Your body language shapes who you are in every situation. Great public speakers are story-tellers who use imagery, passion and evocative language. They talk from their own experiences, their failures as well as their successes. Yet, it’s not just their use of words that make their presentations great, their body language is as important as any of the other elements of their speech or presentation. Research shows that an amazing 60–80% of our communication is non-verbal. Everyday interactions are filled with subconscious non-verbal cues waiting to be understood.
Understanding body language will give you a decisive advantage in every interaction, whether that be a business deal, negotiation or managing communication in your workplace and at home. When you understand body language, you’ll have the ability to understand more about the person you are speaking with and what they really mean.
It’s all about you
Public speaking makes YOU the most important visual, not your props, handouts or audio-visual presentations. Whether you are speaking in a job interview, making a wedding toast or selling an idea to an audience, you are being judged for self-assurance, influence and integrity.
The way you look and sound are crucial to whether you’re successful. Your audience will respond to you with subconscious physical responses so while body language techniques can help you present yourself well, it also allows you to read your audiences latent reactions and adapt accordingly.
As body language is a key element in public speaking, there are areas you need to know well if you want to impress. These present you as a powerful speaker and can stop you making errors that will wreck your talk. The key public speaking elements are:
Movement and gestures
Using space to show you’re comfortable in the spotlight.
Comfort using props and/or technology in your presentations
Facial expressiveness when speaking and listening
Finding your own voice: controlling emotions, word choice and tone of voice.
Could your body language be more expressive? Do you inhibit your natural body language when public speaking because of your self-consciousness? Research shows that natural gesturing makes you more fluent. If you’ve been told that you wave your hands around too much, or you’re so self-conscious that you do a great impression of a mannequin, try to replicate the state you’re in when you’re in an animated one-to-one conversation. When you’re in that state your gestures unconsciously complement what you’re saying and give your message energy and persuasive power. You’ll also look and feel more confident.
Whilst understanding how your own body language can influence others, it’s an important skill as a speaker to read your audience’s emotions through their body language. Reading body language is a powerful tool to enable you to know what someone is thinking without even speaking. There are also several body language cues that let you know that someone is lying.
Feedback and learning
Ask for feedback from trusted friends, or video yourself giving a speech to check how you’re coming across. Does your natural body language shine through to engage your audience? Check that you’re not making distracting and repetitive gestures, but don’t try and choreograph what you’re saying with specific gestures as it will look forced and unnatural. Do you show your confidence in what you’re saying by commanding the space around you or are you stuck to the lectern or conversely running around like a clown at the circus?
To improve your confidence in public speaking, consider working with a speech coach, preferably one who trained as an actor. Speech coaches can make a radical difference in whether your real message is heard.
You can listen to speakers good and bad online for cues to help you. TED talks online are particularly helpful, with the bonus that you actually get to learn something at the same time.