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Westside Toastmasters is located in Los Angeles and Santa Monica, California

Tackling the Larger Issues

Mastery of body language involves taking control of both the broad aspects of nonverbal communication and the smaller gestures and mannerisms that we often resort to subconsciously. I'll start with the larger points that can add to or detract from your effectiveness:


Besides making you confident and in control, nothing lets your audience know you care like thorough preparation. It's the foundation for building positive body language.


Sloppy posture conveys a lack of confidence and possibly a lack of discipline, and it's surprising how many people neglect this crucial aspect of their presentation. Standing erect, balanced between both feet, and with your shoulders back, you convey an alert and enthusiastic manner—even if that's a far cry from how you really feel.

Approaching the Platform

As you wait your turn, maintain a confident but relaxed posture. While you're being introduced, first look just at the introducer and then slowly look over the audience as the host delivers the rest of your (brief) introduction. As you approach the lectern, look as though you would rather be there, about to speak to this particular group, more than any other place in the world. Walk with confidence. There's no particular rule about who you look at as you approach the speaker's platform. It depends on how much space you have to walk across, whether you have to set up your microphone, whether the audience is applauding, and so on. One approach is to acknowledge your introduction by first looking at the audience, smiling, looking back at the person who introduced you, and then walking toward him or her.

Once you reach the lectern, slow down a little and collect yourself. Always respond to the introduction, but make it brief. You can simply say "thank you so much" and move right into your speech. If you are using a lectern, put your notes as high as possible on the stand, so your eyes won't have to travel a long distance. This allows you to maintain greater eye contact with the audience. You should have already checked the microphone (if you are using one). If you have to adjust it, take the necessary time to do so. Stay calm and in control.

Once your notes and microphone are set, set yourself as well. Balance your weight on both feet; stand up straight with your stomach in. You can place your hands lightly on the lectern but don't lean on it. Don't worry if your knees are knocking. Remember, even if you are a nervous wreck, it doesn't matter as long as your audience doesn't know.

A final note on lecterns: Avoid using them if you don't need them. Lecterns impose distance and elevation; they are barriers between you and the audience. Any book on selling talks about the need to break down barriers between you and your customers, so why create them? Some speakers insist they have to use lecterns in order to feel comfortable. But that's another very good reason not to use them, because your audience will sense that you are ill at ease.

How to Use Eye Contact

Your eyes are your most important physical feature as a speaker, because they are crucial in establishing rapport. Before you begin to speak, let your eyes sweep the room; look from one side to the other and from front to back. This pause will let your audience know you're relaxed and well prepared. Make eye contact with as many people as you can. Your initial message is that you're glad to be here; your eyes are your first direct contact with the people in your audience—make them support you. Establish rapport with eye contact before you begin to speak.

You must always be looking directly at the audience whenever you are making direct statements and key points. For example, if you say, "this project will impact our entire team, for the eyes of the entire company will be on us—and you look away or are looking down or walking away—people will not believe you. If you say, "This is vitally important," and are not giving direct contact, your words will not be credible.

It helps to focus on a friendly face, especially if you feel you have an unfriendly audience. Think of yourself as talking to that open, accepting person; look at him or her as often as you need to.

Most people have a bias toward one side of a room. To discover yours, have someone watch you speak. Then when you make your speech, place your feet toward the side of the room you usually miss: You'll naturally turn around and force yourself to face these people. To appear that you are looking at the entire room, divide the room into quadrants and make sure you look into each one. Find a friendly face in each quadrant and focus on that person but not in an obvious fashion—be unpredictable.


Comfortable and appropriate are the two key words. Adapt your dress to the people you are addressing; you don't want to dress exactly like them but choose a style similar to theirs. I used to dress quite formally at all times, and as soon as I dropped the formality and dressed stylishly but casually, my ratings improved. When in doubt, dress on the formal side, but try to add some flair; audiences don't want to look at deliberately drab speakers.

Men should stick to the basics—dark suit and white or light-colored shirt for contrast—unless they're speaking at an outdoor picnic where everyone is wearing casual clothes.

Women have more wardrobe options and are more subject to fashion trends. The real key for women is to make sure you wear the clothes and not vice versa. Choose clothes that feel comfortable and make you feel at ease. Unless you are known for high fashion or a particular look, it's best to avoid extremes of any sort. Women can wear bright colors: You should not only stand out but also fit in. In front of a conservative audience, you could add some dash by wearing a red scarf with your suit. I know of one woman who stands out—properly—by always wearing a white suit.

Above all, don't wear clothes that need to be adjusted when you stand up or sit down. If you wear a hat, make sure it doesn't hide your face. If you wear jewelry, keep it simple and clank-free. Big bracelets or dangling earrings are taboo, because jewelry can be enormously distracting for an audience.

Nowadays, many companies are in the business casual mode. Keep that in mind as you plan your speaking wardrobe. When I give a speech, if the dress is business casual, I wear a pants suit. If it is more formal, I dress it up or wear a suit with a skirt. For company presentations you don't want to overdress. A good rule of thumb is to be one degree more formal or better dressed than your audience. You want to be one of them yet stand out just a little.

Women should also try to wear something with a pocket to keep notes and a handkerchief in. Leave your handbag at your seat when you approach the lectern.

Controlling Your Hands

Novice speakers often ask about what to do with their hands while they're talking. Hands can take care of themselves if you know what not to do:

  • Don't grip the lectern and hold on for dear life.

  • Don't keep your hands in your pockets all the time or folded rigidly across your chest.

  • Don't fiddle with your jewelry or props.

Even though your hands suddenly seem to be much bigger than they ever were before, they can be a tremendous asset. There are four ways in which you can use them to communicate ideas better—to emphasize shape, size, number, and direction. Practice your hand gestures until they feel comfortable and natural. Chances are you will feel more relaxed if you have something for your hands to do. If you've got your eyes glued to your notes, your hands will feel like dead weights at the ends of your arms. It's easier to use your hands naturally when you maintain eye contact with the audience.

Practice gestures in front of a mirror—get a feel for what you are doing and what you look like. Strong gestures come from the shoulders, not the elbows. Try it in front of the mirror, with your hands facing the sky and you'll see how a gesture from the elbow is much weaker than that from your shoulder.

Use hand gestures carefully, because too many of them are very distracting. When I train people for public speaking I tell them to keep their arms and hands at their sides if they feel uncomfortable. We discover when we play back the videos of practice sessions that this position doesn't look awkward at all, and in fact comes across quite relaxed. So if you're really uncomfortable about using your hands, just let them rest at your sides.

Your Smile

Unless you are dealing with a life-or-death issue, smile often. It projects warmth and loosens up your facial muscles. Most people look better when they smile, and it makes your audience more comfortable because you appear more natural and confident. A grim-faced speaker isn't going to develop much rapport. Even so, in my public-speaking classes of 20 students, I have to tell at least 15 of them to smile more often. Try to visualize your audience as warm and friendly, and you will find it easier to smile.


If you wear glasses, you have to deal with how they can appear to the audience. Glasses with heavy rims will hide your face and interfere with eye contact. Half-lens glasses give the unpleasant impression that you're looking down your nose at the audience. The next time you change your glasses, try the kind with large lenses and narrow frames. Stay away from strong tinting or light-sensitive lenses that darken under lighting. Many professional speakers avoid these problems by opting for contact lenses.

You can also use your glasses for effect by taking them off once or twice during the speech, or at the end, when you're getting ready to take questions from the audience. If you've got glasses, use them to give your gestures added impact.

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