Especially critical are stance, movement, gestures, facial expression, and eye contact.
By Laura Stack, MBA, CSP
When you’re trying to get a point across, howyou say it can be just as important as whatyou say—sometimes even more so. There are two forms of language in play here: verbal language, which can be manipulated through inflection, volume, word use, and emphasis; and body language, which can be even more important.
In a very real sense, when you’re giving a presentation, youare your most important visual. Therefore, your body language has power: You can use it to bring life to your material and to indicate how you want your listeners to react to what you’re telling them. That being the case, you need to remain constantly aware of the image you portray, from the moment you stand up, until after your presentation is complete. Why? Because I assure you, the audience will analyze your body language, if only on a subconscious level.
Consider this: How would you respond to a person who leaned on a wall or swayed during a presentation? Would you be so busy thinking about this body language that you’re distracted from the message? How about a slump-shouldered, shifty-eyed individual who wouldn’t meet your gaze—would you trust that person’s message?
These simple examples are illustrative of just how important the basics of good body language can be. Especially critical are stance, movement, gestures, facial expression, and eye contact, so let’s take a closer look at all five.
Stance. Your posture should be upright but relaxed, demonstrating assertive behavior without being aggressive. This shows you’re sure of yourself and believe in what you’re presenting. Stand with your feet planted firmly about shoulder-width apart, well-balanced but leaning forward a bit; this suggests eagerness and passion for your subject and engagement with your audience. Don’t put your hands on your hips or in your pockets the entire time; don’t slouch, sway, lean backwards or to the side or against anything; don’t fold your arms (except, perhaps, to make a point). Any of these actions can communicate a lack of conviction, unhappiness, defensiveness, or nervousness, no matter how you really feel.
Movement. It’s difficult to engage your audience if you stay rooted in one place throughout your presentation. Don’t move around too much (that can be annoying and distracting), but do take advantage of the stage to attract and retain your audience’s attention. If you’re savvy about it, you can use body movement (in combination with gestures) to indicate changes of focus, suggest transitions, and emphasize points. Move smoothly, avoiding any jerkiness. Depending on the size of the venue, you also may have to watch your distance to the audience members. People get nervous if you invade their personal space, so stay at least 10 feet away if possible.
Gestures. If you don’t normally gesture, it’s a great technique to learn. Among other things, gestures can count, express emotion and sincerity, introduce and communicate concepts, and help you change focus. They should arise from the context of your presentation and be open and friendly. Make them bigger and wider than you’d use if talking to just one person, so they encompass most of the audience. Always be aware of what you’re doing with your hands and arms, if only to be sure you’re not inadvertently using threatening or negative gestures. Your gestures should never be angry, nervous, or jerky.
Facial Expression. Nobody likes to look at someone who’s expressionless, hard-faced, or unsmiling. There’s nothing wrong with being serious when the moment warrants it, but to connect with people, your face needs to be open and animated, with expressions that match what you’re saying. This demonstrates that you care not just for the subject, but also for the people you’re speaking to. These people matter to you a lot, so show them that. Be positive—and keep smiling—even when you don’t feel like it.
Eye Contact. To gain a person’s trust, you have to look them in the eyes. So when you’re up on the stage, be sure that your gaze encompasses all parts of the room, including the back and sides. Try to engage people individually for brief periods, especially those who seem neutral or uninterested. Never stare blankly or off into space. Maintain that eye contact as if you’re talking directly to someone—you are! It’s one of your most important tools for communicating sincerity and credibility.
Be sure to practice, practice, and practice some more. Try what’s natural for you, and then make it bigger, because you can’t expect normal-sized body language to be visible beyond the front row. Rehearse relentlessly in front of a mirror, and make sure everything seems right; if it doesn’t, edit that particular item right out of your repertoire.
Laura Stack has consulted with Fortune 500 corporations for nearly 20 years in the field of personal productivity and is the best-selling author of several books, including “Supercompetent.” She is a Certified Speaking Professional (CSP) and the 2011-2012 president of the National Speakers Association (NSA). Stack’s productivity-improvement programs have been used worldwide at companies such as Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Cisco Systems, and Bank of America. She is the creator of The Productivity Pro planner by Day-Timer. For more information, visit www.TheProductivityPro.comor www.NSAspeaker.org.