Are you revealing your nerves as a speaker? Here is my guide to 'Nervous Body Language,' and the top 10 signs you're showing it.
I’ve been attending some interesting talks lately, and I’m exhausted.
How can that be? As an audience member I’ve been sitting quietly and relaxed, and I hope, attentive. I certainly haven’t been expending any energy. But all the movement I've been witnessing on stage has been making me feel like I’ve run five miles!
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Could it be that these speakers are all on edge?
Well, yes. Of course, that wouldn't matter if we weren't seeing the results. What these speakers are exhibiting is nervous body language. But what exactly does that mean, and how can you become aware of whether you're using it?
At The Genard Method in Boston, we specialize in helping speakers who suffer from speech anxiety. Learn more by visiting the Fearless Speaking Course page on our site.
Using Natural Body Language for Public Speaking
Try this simple experiment, for instance: Imagine you’re about to discuss a topic you're passionate about. Stand in front of your imaginary listeners and try as hard as you can to persuade them—without moving a muscle.
Something’s wrong, isn't it?
As a speaker, you always need a way to physically express ideas for them to achieve their full power. When that's missing, you feel its absence as much as your audience. And of course, your posture, stance, position, gestures, facial expressions, and the emphasis you create through physical expression, are what body language is all about.
Your topics will only come alive when you embody them physically. And audiences will be engaged and moved by what they see! It's all part of knowing how to achieve presence and charisma as a speaker.
How to Inspire Your Public Speaking Audiences
In other words, physical expressiveness should emerge organically from your commitment to your ideas and your need to get them across. But when it doesn’t work well for you—when nervous and extraneous body language intrudes—audiences find themselves distracted. They pay more attention to the three-ring circus in front of them than whatever it is you're saying.
Remember, the most important visual you show in every presentation is yourself. And so, you should definitely work to improve your performance at every opportunity.
One way to do that, of course, is to calm yourself before you speak. Here's a great way: my Free cheat sheet, "How to Calm Your Nerves Before Speaking." Download it now!
The Top 10 Signs of Nervous Body Language
Below are the 10 biggest mistakes you may be making along these lines. Think of them as The Top 10 Signs of Nervous Body Language. Be on the lookout for them!
How can you achieve natural physical expression instead? Simply pay attention to how you move when you speak with colleagues or friends on topics that are important to you. Then bring that person on stage when you speak in public. In the meantime, here are some of those body language culprits I’ve been seeing recently:
1. PacingThis is the speaking style that more than any other gives audiences that I-feel-like-I’ve-just-run-a-marathon sensation. Motivational speakers love to use this technique to generate excitement. Remember, though, it’s your ideas that are truly exciting. Get your body involved when those ideas excite you as you talk about them.
For audiences to retain your key messages, your movement has to be purposeful. Map out where you want to be on stage for each main point. When I work with clients on achieving purposeful movement, I use the map of a theatrical stage: Down-center, Down-left, Up-right, etc. (always designated from the performer's, i.e., your point of view, not the audience's). Spend a little time getting comfortable with this concept and you'll realize where you should be delivering your strongest points (hint: it's always nearest the audience).
Here is nervousness personified, that is, in the person of the speaker. There are no specific gestures to name here, and that’s really the point. Random movements may keep listeners fascinated by your perpetual motion machine, but they'll also pull their focus from what you’re saying.
Videotaping yourself in practice sessions is a great way to train yourself in supportive body movements. One habit that may leap out at you is a tendency to sway back and forth. If it looks like you're resisting a stiff gale with shifting winds, you're a swayer. Seeing this on video is a great incentive for gaining more control of your stance.
5. Stepping Back and Forth.
This is purposeless movement in the opposite direction: a tendency to move backward and forward rather than from side-to-side. It’s another example of a speaking habit you may be totally unaware of, but one that can drive audiences nuts! Again, using a video camera or your smartphone will give you a valuable heads-up.
6. Leaning to Port or Starboard.
Here’s the third entry in a trio of physical habits you may not realize you have, but that video will reveal to you. Wherever you stand politically, leaning noticeably to the left or right when you present will deprive audiences of a visual representation of your poise as a speaker.
7. Sprinting to the Finish Line.
One of the most self-limiting results of speaking nerves is to try to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible. That can reveal itself as machine-gun speaking. Since the voice is produced physically, this is an aspect of noticeable nervous body language. One effective way to counter this? Remember to breathe! Nature has arranged things so we can't inhale and speak at the same time (the vocal folds need exhaled air passing over them). Therefore, better breathing on your part = more enjoyable listening for your audience.
8. Retreating from Your Main Points.
In some talks, the speaker will step backward when bringing up each important point. Don't ask me why. I only know it’s a visible sign of nervousness in front of audiences. You should, of course, move toward your listeners when you say something they need to know.
9. Looking to Your Screen for Help.
Speakers who exhibit social anxiety often grasp at “life preservers.” One of these is the PowerPoint screen. The audience may consist of strangers; but your content seems familiar to you . . . and therefore safe. So why not keep going back to familiar territory? Talking to your slide may seem like a way to survive a sea of strangers, but it’s tough to convince people of anything if you’re not looking at them. Here's my Free guide, "5 Rules of Succeeding with PowerPoint."
Finally, body language nerves may manifest themselves not as extraneous movement, but no movement at all. You may not be wearing a deer-in-the-headlights look, but discomfort that freezes you in place is still a tip-off. (Here's my Free cheat sheet, "5 Ways to Recover from a Brain Freeze.") A disembodied voice is great for horror movies, but it doesn’t wear well on the public speaking stage. Again, get your body into the act.
This article was originally published in 2015. It is updated here.
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Gary Genard is an actor, author, and expert in public speaking training and overcoming speaking fear. His company, Boston-based 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. Contact Gary here.