What speakers need to know about body language

Sometimes speakers say one thing and their body or the tone of their voice says something totally different. This leads to confusion because the message is not clear. 

If your arms are crossed and you avoid eye contact with the audience, it will be hard to persuade them that you are happy to be there.

If you are smiling, your audience will not be receptive to a message about job cuts or financial belt-tightening.

Match your tone to your message. It’s hard to be warm and upbeat when you are tense and scowling. A smile will make your voice lighter. Imagine saying “I just won $20 million” without smiling or gesturing.

Work the room with your eyes. Make eye contact. Draw energy from those in the audience who look engaged.

Don’t slip into a monotone. Keep your energy up.

Body language accounts for between 50 and 70 percent of all communication.

We subconsciously match our verbal and non-verbal messaging when we speak with our friends and family. But sometimes we forget this when we stand up and speak, often because we are concentrating on reading, rather than focussing on connecting with the audience.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the world of body language, the collection of non-verbal signals that we all use to communicate. Often we don’t give body language a second thought, which is probably a mistake – since body language accounts for between 50 and 70 percent of all communication.

Let’s look at how your body is saying things about you.

The face

We are all drawn to studying the face of someone talking to us; we want to understand their emotions. 

We examine the face for clues about trustworthiness and likeability. A slight raise of the eyebrows, a slight smile, and we are inclined to trust the person. If we encounter a person with a smiling, joyful expression we tend to see them as being more intelligent than someone who looks angry. If we encounter unsmiling eyes, or tight lips, we become wary and unreceptive.

Smiling is one of the strongest body language signals, but we all know that not all smiles are equal. Is the smile genuine, or is it an expression of false happiness or reassurance, sarcasm, or even cynicism?

The eyes

Direct eye contact is good; prolonged eye contact can feel threatening. Frequently looking away suggests the speaker is distracted, uncomfortable, or trying to conceal their true feelings.

Blinking is natural, but people blink more rapidly when they are feeling stressed. Long periods without blinking tend to suggest a person is working hard to disguise their emotions: a poker player trying to bluff an opponent about the strength of the hand he holds.

Arms and legs

How do you stand and move when making a presentation or delivering a speech? What is that saying to the audience? Are you leaning or reaching forward, stretching out to the audience? Or are you leaning back, distant, aloof?

Crossing the arms can indicate defensiveness, or being closed to another point of view.

Spreading the arms wide may be perceived as welcoming, or it may be seen as an attempt to seem more commanding; arms held close to the body may be interpreted as an effort to hide.

Standing with hands on hips can be a power stance indicating confidence and control. But overdo it and you can be perceived as aggressive.

Tapping the fingers can be interpreted as a sign of impatience or frustration.

Speak from the heart, and your body will follow.

This may seem a lot to think about, especially when you are focused on the content of the speech or presentation you are giving. The advice we give our clients is simple: speak from the heart, and your body will follow. If you believe in your content, and allow yourself to speak with enthusiasm, and if your words are sincere, your body language will generally reinforce your message.

But just be aware of your own mannerisms. If you know you are bad at eye contact, work at it. If you tend to hold your arms close to your body or grip a lectern, try to reach out more to draw in your audience. 

And if you are excited about the message you are delivering… smile; your smile is a powerful reinforcer of your message.