body language for power and confidence on stage

Body Language Guide to Public Speaking (The Do’s & Don’ts)

Delivery matters. A speech with good content but poor delivery will fail to impact the amount that that speech deserves.

Which is why body language so important when it comes to public speaking.

While the below pointers are most helpful to someone getting on a stage to host an event or giving a speech, they can be used for various facets of life – be it an interview or a presentation or anyplace where good communication is important.

Because that’s what body language is all about – non-verbal communication.

Here are the Do’s and Don’t for Body Language:

Do’s (Body Language Tips)

Eye contact

A speech is most powerful when it connects with the audience. Besides a speech’s content, it’s the eye contact of the speaker that can truly help in creating that connection.

Eye contact helps us be more connected with the audience. It makes us look more believable and authoritative. You know that saying of ‘when people don’t look at you directly in the eye, they are probably hiding something’? That’s true.

When you fail to keep eye contact and look down at the stage or away from the audience, it makes them feel like you don’t want to look them straight in the eye because you are not being completely honest, or that you are not too confident about the opinions you are making.

Having said that, holding eye contact (especially as a new speaker) can be daunting (I know it was for me!).

If that’s the case with you as well, you can instead make it seem as if you are looking the audience straight in the eye when in reality you aren’t really making direct eye contact with them. 

If you are addressing a big crowd, for instance, look at the spaces in between the audience instead of looking them straight in the eye.

If it’s a smaller audience (of about 15-25 people), look at the audience members’ forehead or nose.

These things make it seem as if you are looking the audience directly in the eye when in reality you aren’t.

You can start off like this if eye contact seems daunting, but as you move further on, try and truly look the audience in the eye.

With time and a little bit of practice, you will be able to maintain eye contact with each audience member without much effort. 

Related article: Why Eye Contact & Facial Expressions Will Make or Break Your Speech

Purposeful movement

Have you seen those speakers who pace around on stage just way too much while speaking?

This is distracting.

A strong lesson to keep in mind when it comes to body language and stage movement is that whenever you make a movement on stage, it should mean something – it should have a purpose.

Every hand gesture, every time you move from one side of the stage to the other, it should be done because it is (in some way) helping to communicate your message more effectively.

Effective use of hands

Hand gestures are tricky.

When you’re on stage, it might feel awkward to just keep your hands still. Suddenly, you may just forget how to be “normal” with your hands.

Every gesture or hand posture might feel awkward!

While there are many simple things you can do with your hands to use them effectively without feeling awkward, I’ve found that the best way to find hand gestures that suite you and your speech is to simply practice.

Related article: Surprisingly Simple But Effective Processes to Practicing for a Speech

Practicing your speech while keeping hand gestures in mind is the best way to know when to use your hands for which part of the speech. The more you do this, the better your natural hand gestures will become.

Fluid body movement

Speaking on stage is nerve-wracking (for most of us). And so, it naturally makes our nerves tighten up -which in turn makes our bodies tighten up!

This is not good for body language.

To be able to have a fluid, easy-going body language while speaking, you need to loosen up your body.

How to do that? By simply observing.

When I feel the nervousness kick-in before going up on stage, I’ve noticed that when I just observe my body – my shoulders, chest, facial muscles – I realize how tight they are. Once that realization becomes apparent, it becomes a lot easier to tense these muscles down.

This helps me look more relaxed on stage and helps my body flow more naturally, with ease.

Quick tip: Try meditating. If you make it a daily habit, then terrific! If not, try meditating the morning of your speech. It might just help you be a little bit more focused and relaxed.

Good posture

This is a basic one but something that many of us tend to forget. A simple upright back, backed shoulders, and up chin can make us look so much better and confident on stage.

Still, I see very few speakers apply good posture in their speeches or presentations.

While this is simple in theory, it can be hard to put into practice. To understand how your current posture is and where you’re going wrong with it, a super helpful tip is to video record yourself when you’re practicing your speech.

By watching and re-watching these video recordings, you can determine where you’re going with body language and rework your delivery accordingly.

Related article: The Incredible Impact of Video Recording Yourself While Practicing a Speech

Handshake

Whenever you’re called upon the stage to speak, make it a point to enter the stage by shaking the hands of the person who introduced you.

This simple gesture speaks a lot. It shows that you have now taken the stage over and are acknowledging the previous speaker for handing the stage over to you.

In terms of presentation, it just looks so much better and cordial that you enter the stage with a handshake and then begin speaking instead of just starting off with your talk.

The worldwide public speaking organization Toastmasters also encourages the practice of shaking the speaker’s hand who introduces you to take over the stage and shake the hands of the person who is succeeding the stage to pass on the spotlight.

It’s a small, simple thing, but it makes a difference.

Smile

Smiling is critical when it comes to speech delivery. It’s what makes the audience feel comfortable and makes our message more pleasant to listen to.

A smile while speaking can help improve the mood of the entire room.

While some people just have a naturally smiling face, it did not come easy to me. I just did not smile when I was on stage!

If you’re on the same boat as me, you may have to force it a little in the beginning.

Incorporate deliberate smiling into your speech rehearsals and soon enough, you will be able to smile much more naturally when speaking on stage.

Read the room and respond accordingly

Body language is not just about doing things with your body. It’s also about understanding your audience and responding accordingly using your body.

When you are delivering a speech on stage, observe your audience. Are any parts of the crowd seeming like they are losing interest? If you do notice that, move closer towards them and speak.

They will feel you getting closer to them and be snapped back into paying attention to you.

While you are speaking per se, you are supposed to “listen” to your audience and use your body language to respond to them accordingly.

Related article: 8 Tactics to Deal With Distractions When You’re Speaking on Stage

Don’ts (Common Body Language Mistakes)

Looking away from the audience at any point

The audience is listening to you. Don’t look away from them when you’re on stage.

Again, while this simple, I’ve seen multiple speakers look away from the audience while speaking going even as far as to turning their back on the audience!

This is a complete no-no.

Even if you’re acting out a mini-skit in your speech, try and look at the audience while delivering the skit as well. Only look away when absolutely necessary.

Folding your arms

Folding your arms sends a subconscious signal to the audience that you are closed off. It may sound silly, but when you keep your hands open, it makes the audience feel more “invited” into your space.

When your arms are crossed, it shows that you are not completely comfortable “exposing” your body to the crowd. This shows lack of confidence and trust.

Check out this video from Word Champion speaker, Dananjaya Hettiarachchi on why keeping open arms (and open palms) is the right way to go in public speaking):

Hands in pocket

Keeping your hands tucked in your pockets can indicate that you are not interested in your own presentation. It just shows a lack of enthusiasm.

When speaking, the audience is expecting you to use your hands and body to engage them fully and communicate with as much effectiveness as you can.

However, keeping your hands in your pocket at some moments in time isn’t all that hurtful. One of my favourite speakers, Gary Vaynerchuck, occasionally does tuck his hands in his pocket while he’s giving talks on marketing and business.

gary vaynerchuck with his hands in his pockets while public speaking

But even when he does that, he uses his other hand with so much passion. He speaks with so much emphasis and vocal variety. His content is so strong because of his knowledge of the subject he speaks on.

So when a person of that stage experience pockets his hands, it’s not all that bad.

But ideally, it’s best to avoid it when it comes to general body language on stage for most of us speakers.

Not making use of facial expressions

While smiling is one aspect of public speaking and body language that is crucial, facial expressions as a whole should not be missed out.

Many speakers have this poker face when they get on stage.

poker face while public speaking is bad for body language

Your face is an integral communication asset. Use its different expressions to communicate your point more effectively.

When you’re talking about something that makes you angry, clench your teeth.

When you’re talking about something emotional, drop your cheeks and widen your eyes.

When you’re talking about something uncomfortable, cringe.

These nuances are what separate good speakers from the greats!

Lack of practice

Lack of practice when it comes to public speaking is always a don’t – not just for body language but just in general.

The more you practice, the better your delivery will be. The more you will know when and how to use your body for which parts of the speech.

When you don’t practice, that’s when body language can fall flat. Because you’re so focused on the content, you may miss out on the major part of your speech’s effectiveness – delivery.

Practice and practice well. It will make a world of difference to your speaking and body language on and beyond the stage.

Fidgeting

This is something I see time and again with speakers who are new to the stage. They come on, and while they are speaking, they (unknowingly) keep touching their hair, their face or their arm.

I say they do this unknowingly because they don’t realize that they are doing this. It’s just a subconscious movement that occurs when you’re nervous or unsure of what you are saying.

The best way to avoid this is to practice your speech in front of someone else and get their feedback on whether you are fidgeting with your body or not. You can even do this by video recording yourself.

Speaking really fast

While you may wonder how is speaking really fast a body language factor, it is…and I’ll tell you why.

When we speak fast, we tend to pay lesser attention to our bodies. Our bodies may pace around or become really stiff while our mouths ramble on!

However, when we speak slow, we’re in control. We can take our time to think of what body part to use for which part of the speech.

Related article: All You Need to Know about Voice Modulation & Tonality for Public Speaking

Being overly flamboyant in your early stages as a speaker

Body language is important. And while the above do’s and don’ts are good guidelines to apply, they are just that…guidelines.

When first getting on stage, don’t try to be perfect with body language. Just be natural and slowly work on improving different facets of body language as you progress in your journey as a speaker.

The audience will know when you’re faking it. Start off with what comes naturally. Practice. Record yourself. Take feedback from people more experienced to you.

You will eventually learn your style of speaking and what body language suits you the best.

And that will set you off on the part to becoming an impactful speaker but an impactful communicator even beyond the stage.

Hrideep Barot is the founder and chief writer at Frantically Speaking, a portal to help people learn everything about public speaking. The purpose of franticallyspeaking.com is to showcase the lessons that he has learned (and still learning) from his numerous stage experiences and mentors over all these years.