Not too long ago I spoke at a conference with a line-up of great presenters. One man I had been looking forward to hearing got up to speak. He is well-known in his field, but I had never seen him speak. His talk was very good, but I couldn’t concentrate on it because throughout the entire talk he did a small movement over and over. He would step forward with one foot and then step back with the other, like a little dance, over and over. It was a form of fidgeting, and it was very distracting.
The research in psychology over the last 15 years makes it clear that people process information unconsciously and make very quick (1 second or less), unconscious decisions about other people.
People respond to your body language before you start talking – The way you walk and stand, your facial expressions, and your eye contact (or lack of it) communicate whether you are nervous, confident, excited, and more. Decide what impression you want to convey, and then think about how your body language is conveying it. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind:
Make sure that your walk to the front of the room shows confidence – Stand up tall with good posture, take your time, don’t rush, don’t fidget with anything while you walk. Plant your feet firmly on each step. If you are the presenter, then you are the leader. Your audience wants a strong leader. If you walk confidently, your audience will be inspired to “follow you” into the presentation.
Before you begin to talk, “set” your body – Stop, face the audience, stand firmly with even weight on both feet, look at the audience, smile a little bit, take a deep breath, and then begin. It will seem like too much time has passed without talking, but it will not appear that way to the audience.
If you face people directly you convey authority and confidence – Standing at an angle says that you and the audience are collaborating.
Don’t have any barriers between you and the audience—don’t use a lectern, and move tables out of the way if possible. People need to see your body in order to trust you
Keep your head straight – When you are talking one-on-one with someone, tilting your head conveys that you are interested in them or what they are saying, but it can also be a sign of submission. Since you want to convey authority and confidence during your presentation, you should avoid tilting your head.
Stand with balanced weight – Standing firmly with your weight evenly balanced on both legs and your head straight says you are sure and confident. Putting weight on only one foot or leaning against something like a table, chair, or lectern undermines your confidence and authority.
Don’t fidget -- Fidgeting takes many forms. Some people rattle keys in their pockets or tap their feet or fingers. Fidgeting conveys that you are nervous, bored, or impatient.
Video yourself, evaluate, and learn new habits – It’s not easy to change habits such as how you stand, move your head, or fidget. Video yourself presenting and then pick one thing to try and change. Work on it every time you present. Keep recording yourself. When you’ve mastered one of your unconscious movement habits, go on to a new one.
It takes work to change these automatic ways of standing and moving, but with persistence you can convey a more powerful and polished demeanor when you present. You can’t ignore that people react unconsciously. You’ve got to accept it and then work to portray the image and impression that will best get your message across.
What do you think? Have you been able to change some of your body language for the better?
Other books on this topic:
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Strangers to ourselves: The adaptive unconscious by Timothy Wilson
The Silent Language of Leaders: How body language can help or hurt how you lead by Carol Kinsey Goman.