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The Importance of Body Language When Public Speaking

By: Angelique Caffrey - Updated: 17 Jun 2010 | comments*Discuss
Arms Are Crossed audience audience

Did you know that while you're saying one thing during a speech, your body could be telling your audience something entirely different?

Consider the case of a presenter who is presenting facts to her roomful of listeners. She's discussing a subject that's supposedly a topic of interest to her… but her arms are crossed and she's leaning backwards ever-so-slightly. Consequently, her message is being sabotaged by her body language which is, in essence, telling people to "back away".

This scenario is akin to a husband telling his wife, "I love you and I'm so happy with you," while he's emotionlessly staring out the window and turning away from her, avoiding all eye and body contact. Though he's stating one set of facts, he's acting in a completely opposite fashion.

As a public speaker, it's critical that you become aware of what your body is "saying" to your audience. Even if you're simply nervous, shy, cold or physically uncomfortable, you must make your movements and stance correspond with your verbal delivery.

Here, we'll look at some common body language errors made by even seasoned presenters and how you can learn to avoid them when in front of a crowd.

Problem: Crossed Arms

Crossing your arms creates an instant barrier between you and whomever you're speaking to. You're essentially telling everyone, "I am not being completely open; I'm going to hide some part of me." Often, presenters who have a habit of standing with their arms crossed are seen as "deceptive" or "untrustworthy".

Solution: Work on Being "Open"

The next time you notice that you're about to cross your arms (or have already done so), slowly allow them to fall comfortably next to you. If you're restless, try holding on to the podium or table in front of you, thereby giving your limbs something to do.

Problem: Not Making Eye Contact

During a presentation, a public speaker needs to be able to make eye contact with the audience members. Typically, that contact only lasts for 1-2 seconds per person, but it's essential. By not matching the gaze of others, the presenter's body is saying, "I don't want to look at you because I'm not telling the truth."

Solution: Practice Eye Contact

Whenever you speak with another person, make certain to force yourself to make eye contact. If you're at a party and are standing in a small group of 3-4 people, practice moving your gaze from one person to the next while you're talking. Eventually, this will become more natural and will not feel forced when you're making speeches.

Problem: Showing No Expression

Have you ever seen someone who speaks without exhibiting any expressions at all? It's almost eerie and definitely disconcerting. Onlookers usually wonder if the person is interested in his or her topic area and may eventually tune the speaker out, assuming (often wrongly) that the subject matter can't be that important.

Solution: Use the Mirror to Rehearse

The next time you are scheduled to publicly speak, rehearse in front of a mirror, paying special attention to your facial expressions. Are you smiling? Do you seem approachable, believable and friendly? Are you sending the right message with your eyes, mouth and eyebrows? As you become more comfortable allowing yourself to show emotions, your speeches will be stronger and better received.

Problem: Wandering Around the Stage or Room

Are your legs restless? Do you rock back and forth while talking or move aimlessly around, uncertain where to stop? This is not only distracting for audience members, it also makes them feel uneasy, as if you're going to bolt out the door at any given moment!

Solution: Plant Yourself and Only Move Deliberately

This is an extremely common problem faced by many public speakers, but overcoming it will require some serious resolve. You'll have to be ultra-aware of where your feet are at all times, and you may simply have to "plant" yourself in one spot for the duration of your talk. Of course, if you're planning on speaking for a long time, you may wish to move occasionally; however, when you do, be deliberate. Pick a spot, walk there (slowly) and remain there.

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