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COMMUNICATION SKILLS: The Do's and Don'ts of Body Language in Public Speaking

If I were to ask you, of all the time you put into preparing a speech, presentation or any other public speaking event, how much of that time is spent on practicing and preparing your body language, most would say very little.

The majority of your time would be spent on preparing the content for the event – collecting the information, synthesizing it and building the proverbial PowerPoint. Likewise, when we practice, we typically practice what we’re going to say, not necessarily how we’re going to say it.  Research suggests however, that our ability to communicate effectively to our audience and leave a lasting impression is more directly tied to our voice and body language – so much so that content, or words, ranks third amongst the three, playing only 7% of the role in communicating with people. Voice came in second at 38% and body language accounted for 55% of a person’s ability to communicate effectively (A. Mehrabiana).  So why is our body language so important?  Well, have you ever sent a text or email to someone and had the recipient take it out of context and apply their own meaning to it?  Many times we take for granted that the words we actually speak are meaningless when stripped of all feeling and humanistic qualities.

In each of our Presentation Skills trainings we ask participants to identify a memorable presentation (good or bad) that they have witnessed sometime throughout their lives.  Many pick a professor in college or a supervisor they’ve worked for. Once they’ve identified a person, we ask each of them to identify the characteristics that resonated with them, and what they remember most. Let me just say that I’ve never had someone say, “The content in that training was just out of this world!” More often than not, the things that made it memorable for them related back to the presenters and the way they conveyed the information. Common descriptors include the use of humor, eye contact, clear and concise explanations, engaging personality, interactive examples, stories, practicality and so on.

With that as a foundation, I thought it would be interesting to explore some strategies for how to impact an audience more positively, neutralizing those bad characteristics that detract from our ability to communicate, while adding or enhancing those that increase that ability.  At the end of the day, our goal should be to make sure that the lasting impression we leave with our audience is a positive one and to do that we must think about our impressions in terms of pluses and minuses.   If all we do is eliminate the minuses, but never add to the pluses, we will never get higher than zero, or neutral. We must always be thinking about how we can add to what we do.  Below are a handful of body language strategies for you to consider when giving your next presentation or training.


1. Own the room in the first ninety seconds. We have 4-6 seconds to make a positive impression beginning from the moment our audience first lays eyes on us.  How will we make sure that their first impression of us is a positive one?  On your way to the front of the room, think about what it’s going to take to make your audience feel like you’re in control – that you know what you’re doing.  You need to be able to command your audience not only through your superb content, but by the aura you exude. As you walk to the front of the room, keep your chin up, look at the audience, come to a complete stop at the front, lay down your notes, smile at everyone and thank them for coming.  That is a fail safe way for you to ‘own the room,’ but for those of you who are looking to take it up a notch, think about some kind of topic-related attention getter that you could incorporate into your opening and a clear and concise statement that would capture the interest of the room. Maybe it’s a statistic or a well thought-out question. It could even be a demonstration or the use of the prop; whatever you choose, it needs to be interesting and relevant, and it must set the stage for what’s to come.

2. Act like you know what you’re doing even if you don’t.  My mother always used to tell me to “fake it till you make it,” and in essence she was right.  She never meant that I should compromise my integrity or falsify my understanding.  Her belief was that sometimes we might need to psych ourselves up and to do that we can’t look the way we feel.  If I’m nervous, scared, unsure or any other adjective, that’s fine, but as a professional, I should not be acting in a way that showcases that feeling to my audience.  It’s time to hit the “show button” when you’re in the front of the room, regardless of how nervous you might feel.

3. Posture is key. You wouldn’t think that people would have a hard time with this one, but it’s one of the biggest issues I see.  Unfortunately as human beings we stand like we sit, which is horrible.  If our goal is to command an audience we can’t stand with our backs curved, our shoulders slouching and our heads down and expect to positively impact our audience. When considering posture, think about the following exercises.  First, grab a friend and ask him/her to help you find your “sweet spot,” that place where it all comes together in terms of how your body needs to exist within the space it’s trying to command. When you’ve found someone to help you, have him/her stand across from you. Starting with your chin down towards your chest, begin to raise your chin slowly and ask your partner to let you know when it reaches a point where you look the most confident.  Most of us don’t realize that much of our confidence is portrayed through the placement of our chin.  Too high gives off an attitude of arrogance, while too low tells people you’re timid.  Once you’ve identified your ‘confident’ chin position, take a second and make a mental note, is it higher or lower than where you regularly hold your head?  Whichever it is, just make sure that you’re practicing your chin position leading up to your presentation.  In regards to our back and shoulders, I want you to imagine that you are a puppet and you’re being held up by a string attached to your head. What would happen if someone pulled on that string, would you get taller?  If you can get taller without lifting your feet off the ground, then you need to work on making sure your back is straight. Shoulders are a little trickier because it requires someone with a keen eye to know if a person’s shoulders are rolled forward, and if they should be back farther. Enlist the help of your partner again and have them stand behind you. Once you’re standing as you normally would, have your partner place his/her hands on the back of your shoulder and push slightly with his/her thumbs. At the same time, have him/her pull back slight with his/her fingers. If your shoulders are able to come backwards without it looking like you’re pushing out your chest, then you could stand to make some adjustments.

4. Cross the Great Divide. We know standing still is the kiss of death for our audience, yet we continue to do it. The next time you’re giving a presentation, lay a long strip of tape on the floor between you and the audience. As you begin to give your presentation, challenge yourself to see how many times you can cross over that piece of tape to engage your audience.  So often we equate engaging with doing something funny or getting people to move around, but for most of us, we feel engaged if the presenter is simply willing to move toward us.

5. Be hands-on. So much of our personality and charisma is portrayed through our hands; after all, they are our best visual aid. One of the top questions has always been “what should we do with our hands?”  My answer is “use them.”  Sure you can choose to leave them by your side, put them in a pocket or create mirror images with them (hands clasped in front, hands on the hips, hands behind the back), but why do that when they can actually be used to impact your audience?  Our hands were designed so we could participate in the world around us and because of that we need to be sure that we put them to good use.  Besides the obvious use of counting or pointing (see “Don’ts” below), think about how you might use your hands to emphasize feelings (surprise, danger, intrigue), illustrate the depth and breadth of your presentation topic, or encourage an audience member to participate.  What would the hand and arm gestures look like? How could you incorporate some basic hand gestures into your next presentation?  Look through your slide deck and earmark the spots where you will purposefully use specific hand gestures.


1. Look down or off into space (make meaningful eye contact)

2. Begin speaking before you’ve reached the front of the room

3. Play with your hair (facial or on top of your head)

4. Lean on one hip

5. Point with a finger (use an open palm)

6. Fold your arms

7. Cross your legs

8. Sway from side to side

9. Plant your feet

10. Turn your back to the audience

The thing to realize with hand gestures or any other presentation-enhancing behavior is that you won’t be able to conquer them all at once.  It takes time, practice and dedication to actively seek ways to continuously improve your methods each and every time. (One extra tip here:  consider video-taping the next “dry-run” of your presentation and turning the sound off, so you focus completely on your body language).

There are many people who are born with natural enthusiasm and charisma, but working on body language is a tangible way that anyone can improve the level of presentation that is being given and the only prop you need is yourself.

Be sure to download our newest guide on the 10 Tips for Dynamic and Engaging Presentations!



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