Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Presentations

One of the times when people are most noticed in business is when they are required to make a presentation. Giving presentations can also make people feel very exposed and uncomfortable. Paying attention to your body language can greatly empower you during your presentations.

Top tips

  • If you want to feel good, act like you feel good.
  • Walk and/or sit tall, with shoulders and head back.
  • Walk at a brisk pace – don’t just amble along. You may feel relaxed, but it will not get you energised. It also doesn’t look energised!
  • Smile a lot – smiling is known to make the person who is smiling, as well as the one smiled at, feel good – and remember to look people directly in the eyes when doing it!
  • Use gestures to help express/illustrate your messages and do so with purpose.

Do

  • Consciously relax your throat when speaking to protect your voice from strain.
  • Relax your face and body when speaking – stand or sit straight, with shoulders back, and remember to breathe properly. Many people do not know how to breathe properly, so here is a simple test: put your hand over your diaphragm (on your torso, just underneath your chest); when you breathe in, you should feel yourself filling up, and when you breathe out, you should feel yourself ‘emptying’ of air. Many people breathe in completely the opposite way to this, which means they take small breaths and breathe from the top of their lungs. If you do this, you will find it more difficult to use your voice properly and you will sound strained. It can also make you sound breathy.
  • Use your natural voice at the lowest comfortable pitch to project confidence and, when necessary, authority.
  • Speak clearly and enunciate. You don’t have to have a Home Counties accent to project a strong, confident image, but people who slur their words or mumble are seldom used as desirable role models for anyone.
  • Avoid Umm, Emm and other filler sounds
  • Avoid over-use of any one word (actually, basically, right, okay are common culprits).
  • Hold your head straight and keep your eyes level when speaking directly to someone.
  • Use strong, confident words and phrases, and say them in a positive, confident manner.
  • Remember to vary your tone and pitch throughout your presentation. Even a serious, somewhat dry subject seems more interesting when the person who is talking has enthusiasm in their voice!
  • Remember that people enjoy and appreciate straight talk.
  • Learn to mix visual, sound and feeling words in your speech to allow people to ‘see’ exactly what you mean, ‘hear’ what you are saying, and ‘relate’ to your messages.
  • Your stance should be straight, with shoulders back and both feet firmly on ground and placed with equal weight; this confers more authority than leaning on one hip or the other.
  • Animation – the larger the audience, the larger and less constrained (although still controlled) gestures you should use.
  • Ensure your body radiates controlled, focused, positive energy rather than unfocused, nervous energy.
  • Facial expressions – they work! (This is highly important for engaging the audience and it also affects your voice, making it more expressive and interesting.)
  • Speak to the audience, not the screen or whiteboard.
  • Intonation is an issue – in general, try to avoid ending on an upward intonation, as in asking questions. This detracts from your authority, especially in presentations, if used too often.
  • Use transitions as an opportunity to change position.
  • Focus your energy on the audience, rather than trying to keep it in – if you try to keep it in, it only escapes through your feet, for most people, via aimless wandering back and forth on the stage, or through shifting from foot to foot, or hip to hip!
  • One hand in pocket is okay for short spaces of time – but you should generally keep hands free in order to be ready to gesture and help you connect and communicate with the audience.

How much movement/gesturing is appropriate?

The answer to this question depends very much on the context and the audience.

Most people tend to rely too much on PowerPoint and other presentation aids (which they treat as the presentation) and do not gesture enough. They forget that they are the presenter, and the audience is therefore looking to them personally to engage them, to create interest, to motivate, inspire or simply connect with them. PowerPoint can’t do that, only people can!

Gestures that actually help to illustrate and describe the words and meaning are excellent for creating energy and connecting with the audience. Gestures should appear natural and relaxed, in other words without extraneous nervous or unconscious movement (such as shifting from side to side).

Decisive gestures have far greater impact than vague, uncontrolled or uncontained ones. The larger the audience, generally the bigger the gestures can be, to encompass the entire audience, but keep them decisive and controlled for best impact.

Many people make presentations while sitting down. In this case, it is still important to present with energy. Don’t lean on the table – keep your hands visible and free to gesture. If appropriate, stand up to present part of your talk with the aid of a pre-prepared flipchart or whiteboard, as this helps you to maintain energy and authority. This is particularly useful and effective where you are speaking for more than five minutes or where many people are presenting in the same sit-down meeting.

See more in the topic on Presentations.