The second we take the stage, before you even open your mouth; people will form an opinion about you. Not fair? Maybe not, however it’s a reality. We are hard-wired that way.
Body language is all about non-verbal communication. You may have heard of the 3 Vs of public speaking, Verbal, Vocal and Visual. You may also have come across the statistics that states the relative importance of these three aspects of public speaking. That is, 7% Verbal (words), 38% Vocal (Vocal tone & Vocal variety) and 55% Visual (body language). Now, I hate to debunk this limited study, as it only tested people’s likability (check it out here). However, it does point out the importance of body language. Especially if you want to connect with your audience. Sometimes, your body language speaks louder than words. And at times, it can be more effective, to “Show what you mean”.
My recommendation is to take the stage confidently, positively, self-assured, without being cocky. And the one thing every speaker should be wearing when they get up on stage, is a smile. When you have a smile on your dial, showing that you are happy to be there, it will be returned in kind. Looking confident, even if you’re faking it, relieves the audience. They instantly feel that they are in good hands and are going to have a great time.
So how do you get into that confident, positive and happy-to-be-there, frame of mind? Apart from what Darren LaCroix likes to refer to as “Stage time, stage time, stage time”, I also recommend zoning or changing your state of mind. That is, forget everything that’s on your mind, just before you get up on stage. Forget the argument you had with the customer at work. Put aside the upsetting comment from the person you were just talking to and get rid yourself of self-doubts? I love the acronym STAY by Kim Chamberlain. It stands for, “Stop Thinking About Yourself.” Instead, start thinking about all the great, positive and successful presentations you have given in the past. Take them up on the stage with you. Start thinking about your audience. Be in the moment. Prepare to give the best speech for the audience’s benefit, as if it’s your last speech ever. Phew! I feel better already.
Gestures are talking with your hands, fingers, feet, head and the rest of your body. Make your gestures passion-driven. Use gestures to eflect your feelings and allow them to be natural, not theatrical. Nonetheless, in the same way, as we develop our vocabulary of words, you can develop a repertoire of gestures. With practice, they’ll become natural and second nature. It’s a bit like kicking a football for the first time. With time and practice, it becomes part of your muscle memory.
When presenting in front of a large audience, make your gestures slightly larger, in the same way, and for the same reason that actors wear stage makeup. It’s for the people way down at the back. I remember showing my children a world champion speech on the TV screen. They made the comment, “Wow, that’s a bit over the top.” But they forget that they were presenting to 3000 people. So how can you make your gesture larger so they have a greater impact? Most people have a default position for their hands. It’s usually clasped hand’s in front. It’s a sign of nervousness, a primal protection of your body’s main vital organs. Unfortunately, it’s another barrier between you and the audience, a disconnect. If you get used to leaving them naturally by your sides, your gestures will automatically become larger. Leaving your hands at the sides can feel awkward at first, even so, it’s like wearing a suit for the first time, it feels cumbersome at first, but eventually, it feels a good fit. Also, take your gestures out from that safe space, those gestures that only come from your elbows up. Make them broad and expansive. That’s when they get noticed. Zig Ziglar used to squat down low. It got people’s attention. The reason is that he went into a space or area where most speakers don’t go. This trigers our primordial brain and gets your attention. Oh! And one more thing, if you want to gesture towards the audience, it can seem quite aggressive if you point at them. My recommendation is to indicate with all fingers, with an upward or sideways open facing hand. Much softer, more open and embracing and it achieves the same intent.
I once went to a university lecture where the professor started of by saying, “I’m really happy to be here to talk to you today”, however his face was saying something the complete opposite. Let your face show your feelings, your emotions and what you mean. Sometimes it is better to show first and speak later. Check out part of this video.
Eyes are the windows to the soul. Making eye contact with an audience member means that you are interested in them. It means you want to connect with them and talk with them, not at them. Eye contact can be a powerful two-way communication. When you’re looking at one person, everybody feels it. It’s like when you bring an audience member up on stage, everybody identifies with that person.
However, when making eye contact, make it real. Avoid fleeting eye contact, while at the same time not quite staring them out. Avoid the lighthouse approach of sweeping the audience. Trying to engage with everyone, results in not engaging with anyone. Be inclusive by remembering the people on the sides and at the back. Remember, making eye contact with a supportive person at the start, can reduce your nerves
Have you ever seen a speaker pacing up and down the length of the stage like a caged lion? While it can seem like a high-energy presentation initially, eventually it becomes a bit tiring and distracting. Movement needs to be purposeful. It needs to add something to the speech. Just as with speech writing, I believe that what doesn’t add, detracts. I believe this so strongly that I advice new speakers that it’s more powerful to “Stand and Deliver” than to be pacing back and forth. You may well ask, “Why move at all?” Firstly, it means that you can include and connect more closely with different parts of the audience. It also allows you to anchor different parts of your speech on different parts of the stage. And thirdly, as they say, variety is the spice of life.
So how and when do you move purposefully and with a reason to do so? My recommendation is to move when reliving parts of a story you’re telling. For example, if you say, “I went to see my mum”. Anchor your mum somewhere appropriate on stage and go there, and continue the narration or dialogue on that spot. I also think that it’s more powerful if you only speak when stationary. For example, if you say, “When I left primary school and graduated to college…”, then move to your right and then say, “….It was a whole different world”, I think that would be more impactful than saying that while moving. Moving without speaking serves as a powerful pause.
You can also move when you have three points to present. You can do this by anchoring each point on a different part of the stage to physically separate them. And because we read from left to right, anchor your first point on your audience’s left side of the stage, (your right-hand side), and then stage your second point in the middle and your last point on your left. Similarly, if there is a timeline to your speech or story, you can use the same staging pattern for past, present and future.
Anchoring different parts of your speech at different locations on the stage has many advantages. It allows you to go back and stand there, or if at a distance away from you, refer back to them with a simple indication of your hand.
Body language or non-verbal communication can sometimes speak louder than words. The best example of this was when Cliff Boer, a great speaker, began a speech by blowing the fluffy seeds of an imaginary dandelion flower that had gone to seed. Everybody knew what he was doing and saw the dandelion. It was a great example of body language.
Speak to connect, and make a difference.