
An Actor’s Approach to Public Speaking
As speakers, we sometimes lose sight of an important fact: words and data may convey information, but nonverbal communication gives those facts greater meaning. Our body language, vocal quality, facial expressions, and movement in our performance space give audiences important clues as to how we feel about what we’re saying. And that in turns helps elicit similar responses in their own minds (and hearts).
Like an actor, you must use your instrument—yourself—to get across what words, statistics, and other forms of evidence can’t accomplish on their own. In a sense, you need an actor’s approach to public speaking. Let’s look at three ways you can make such an approach work for you.
How to Use Gestures in Public Speaking
We’ll start with gestures, and we’ll begin with a simple rule: gestures that amplify or support your meaning are good, and those that detract from what you’re saying are bad. That’s an easy-to-follow formula for dealing with the “What do I do with my hands?” question.
How else should you use gestures when speaking in public? First, never plan your gestures. Create the conditions for the gesture rather than the gesture itself, and the right gesture will arise at the appropriate moment. What the audience sees will be organic and fully supportive of what you’re saying.
Second, start from the neutral position with your hands at your side, bringing your hands up to gesture. Make that gesture definitive and clean, i.e., don't make it a halfway gesture or a repetitive one. After you make the gesture, allow your hands to return to “neutral.”
Gesturing in this way accomplishes two things: (a) it tells the audience you’re confident since you’re not placing your arms and hands between them and you like a barrier. And (b) it produces strong, amplifying gestures that support what you’re saying. To be sure you're not broadcasting nervousness instead, read my earlier blog on the top 10 signs of nervous body language.
Acting Techniques for Public Speaking: Using the Stage
We all think of gestures when we’re talking about body language. But there’s an equally powerful tool of body language to be used when speaking in public, and that’s the stage itself.
As a former actor, I always use stage directions in my work as a speech coach for business professionals. That’s because the stage itself is a device for making your speeches and presentations more . . . well, dramatic.
I talk about downstage and upstage, center stage, stage left and stage right—and always, as in the theater, from of the point of view of the performer not the audience. So when I draw a diagram on a whiteboard, DC is “down-center,” UC is “up-center,” DL is “down-left,” DR is “down-right” and so on. These stage directions are important to understanding when you’re in the strongest position to influence an audience.
Your greeting, introduction, and conclusion, for instance, are most powerful when you position yourself down-center, that is, closest to the audience and smack in the middle of their point of view. Here's my piece on how to start a speech: 12 foolproof ways to grab your audience from the start. As you begin discussing your first main point, however, you may move down-right, and stay there as you make that point (gesturing naturally). That position, of course, is on the audience’s left; and since we read from left to right, it’s the logical location for you to begin your story.
The idea is to plot your position on stage for each part of your speech, occupying a different place for each element of your story. You treat your audience to a changing (and interesting) visual component of your talk; and you move at the points where your story cries out for it. Do you see how your talk will immediately be more dramatic and, literally, moving in your audience’s eyes? (If you're thinking that you can't do this if there's a lectern on stage, my advice is to ask for a lapel mic and ditch the use of that static barrier completely.)
The Art of Physical Expression for Public Speaking
This approach—the art of physical expression—is what I demonstrated and worked on with my client for the exciting story he had to tell. No wonder the experience he was sharing in all its varied elements began to take a more interesting shape immediately.
When you speak in public, try to engage as many senses of your listeners as you can. Too often audiences only hear what we're saying. But we need to invite them—to seduce them—to see and feel our story as well.
So take the interesting thing you have to tell listeners, and find the physical expression of your story. When it comes to the memorability you’re looking for, the odds will be in your favor.
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