Importance of Body Language in Public Speaking
In my journey as a (learning) speaker, I’ve learned two things:
– Content makes your speech
– Bad delivery breaks your speech
Even if your content is kick-ass, if the delivery is not up to the mark, the speech will fall short. That is not to say that you need to be all Martin Luther King Jr about it. Body language is different for everyone and methods that work for me may not necessarily work for you.
That being said, body language is of extreme importance when it comes to public speaking. The audience isn’t just hearing you, they’re watching you, and the way you use your body has a direct relation to the impact you create with the audience.
“The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.”Peter Drucker
There’s a lot you can communicate subconsciously to your audience using your body. For instance, if someone talks on stage with their hands folded and their head turned down, they immediately come off as someone who is closed off.
When you’re closed off, you’re not “inviting the audience into your space.” Here’s a clip from The Big Bang Theory of Penny explaining to Sheldon how he can use his body to better his performance.
Ignoring the comedy aspect of that clip, Penny made a valid point – when you’re all hunched up, you’re shutting the audience off. That’s just one of the ways body language comes into play. Let’s look at some universal things that you can try to better your body language on stage.
These tips have been taught to me by some really amazing speakers and have helped me with my body language when I deliver speeches.
You know how some folks advise us to stretch, warm-up or breathe deeply before going on stage? That’s because these things help us loosen up a little. Loosening your body up means…not being tight (duh!).
But seriously, when I started to pay attention to his, I realized how tense I was before going up on stage without even knowing it!
This is something I learned through meditation – when we feel the nervousness kick in, if we just observe our body – our shoulders, our chest, our facial muscles – we realize how tight they are. It becomes slightly easier to loosen up when we know what is tense in the first place.
If you feel your shoulders pressed up, take a deep breath and bring them back down. If you feel your jaws are clenched, again, take a deep breath and unclench them. Stretch a little in the areas you feel are particularly tensed up.
This will help you look more relaxed on stage. Your body movement will flow more naturally and with more ease.
A couple of things that can help in loosening you up:
– Meditating regularly can help in the long run
– Reaching your venue a little earlier and walking around on stage can help you loosen up instead of directly jumping on to the stage when your turn to speak arrives.
Move With Purpose
This is a mistake that I am guilty of to this day. I learned, long ago, that every time you make a movement when you’re on stage, it should mean something. 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.
What many speakers do (myself included) is pace around the stage aimlessly while talking. This can become distracting. It’s not even required. Use the stage for different parts of your speech.
You can start off in the center, move to the right side to communicate the one half of your speech, move to the left to deliver the second half and then back to the center to conclude your speech.
It’s a great way to underline the transitions in your speech, and to a great extent, it helps the audience remember your messages on a more subconscious level.
This is just a suggestion of course. There are a lot more ways you can use the stage to communicate your points more effectively. But the key takeaway is that you should only move on stage when required, not unnecessarily.
What to do With Your Hands? (Hand Gestures)
I always wondered about this – what the hell do you do with your hands when you’re speaking on stage?! I tried keeping them still by my sides, but this just made me look even more awkward than I already was.
I tried using them to gesture things, but I ended up overdoing it and it just got distracting for the audience.
After a little bit of practice, I realized that the best way to know when to use your hands is to do just that – practice.
Whenever I practice my speech with deliberation, I know exactly when to use my hands and for what gestures to use them for. In case you don’t have too much to time practice, just go back to keeping it simple.
Keep your hands down a little over your waist and bring them up only when you want to emphasize something.
One complete no-no is to never keep your hands in your pocket when speaking on stage. This is a common rule…and a common mistake.
Keeping your hands in your pocket brings us back to the first part of this article, it makes you look closed off towards the audience.
Eye contact is the best way to connect with your audience. It makes a speaker look more authoritative and more confident in what they are saying. When we don’t make eye contact, we come off as less believable and less confident.
Eye contact is what will connect your audience on a more personal level. When you look at them straight in the eye, you know you have their attention.
As you look at them, the audience also feels like engaging with you through subtle body language hints. They may nod to your points, or raise their eyebrows in shock or smirk when they hear something witty.
Eye contact can be scary. You can directly see people judging you as you speak. I could never maintain eye contact initially. When I would, I tended to blank out and forget my lines. So I didn’t. If you’re like me and are finding it hard to look at people in the eye, then don’t (for now).
Here’s are three helpful tips that helped me slowly overcome my fear of making eye contact:
– Don’t look at your audience directly in the eye, look at them on their forehead or on their nose. This will give the appearance that you are looking at the audience in the eye when you’re in reality, not.
– Hold 3 people in the audience you are already familiar with as your “anchors”. That means that you only look at these 3 people throughout your speech. As long as they are sitting at 3 different locations in the venue, it will appear that you are looking at the whole room.
Since these are friendly and familiar faces, it will also act as a source of comfort to you while you’re speaking.
– Don’t look at the audience at all. Look at the space in between the audience. If the room is big enough and if there are enough people, no one will know whether you are actually making eye contact or not, but it will definitely appear as though you are.
Please remember, these are just tips to get you started if you are finding keeping eye contact very difficult like I did. Do not stick to these. As time passes, try and look a few audience members in the eyes more deliberately. Slowly, it will become a lot easier!
How to Stand on Stage (Posture)
How many times have our mothers cried to us saying “Stand up straight!”? Well, like always, you were right, mom. When it comes to speaking on stage, posture matters. It commands authority and displays confidence.
When on stage, try and stand evenly, and by that I mean, distribute your body weight evenly by not putting too much pressure on one side of your body.
Keep your legs at shoulder width so that you don’t wiggle, chest slightly out, shoulders back and of course, keep your back straight (slouching on stage is the WORST). Following these simple things will help you look confident in what you’re saying.
Body Language Mistakes
It’s safe to say that not adhering to the above stated points are mistakes in itself. However, there are some big NO-NOs when it comes to public speaking body language which you should be aware of even if you’re a beginner speaker.
Crossing hands: A defensive posture/gesture that signals resistance and creates a distance between you and the audience. It goes back to the Big Bang Theory example – INVITE YOUR AUDIENCE IN.
Hands in pocket: Hands in your pant pockets would indicate that you are not interested in the presentation. It’s a gesture which portrays you don’t want to say what you are saying. Some people even might find it rude!
Statue: This one is obvious – but not so obvious when you are on stage. This isn’t exactly a mistake as much as a subconscious error that will improve with time. If you are not very familiar with the stage, you might be like a statue while speaking! But that’s alright. Just be aware of it. As someone to video record you so you can see how stiff you are being!
Not practicing: When you practice your speech, don’t just practice the content of it, practice where you’re going to allow which body movement as well! I don’t mean to sound anal about it, but seriously, MOVE WITH PURPOSE! And that will only come when you practice your speech with deliberate attention on your body language.
No smile: I’ve been accused of this MANY times! I apparently used to frown even during the happy moments of my speech. Smiling gets you as well as the audience to easen up. And it’s really easy to do when you’re on stage even as a beginner. So smile…not in a creepy way throughout your speech, but for the most part, keep that subtle beam alive!
Body Language for PPTs (And Other Slide Presentations)
While delivering a presentation in a more corporate setting, the same rules (as given above) apply. There isn’t much of a difference in the speaking to a crow on a stage as opposed to delivering a corporate presentation.
My work involves me pitching ideas on a PowerPoint all the time and my public speaking skills are what help me during these presentations.
The only few things that I might want to add on to specifically for presentations is that you should definitely scan the room that you are about to present to as soon as you enter. Instead of just starting off, look around and see who’s present in the room. It will also show the audience that you are not in a hurry and provides a subtle hint of confidence.
You should also pause after stating any key ideas. Pause and look at the audience. Observe their reaction. Based on that, you may gauge if you need to speak more or not on that particular idea.
Ensure that while stating an idea, you are trying to address all the people present in the room. When you look at only one person during a corporate presentation, the other members might feel a little insulted.
You can also use the “raised eyebrow” technique to subconsciously get the audience to approve of your idea. While you’re stating a big idea, look at your audience, have a subtle smile on your face and raise your eyebrows even subtler (not in an outlandish crazy manner!). It shows the audience that you are excited about your idea and truly believe in it.
And of course, don’t read from the slides. It just shows you are not prepared with your material. There is a reason you have been asked to present. If all you had to do was read out your slides, you probably do not need to be here for the presentation.
Body language is the key to non-verbal communication, which is most of your communication. Body language is something that is important for life in general. Having good command over your body doesn’t just help you on stage, it gives you a sense of authority. Things like hand gestures and eye contact in your daily conversations can help you be a more effective communicator wherever you go, and that’s an amazingly valuable skill to have even if you’re not a public speaker!