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Body Language in Your Speech

Jealousy and Flirtation

“Body language, is the shortcut to communicating what is most important” ~ Joe Navarro

If a picture says a thousand words, what picture does your image on stage say about you? What do you want your image to say about you?

Our body language says so much about us, that we often take it for granted just how pervasive it is. When asked to give directions to somewhere we don’t know, the universal answer is a shrug of the shoulders. When we meet someone and we want them to like us, the universal language is to raise the eyebrows when our eyes meet.

So how do we get our body to say what we want when on stage? I’m going to take it as a given that when on stage you want to project power and confidence; and you want to show your audience that you know what you’re talking about.

What does your own body language say?

Some common signals that show we are feeling confident include:

  • Posture – stand tall and put your shoulders back.
  • Eye contact – make good eye contact and smile.
  • Gesture with hands and arms – purposeful and deliberate.
  • Speech – speak slowly and clear.
  • Tone of voice – soft and gentle yet loud enough to hear.

Some things are easier than others to achieve. For example, if you ordinarily have bad posture then a simple fix is to wear a nice jacket with shoulder pads. The shoulders have so much to say about us. Hunched shoulders may show discontent, a lack of confidence or even sadness. Big wide shoulders show leadership, authority and confidence. So fake it until you make it; concentrate on getting your posture right and your body will tell the audience that you know what you’re talking about.

Eye contact is difficult from far away, so be cautious to discount its value on stage. When scanning an audience find those who are looking right back at you. Hold your gaze for a few seconds looking at the persons eyes and draw their energy. Especially keep a lookout for those who are responding to you as you’d like them to respond. It’s amazing just how much you can gain from someone else’s positivity when you’re presenting.

Hand gestures are the most common form of body language in public speaking. So much so, it is difficult to speak without your hands. Keep your hands free. Columbia University once performed a study that showed those who used gestures while talking were less likely to stumble, stammer, or umm and ahh. Those whose hands were restricted were far less smooth. Using your hands is particularly important when describing things of a spatial nature. Try saying ‘he went over there’ without pointing and see how well it goes.

It is important to find the right cadence for your speech. When we’re nervous we tend to speak far faster than when comfortable. This is exacerbated with caffeine so be mindful of the pre-performance comfort beverages. Your audience needs to understand what you’re saying so make sure that you choose a pace that allows you to speak loud enough, and clear enough to get your point across.

Your tone of voice is a large part of body language. You can tell when someone is angry or happy by their tone of voice and it is no different when on stage. If your speech requires you to be sombre then a low tone and slow pace will convey that emotion. If you’re trying to get your audience excited then a higher pitch and faster pace is warranted. Remember too, that practice makes perfect, but not if your practicing the wrong thing to begin with.

It’s all well and good to concentrate on what body language you convey, but what about your audience. I mentioned before that it is important to look out for someone in the audience who is responding positively to your speech. What happens when you look out and you can’t find anyone?

What does your audience’s body language say?

If people aren’t engaged, they typically display these traits:

  • Heads down.
  • Glazed eyes.
  • Fidgeting
  • They may be hunched over in their chairs.

None of these signs are good news for you. If you’re seeing this in your audience then you’ve lost them. You can still get them back. With enough time and preparation you can come up with a plan for what to do if you do lose them.

So you’re looking around and see everyone is looking at their feet. Unless you’ve asked them to pray, then you’ve lost their attention. They’re responding to your speech by running on autopilot. They’re listening but no effort is required by them. Try interrupting their train of thought, and slip in a joke or anecdote about what you’re talking about. As soon as they have to concentrate on what just happened their minds will concentrate a bit harder ready for that next derailment.

Glazed eyes are a sign of misunderstanding. When eyes glaze over typically it is because their minds are focussed on trying to interpret what you’ve just said and put it into a context they can understand. Make it easy for them, and try explaining your subject more in layman’s terms.

Fidgeting comes from boredom. Maybe the subject matter is so familiar to them that they aren’t getting anything new from you. When you see fidgeting in your audience, try changing tack. For example, instead of trying to tell the audience how your subject affects them, try explaining how it affects others.

Being hunched or slumped in your chair can mean many things. In the case of your audience it may mean they are bored like above, or that they have no confidence in what you’re saying. Assuming the latter, it is up to you to lead them from their current state to a new state. If they aren’t confident in you, then show them that you are confident in yourself and what you say. Try some power poses, hands on the hips, feet shoulder width apart and project a strong voice. Put the shoulders up and back and stand as tall as you can. Give them an image they can follow. There’s a reason the military spend so much time and money on getting their leaders to stand up straight on parade. No-one ever follows the hunchback into battle.

There is so much your body says about you, far more than I can describe in this article. I’ve given some tips here you can use for your next presentation whether it is large or small. It is your body, and your speech, so from here on it is up to you to paint the picture you want your audience to see. Good luck!

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