Improve Body Language to Improve Public Speaking

By Alyson Connolly

Body language can be even more important than your voice in delivering your message to the audience. Body language is crucial in exuding confidence in yourself and showing trust in your audience.

Believe it or not, changing your posture can actually change your mood and, ultimately, how you perform.

First things first. You need to stand up straight — not like you’re waiting for the sergeant to inspect your barracks, but in what I call an up and out position. You feel your bones stacked up on top of each other, your head is directly over your shoulders and on top of your neck, your chin is neither tucked in nor jutting forward, your chest is out, your feet are planted, and you have energy surging through your body past the crown of your head and up into the sky.

The opposite is the down and in position. When you slouch and gaze at the floor, it doesn’t show confidence in you or your audience. Averting your eyes and looking down send the message to the audience that you’d rather be anywhere else. If you’re not properly aligned, down and in also impedes your breath. You won’t be able to drop your breath deep into your body like you should.

Here are some other body language tips:

  • Handshakes are part of body language too. Give a firm one if you want to make a good impression. Don’t be a limp rag, but don’t squeeze and hang on for dear life. That may make a lasting impression, but not a good one.
  • If you’ll be presenting sitting down, such as in a boardroom, have both feet firmly planted on the floor and don’t slouch into your chair.
  • Crossing your arms while talking to colleagues at the water cooler may feel natural for you, but what impression does it give to your listeners? Defensiveness, that’s what. Crossing your legs may feel comfortable, but to some it looks like you are in a closed-off position. Crossing your arms and your legs doesn’t make you look very approachable.

Gesture during a public speech

You don’t know what to do with your hands? Try moving them. Practice doing that and see how comfortable it becomes and how it activates your parasympathetic nervous system.

The autonomic nervous system consists of three parts:

  • The enteric system controls the stomach and intestines.
  • The sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response.
  • The parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” system.

In Mark Bowden’s book Winning Body Language (McGraw-Hill Education, 2010), the author states that moving your hands in a horizontal plane extending out from your navel has a calming effect and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. He calls this the truth plane because you look and feel more genuine when your hands are in this position.

When you’re giving your presentation seated at a boardroom table, gesture away. Just make sure to keep your hands up where everyone can see them. If you drop them under the table, no one knows what is going on down there.

Move while public speaking

Some speakers just want to stay put and stand motionless behind the lectern. That may be fine (unless they’re gripping the thing with white knuckles). Others feel the need to move constantly. Both are individual choices and are up to you.

When you do move, make sure you move with a purpose. Choreograph where you want to move and when. The movement should make sense in combination with what you’re talking about. Through practice, movement will soon become second nature.

Swaying side to side or back and forth is fine for rocking a baby. When you’re speaking, though, you want the focus to be on what you have to say. Plant those feet and imagine roots growing down from them into the earth.

Make eye contact when speaking in public

The audience is your friend, and they want you to succeed. Believe it or not, they’re not planning to throw rotten fruit at you the moment you falter.

Find someone in the audience who is giving you nonverbal cues that she’s listening and is interested in what you’re saying. Look her directly in the eye for about five or six seconds. Then move on to someone else. Look at the same person for too long, and she’ll start to feel uncomfortable. And the rest of the audience may start wondering why that one person is getting a solo performance.

If you’re really that scared when you speak, find that friendly face and look at that person. Sometimes you may feel that it’s easier to look above and over the audience’s heads. That way, you don’t have to connect with them. But the audience can tell that you’re not looking at them. If your eyes are the windows to your soul, the audience is never going to get to know you if they can’t engage with you and your message. Practice when the stakes are low — look your colleagues in the eye, the delivery guy, your kid’s basketball coach.