Harnessing the power of body language to deliver captivating speeches and presentations

You are ready for your big speech: you’ve crafted the talk, you’ve tailored the content for the audience and you’ve rehearsed your words. That’s great – but have you thought about the body language you will use when delivering it?

When we are preparing for presentations and speeches, we tend to focus on our words because vocal language is a conscious activity, whereas body language is a more unconscious activity. We pay attention to saying the right words but we need to extend this attention to our body gestures which unconsciously could be communicating a different message.

If your body language isn’t aligned with your vocal language you are missing the opportunity to deliver the full impact of your message. Worse still, you are at risk of creating confusion among your audience.

Here’s how to use body language to capture your audience’s attention and ensure you get your message across when you are giving a speech or making a presentation;

Be prepared and positive

The very minute you are introduced as a speaker, the audience’s attention will be on you and you therefore have an opportunity to communicate with them.

As you walk towards the speaking area, do so with positive enthusiasm. And walk tall – with confidence. Ensure any materials and/or technology you are using is prepared and set-up in advance to avoid unnecessary paper shuffling or unnerving computer glitches.

Take a moment to pause before you start speaking, this gives both you, and the audience, time to settle; look round at the audience to establish eye contact and to engage with them; smile and/or give a slight nod (this acknowledges the audience) … and then begin!

Exude confidence with your centred speaking posture

Be aware of how much more confident you appear and feel when you stand tall with your shoulders back, your chest open, your head up and your arms straight, slightly out from your sides with palms open to the front.

This posture also helps open the lungs and diaphragm to allow your breath to flow easily, it gives you stability and allows you to project your voice forward. You will therefore be displaying ‘open’ confidence to the audience. A natural smile will help relax you (and your facial muscles) and will also engender empathy with the audience.

Move with purpose

Natural and confident movement will help dissipate some of your nervous energy, will add impact and variety to your message and can improve engagement with the audience.

Some experts recommend that you “choreograph” your speaking area. Start by identifying your ‘home-base’. This is the point on stage from which you will start and finish, and return to at various stages during your speech.

You can then step towards the audience when you want to make a point and step back if you want to give them a few seconds to consider an issue; you can use the left and right side of the speaking area to make alternate points.

Remember too that stillness can be a very effective communication tool; it can be a sign-post to an important point or to the next transition, it can provide a literal pause in the pace of delivery – perhaps so the audience can have a moment of reflection or consideration – and it can add variety to the overall speech delivery.

Use hand and body gestures to help make points

Consider how your gestures can aid the structure of your talk. Examples include;

  • A forward arm or hand gesture can indicate a new point and when repeated it can help introduce a list of upcoming points
  • Definite and firm gestures can emphasise a key message
  • Backward arm or hand gestures can aid your reference to a previous point and circular sweeping gestures can sign-post your upcoming summary or conclusion
  • Shrugging shoulders can indicate an apparent lack of concern or frustration.

Gestures can also enhance the content and delivery of your talk i.e. descriptive gestures can add depth to anecdotes or explanations in your talk and can emphasise the portrayal of emotion and sentiment.

Open and wide gestures to the audience are inclusive and can establish rapport and connection with them and “acting-out” a situation along with a verbal anecdote can add humour, energy and impact.

Try to be aware of body movements which can reveal your anxiety i.e. clutching a pen, repeated hand clasping or circling, touching your face, shifting from foot-to-foot, or poor eye-contact. These can distract the audience and detract from your message.

Express yourself

Facial expressions are perhaps the best non-verbal communication features we have, as we are conditioned through evolution to “read” facial expressions.

  • A smile will provide a warm connection with the audience as it signifies empathy and can indicate an element of humour or light-relief in your talk
  • Eye-contact establishes rapport by engaging the audience and portraying confidence
  • Raised eye-brows can communicate surprise, disbelief or questioning
  • Frowning can indicate concern, confusion, or anger
  • A knowing side-ways look with wide eyes or even a nod and a wink towards the audience can elicit a significant meaning
  • Down-cast eyes with a down-turned mouth can portray sadness or disappointment.

Put it all together to deliver a great talk

The key to the effective use of gestures, and particularly to the emotional content of many facial expressions, is the requirement to make them appropriate to the content and context of your talk and to match your personality and your message.

Fake, over-the-top or unnatural movements could compromise your sincerity and lessen the impact of your message; they could also make you feel distracted and uncomfortable in your delivery and therefore defeat their intended purpose.

When preparing the content of your presentation, think about key points where you could add an appropriate gesture or expression and where you can bring your vocal language and body language together with the spoken words to emphasise the point and to ensure optimum impact.

When rehearsing the delivery of your talk, practise different gestures and expressions to match and enhance your vocal variety and explore which feel most natural and comfortable for you and which you can deliver with confidence.

You could practise these in front of a mirror or make a visual recording of yourself. Remember to check the size of the audience and of the room as you might need to enhance some gestures or make them smaller.

Summary

In summary, by using appropriate and effective body language you can emphasise your message, add impact and help portray yourself as a confident and effective speaker.

When you prepare, practice and rehearse your speech, consciously consider the different elements of body language and incorporate them as appropriate. Remember – your body speaks so make sure it is communicating the right message!

About the Author

Jane Cameron is a member of Toastmasters International, a non-profit educational organization that teaches public speaking and leadership skills through a worldwide network. Membership exceeds 313,000 across 126 countries, with some 300 clubs and over 7000 members in the UK and Ireland.

More help on ByteStart

For more tips and ideas on creating and delivering better pitches and presentations, read these other ByteStart guides;

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