By Joe Yazbeck, Special and Exclusive to USDR.
As a public speaker to both live and media audiences, your body should function in much the same way your vocal quality does: it should enhance and support your message, communicating without being distracting.
In my book, No Fear Speaking, I dedicate an entire chapter “Making the Body Express the Message” to the do’s and don’ts of a speaker’s body language. I believe the most natural approach for a speaker is to use their body expressively, much like a singer does during a performance. Of course, it’s one thing for the singer to feel their song, but it’s quite another to make the audience feel it, too. If you fail to connect with your audience, everything you do up there onstage becomes a wasted effort. If, however, you use the right combination of vocal quality and physicality, you will emotionally impact your audience.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people assign all kinds of stereotypical significance to specific physical gestures. (“Here’s a defensive gesture.” “Here’s a nervous gesture.” “Here’s a confident gesture.”) There may be some validity to these statements, but that doesn’t mean you can just throw together a bunch of “positive” gestures and call it a day. If you think you’re going to create something organic that way, you’re sadly mistaken—it’s not natural, and your audience will pick up on that right away.
Acting in the nineteenth century depended upon actors’ assuming certain routine physical poses in order to signal to the audience the emotional state of the characters they were playing. Contrast that approach with that of the great contemporary actors— they don’t assume any specific poses, but rather play their characters from a place of pure honesty.
Today, that nineteenth century style of acting would read as “campy,” canned, or overblown, whereas the contemporary style reads as truthful and is therefore felt by the entire audience. Your audience doesn’t want a staged performance. Don’t use any artificial movements or choreography that will destroy the credibility you’re working hard to earn with them.
Best Practices for Physical Movements Onstage
Physical movement on the whole should never be overwhelming to an audience. Simply put, it should build. I personally like to come forward toward an audience when I’m making a point and then withdraw somewhat when I’m done, in order to underscore the point and provide a natural transition to the next part of my speech.
The body has its own rhythm, and as a speaker you need to be aware of yours. If you’re going to make a point, don’t go off your rhythm—keep it in sync with what you’re saying. Move like a singer who is in tempo with the material they are performing.
Eye contact is the single most important physical trait in communication, and you should give it the highest priority during a presentation, because it has a direct bearing on how you interact with your audience. It also reveals your personality and uniqueness. To quote the famous Russian acting teacher, Constantine Stanislavski,
“The eyes are the mirror of the soul.” So look at your audience. Give them the sense that you’re looking at them one-on-one. Give them a sense of your soul.
Body Language: The Dos and Don’ts
Though I don’t believe in “manufactured” poses and gestures, there are a number of gestures (and accessories) that should be avoided during a presentation, as well as some good habits that should be developed. Here’s a list of do’s and don’ts for your consideration.
Don’ts: Negative Physical Gestures and Presentation
● clenching your hands
● rubbing the back of your neck
● wiping away sweat
● playing with your hair
● pulling at your pants>
● tucking in your shirt
● fidgeting while sitting or standing
● picking at your skin
● clearing your throat
● putting your hands in your pockets
● clasping your hands together in front of you
● playing with a pointer or pencil
● crossing your arms
● rubbing or scratching your nose
● peering off to the side
● darting your eyes back and forth
● taking short, quick breaths
● pointing at your audience accusingly
● wearing a hat or reflective jewelry
● tightly gripping the lectern
● fiddling with jewelry or props
● wearing glasses with heavy rims or tinting that
hides your face/eyes
● wearing clothes that need to be adjusted when
you stand up or sit down
Dos: Positive Physical Gestures and Presentation
● relaxing your arms and hands at your sides
● assuming a squared and stable body position
● tilting slightly forward
● opening your arms and hands
● making relaxed and interested eye contact with
● smiling when appropriate
● peering off toward the back of the room with a
● moving your body exactly, deliberately, and in a way
that is appropriate to the message you wish to convey
The Bottom Line
Outwardly express your message with natural and appropriate physicality during your presentation. When you’re authentic, you can support your message and give more personal animation to your delivery through physical movement, without being distracting to your audience.
Connect your audience with your heart and soul through your eyes!
For more than thirty years, Joe Yazbeck has successfully helped thousands of individuals and businesses in numerous industries throughout the United States and abroad with his unique system for public speaking, effective presentation, media communications and leadership development. Joe is the founder, president, and senior coach of Tampa Bay–based Prestige Leadership Advisors, where he serves leaders and professionals in industries including technology, law, health care, finance, defense, public service, engineering, and entertainment/ media through his leadership, executive, and corporate training programs, as well as his No Fear Speaking System, www.nofearspeaking.com. Joe resides in the Tampa Bay area with his lovely wife, Elisa.