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Chapter 16: Positive Body Language


As I grow older, I pay less attention to what men say; l just watch what they do.

- Andrew Carnegie

Although power language can make people notice your words, body language affects your presentation the moment you come into view. Have you ever heard a speaker cover an important topic that was of interest to you, but the style of presentation was so sloppy that you just didn't quite believe what he or she was saying? If your body language is not synchronized with your words, your message will not be clear; people will believe your body language, not your spoken message.

We are a visual society; people start to make judgments based on your body language the moment they see you. No words can convey confidence - or lack of it - as quickly as body language does, and it takes many brilliant words to change poor impressions made by your nonverbal signals. Effective speakers know they must not only master their verbal presentation, but also make their nonverbal communication work for them in a positive way.

Albert Mehrabian has said that we are perceived three ways: 55 percent visually, 38 percent vocally, and 7 percent verbally. Audiences are making their hard-to-shake first impressions as you are setting up, waiting to be introduced, and walking to the platform to begin your speech. In short, you are your own best visual aid - or your worst.

Most negative body language is a result of nervousness or lack of preparation. If you are well prepared, the audience will sense it, and your own movements will be far more reassuring than those of the person who doesn't even know how to locate the switch on the overhead projector. And as Chapter 2 noted about fear, a lot of nervousness can be eliminated if you realize audiences want to enjoy themselves; meet them halfway with positive instead of distracting body language and the verbal part of your speech will go that much better.

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:

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.

To Move or Not to Move

If you've ever watched an amateur theatrical performance, you know that nervous people give themselves away with their awkward movements. It's obvious that they have been told to take two steps to the left on a certain line, and then sit on a specific chair. You get so caught up in watching the clumsiness of the actor that you cannot concentrate on the lines of dialogue.

Needless to say, you don't want your audience to be concentrating on your movements and not your words. That's why some speakers choose to stand in one spot; they're afraid they'll be clumsy or fall down or somehow detract from their message. However, standing in one spot throughout a presentation can be just as much of a distraction, especially if the speaker is so still and statue-like that you're just waiting for a pigeon to come roost on his shoulder.

There are a number of reasons why you should move during your presentations:

Use lateral movements whenever possible (moving from side to side rather than from front to back). They're not only easier for the audience to see, they create more visual interest. When you do move, move purposely - don't inch or sidle.

When we're in conversation with one another, we're always moving. We shift in our seats, or move a few feet to the left or right, or turn our heads to look in a different direction. It's natural. Your movements on stage should be natural as well - and that comes with practice. When you're rehearsing your presentation, practice your movements, gestures, and mannerisms as well.

The Fine Points: Gestures and Mannerisms

Your gestures and mannerisms can help you gain the support and confidence of your audience, or they can make people uncomfortable and even antagonistic. By far the best way to spot your gestures - both good and bad - is to videotape yourself practicing or giving your presentation. Replay your speech until you have broken it down into the series of gestures and mannerisms you rely on. Here's a list of the most common ones and how they are perceived:


Arms crossed on chest     Crossing legs
Fistlike gestures Pointing index finger
Karate chops The fig leaf position


Hand-to-face gestures Head tilted
Stroking chin Peering over glasses
Taking glasses off - cleaning     Putting earpiece of glasses in mouth
Pipe smoker gestures Putting hand to bridge of nose


Arms crossed Sideways glance
Touching or rubbing nose     Rubbing eyes

Openness and Cooperation

Open hands Upper body in sprinter's position
Sitting on edge of chair     Hand-to-face gestures
Unbuttoned coat Tilted head


Hands behind back     Hands on lapels of coat
Steepled hands  

Insecurity and Nervousness

Chewing pen or pencil Rubbing thumb over thumb
Biting fingernails Hands in pockets
Elbow bent, closed gestures     Clearing throat
"Whew" sound Picking or pinching flesh
Fidgeting in chair Hand covering mouth while speaking
Poor eye contact Tugging at pants while seated
Jingling money in pockets Tugging at ear
Perspiring, wringing hands Playing with hair
Swaying Playing with the pointer, or marker
Smacking lips Sighing


Short breaths "Tsk" sound
Tightly clenched hands     Fistlike gestures
Pointing index finger Rubbing hand through hair
Rubbing back of neck  

To control your body language, all the points discussed in this chapter have to come together and work for you. How frustrating it must be for a speaker to deliver a speech with a grand, pressing purpose, only to have the delivery marred by nonverbal mannerisms that alienate the audience. Positive and powerful body language should support your verbal message and help you appear confident, caring, and in control in any situation - whether you are talking to a large audience, your boss, your colleagues, or your family.

Controlled body language that reinforces your strengths as a speaker carries your audience along with you to the point where it gets your message - loud, clear, and compelling. A good way to make that message even more compelling is to add a proper dose of humor, and Chapter 17 will show you how.

Professional Projects: Moving With Ease
  1. Practice walking out with confidence at your next presentation. Do not rush and look around - take in the entire audience before your opening words.

  2. Analyze your body language. Have a colleague videotape your next presentation. Carefully analyze your gestures, mannerisms, smile, posture, stride, and eye contact.

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