An often overlooked, but important, aspect of successful public speaking and face-to-face engagement is body language. How people perceive you determines how they react to your address, and ultimately influences their lasting impression of you.
Nervousness and a perceived lack of confidence in your subject matter are easy to spot and can instantly undermine authority. But you can avoid appearing like a nervous public speaker – with sweaty palms and shaking legs – if you follow these golden rules. They will ensure that your delivery is dynamite, not damp squib.
Carry with confidence
How you present yourself from the moment you walk on stage will define how your audience relate to you throughout your address. In the most part, the things to consider are fairly obvious, such as avoiding slouching, limiting hand gestures, and speaking in a measured, modulated tone.
Body language has a powerful impact on perception – so be confident and upbeat. Clinging onto the lectern for dear life, however, will give the impression of forming a barrier against the audience – as if you are having the most terrifying experience of your life.
Owning your speech is important. It’s got to sound authentic. Preparation is absolutely key and practice is essential.
A lack of familiarity with the content, especially when ghostwritten, can leave the speaker sounding forced and flat. A good speech should brim with verve and personality, making even the most mundane topic, such as a budget report, compelling.
A good way to ensure that your words sound organic is to incorporate conversational language into the text. It’s well known that our minds are pre-disposed to react to this style of delivery – after all, we most often open our mouths to talk to another person.
When your mind thinks it is engaged in conversation, it has to pay attention, essentially to prepare a response. This visible engagement of the audience will reinforce the speaker’s confidence and ensure that extra little push in delivering a great speech
Over the last two decades, we have seen the rise of public figures gesticulating wildly with their hands, or using them as an aid to their modulation. From the pleading paws of Tony Blair to the infamous “Clinton Thumb”, hand gestures can help to emphasise a point.
If you do use your hands for emphatic purposes, try and link them to the content of the speech, pitch or presentation. For example, a descriptive gesture such as spreading your hands apart to demonstrate breadth or length can help augment your words. Remember, these gestures need to be carefully considered, not gratuitous, like the infamous helicopter hands of President Trump.
How you use your hands can portray fear and awkwardness. Hands on hips, arms crossed in front and, worst of all, in your pockets, are all commonly accepted signs of nerves and should be avoided at all costs.
Walk the walk
It’s important to take ownership of the stage before you start speaking, moving around in a confident and disciplined manner. However, be conscious of when you move, and why. Avoid flailing arms, aimless walking, or odd stances, like George Osborne’s Power Pose. You don’t want to be madly scooting from one end of the stage to the other. Equally, you shouldn’t be rooted to the spot. Former ITV News economics editor Daisy McAndrew endorses looking around the audience as much as possible, lest you appear to be a frightened rabbit, caught in the headlights.
Nick Gold is managing director at Speakers Corner.