No matter how well-crafted your talk is, poor body language can butcher the whole thing. We aren’t saying that to scare you, but to empower you to work on your body language alongside other speaking skills. If you haven’t yet mastered how to make effective use of body language as a speaker, today’s piece will cover everything you need to get started.
Many of the principles of why body language is such an impactful form of communication apply to all interactions as well as speaking. We’ll start off today’s piece with an overview of some of those principles. Then we will dig into how body language can make a difference for public speakers–both during your talk and during your interactions offstage. You’ll leave this piece equipped with a toolkit of success strategies for effectively integrating body language into your public speaking. We’ll also provide a few resources from TSL and our friends that will help you dig deeper into the nuances of body language and nonverbal communication for speakers.
Why is body language important?
Experts agree–between 70-90% of communication is nonverbal. Now, that number often includes vocalization in addition to body language, but the upshot is clear: how you use your body and gestures matters just as much as what comes out of your mouth. Some researchers even theorize that how you use your body is what makes your speech memorable (or not)! But how do you know if this is something you’re good at or not? You might be failing to make use of body language as effectively as possible if:
- You struggle connecting with audience members during and after your talks.
- People don’t seem to approach you at networking events.
- You feel super self-conscious on stage.
- You get caught up rehearsing every facial expression and hand gesture in the mirror.
Improving your use of body language is a key that will help you solve, if not entirely solve, all of these problems. Learning how to use and read body language to your advantage helps you communicate with more confidence, compassion, and empathy. Your audience and even people you meet out and about will find you instantly endearing. You will no longer feel self-conscious when you know your body language reflects the emotions and message you’re speaking about. And you won’t have to rehearse, because all of these things will come naturally!
We say it a lot at The Speaker Lab, but one of the key steps to building your speaking business is positioning yourself as an expert. Of course, a big part of that is actually gaining the necessary experience and expertise in your field to talk about it. Then you have to appropriately market yourself as an expert (more tips on that here). But when you step on the stage, your audience members might not have read your book, seen you on TV, or heard about how famous you are. And the truth is, they might decide whether to trust you or not before you even open your mouth. That’s right–your body language when you first step on the stage has already impacted whether they think you’re worth listening to.
Unfortunately, a lot of modern societal interactions seem to demand faux positivity or fake interest in what the other person is saying. Often, our words and our body language tell a different story about what emotions we’re feeling. Have you ever tried to be polite to someone really annoying while leaning your body away with an “I’m dead inside!” look in your eyes? If they were any good at reading people, they probably got the message your body language was sending! If you want to master how to make effective use of body language as a speaker, you will have to unlearn those habits. Let’s dive into how to make effective use of body language as a speaker on the stage so you can start showing your true self, verbally and nonverbally.
Effective body language from the stage
So we’ve established that making effective use of body language can totally transform your speaking performance. Your audience might not even realize how much they are internalizing from your body language. All the same, their trust in your credibility depends on it. But how does that work out on the stage?
All the things you communicate nonverbally should contribute to the mood you want to set for your talk. In addition to body language, this includes how you dress, the tone and volume with which you speak, and the kind of things you say. It’s always a good idea to research your audience so you can more accurately address their needs. Just as you would tailor your signature talk toward a new audience, your body language should be tailored too. Are you presenting research at a formal event where everyone is in suits? You probably don’t want to point finger guns at the audience during the Q&A period. Are you delivering a motivational keynote at a laid-back, creative event? Marching up to a podium, pulling a stack of notes out of a briefcase, and launching in without a personable introduction will come off as stodgy and uninteresting.
Your audience will match whatever emotion you’re projecting when you speak. If you step on stage exuding confidence and charm, that first impression will stick with your audience and leave them feeling confident after your talk! Making eye contact with one audience member at a time is a great way to maintain good energy from the stage. (Make sure you switch it up, or you might come off as threatening if you stare at one person for too long!) Eye contact not only sends a message of intentionality and purpose, but your listeners will feel like your talk was specifically crafted for their individual situation.
TSL podcast guest Mark Bowden claims that the number one thing speakers suffer from is not being animated enough. Using helpful, illustrative hand gestures is a must, both to draw attention to important points and to act human. If you rattle off a perfectly memorized speech with your hands by your sides and your eyes fixed on the ceiling, your listeners will tune out. Use human, relatable gestures (especially to accompany great stories) to maintain that important personal connection with your audience. If you’re regularly integrating humor into your talk, relaxed and confident body language will follow naturally as you and your audience laugh together.
To perfect your body language as a speaker, you need to get a feel for how you look to your audience. When you learn about the venue or arrive before your speech, try to get a feel for what the audience sees. Your energy has to match the room, so the size of your audience makes a big difference to your body language. If you’re in a massive auditorium, you should use big, exaggerated gestures so those far away get the message. A more intimate setting calls for the opposite–acting too cheesy and hyperbolic might come off as unnatural. Delivering the dreaded post-lunch talk? Moving around the stage (or room!) and using unexpected expressions will keep a sleepy audience engaged.
Rehearsing your body language alongside your talk is essential, but you can’t get too caught up in minutiae. Being too rehearsed will result in wooden or forced movements. We don’t recommend rehearsing in front of a mirror unless you want to practice a particular new expression or gesture. You don’t want to do anything you wouldn’t in a normal, animated conversation. . As we mentioned above, the size and layout of your audience make a big difference. But so do your outfit, your mic setup, and the emotions your message should elicit.
Always do a run through in the clothes and shoes you intend to wear. If you’re stiff and uncomfortable because you don’t usually wear a suit or heels, it will definitely show through in your body language. Consider wearing something more comfortable (if appropriate for the event) if you plan to do a lot of walking, waving, or interactive activities.
When you rehearse, think about your “backup plans” e.g. if your clip-on mic breaks and you have to hold one in your hand. Just as circumstances often require you to come up with spontaneous material for a talk, you will eventually have to adapt your body language on-the-fly.
If you trip over your words, forget a punchline, or otherwise flub your talk, relaxed body language will help smooth things over. Instead of nervously fidgeting as you try to get back on track, try a shrug and a laugh even an overexaggerated head scratch for comic relief.
Any gestures should always be secondary to your message. The entire audience might not be able to see you from the same angle, so don’t make any punchlines or key points dependent on a subtle hand gesture. All the same, good body language is one of the best ways to enhance a great talk–and frankly, few talks are great without it. The more you practice intentional body language, the more naturally it will come.
Body language for speakers off the stage.
If you’ve read any of our blogs (here) or listened to our podcasts (here, here, and here) on personal branding for speakers, you know that the real work is done offstage. Speaking is essentially a sales business where the product is you, so every moment is a chance to market yourself. The small day-to-day interactions you have at the coffee shop, grocery store, and bank queue all contribute to your personal brand. That means you want to develop positive body language habits that carry over from the stage to every encounter.
Especially when you’re trying to network, the difference between open and closed body language can make or break your first impression. Avoid crossing your arms, hunching your shoulders, and staring at the floor. A strong handshake with eye contact and a genuine smile are a great place to start. If you are an introvert, have social anxiety, or just feel awkward, it’s ok to go slow. You don’t have to become as bubbly as Elmo overnight! Since you never know when you might encounter a potential client, you should behave with the same authenticity and confidence on and off stage.
If you’re not sure where to start when it comes to body language in everyday interactions, Vanessa van Edwards’ site Science of People has an entire guide to body language. Vanessa came onto the TSL podcast to talk about her expertise in Episode 253, so that’s a great place to start!
Beyond what we typically think of when we hear the term “body language,” we’d like to highlight another important area to prioritize. It’s all too easy to forget to take care of your body as a speaker, but doing so will detract from your performance, your networking ability, and your life! With a lifestyle that includes lots of hustling, traveling, and early mornings, proper self-care might be the last thing on your mind.
We recommend having a normal healthy routine that you maintain as much as possible when you’re on the road. If you like to hit the gym every morning, try to make it to the hotel workout room the morning of your speech. If you’re not one for early morning workouts, many speakers recommend yoga or another kind of gentle movement to loosen up before a talk. Bring along healthy snacks to maintain your energy and replace any conference meals that might sabotage your speaking performance (e.g. a massive plate of spaghetti right before your afternoon talk). A well-cared for body will work far more effectively on and offstage.
Learning how to make effective use of body language as a speaker will amplify (if not revolutionize) your speaking performances and your networking experiences. We hope these tips help you channel great energy–verbally and nonverbally– to your audience and everyone you meet!