Back when I worked at a market research company, one day my boss asked me to give a last-minute presentation before an important client. The trouble was that my colleague—who had prepared the slide and was supposed to give the talk—was running late. Somebody had to start discussing our research proposal with the client immediately. Unfortunately, that somebody had to be me. I had no idea what my coworker had written on the PowerPoint slides and no time to skim through them. To pull this off, my only option was to try to appear confident and knowledgeable, even though I really wasn’t. The only weapon I had was conveying confidence through my body language and tone of voice. And that’s no easy task…
When it comes to public speaking, we’ve all heard that it is not about what you say but how you say it. While this may come off like a comforting cliché, there is a great deal of truth to it: body language and tone of voice greatly influence the way oral communication is perceived and interpreted. Some studies suggest that words make up actually no more than 10% of such an interaction, while body language and tone of voice account for approximately 50% and 40% of it. This is why I have decided to give you some useful tips on your body language for the next presentation you may have to give in English at your workplace (and hopefully you will know what’s on the slides, unlike me that day).
1. Hook them at hello!
Whenever we have to appear and speak before an audience, most of us naturally tend to feel a type of anxiety which can be quite overwhelming. We may feel overpowered by it and lose even the last shred of self-confidence we have. We sometimes call this feeling of nervousness, ‘butterflies in our stomach’. However, making a confident entrance is important, as it is the first impression to your audience. While not all of us are naturally Don Draper-types who walk with an air of supreme self-confidence wherever they go, there are effective ways to deal with this anxiety.
So, how exactly should you stand in front of the dreadful client or boss?
It’s all about posture:
- keep your hands by your side and feet shoulder width apart – if you do decide to move around the room or use gestures, make sure they make sense in relation to your speech and tone/pace of voice
- don’t lower your chin
- have a pleasant, comfortable smile on your face
- look them in the eyes.
- Make a conscious effort to avoid all kinds of verbal fillers, i.e. all the “ums,” “ahs,” “likes” etc.
Try the power stance or power pose
If you need to fight those butterflies before getting on stage, you can try the power stance technique right before the presentation. Researchers have found that ‘power posing’—taking a posture of confidence, even when not feeling confident—can affect not only the way other people perceive you but also the way you see yourself. I highly recommend you watch the following Ted Talk video on body language. Amy Cuddy, professor and researcher from Harvard Business School, gives you some truly powerful tips to deal with this stage fright.
2. Smile at them!
On the face of it (sic!), this tip should probably go without saying. Smiling is something that people naturally perceive as welcoming and non-aggressive and, hence, could make your audience more receptive to your message. What is more, your face is one of the first things people will notice when you make an entrance on stage and also one of the things they would observe most closely through the whole interaction. A word of warning: you should not overdo it and end up with a forced and nervous smile. This will betray your nervousness and lack of confidence. A nervous smile could be perceived as awkward by your audience, and even make them feel uncomfortable because of the way their very presence makes you squirm….And that’s definitely not what you’re after.
3. Look them in the eyes!
Eye contact is crucial in human communication, whether you’re talking to one person or one hundred people. It gives us a more personal feel, a kind of certainty that the speaker is directly addressing us. It enables us to better focus on the message someone is aiming to get across. While for most people eye contact in one-on-one interactions is not a hurdle, maintaining eye contact with a large audience can be a little trickier. If this is one of your sticking point in public speaking, there are things that you can do to salvage it.
If you are rather shy and introverted person, getting extremely uncomfortable with the eyes of many people staring at you, what you can do is look at the wall or whatever fixture that is standing right behind the people on the last raw or any inanimate objects that are around the level of their hair and forehead. But if you are not afraid to explore and examine the people looking at you, find the friendly faces within your audience (there are always some) as quickly as you can. Ideally each friendly face should be spread out across the audience so that you can look around and move more confidently during the interaction. This way you will appear more natural in addressing everyone.
4. Move your hands around to liven it up!
Rather than being self-conscious about your hands being an involuntary expression of your nervousness, you should think of hand gestures as tools to visualize or emphasize the points that you are making. Once again, you should be careful to not overdo it, as it would make your nervousness rear its ugly head. Use them to visually illustrate or stress on something you are conveying. People tend to remember a story, a concept or a fact when the speaker attaches a specific movement or action to it. Check out the following short video on effective hand gestures for presentations:
5. Move around stage naturally!
Walking around on stage, whenever possible in the interaction, helps break the ice. It can enhance the perception of confidence among your audience. This should be done carefully and you must not seem stiff when walking around. It should be congruent with your message, tone of voice and the confidence you need to convey.