If you want to find the truth, do not listen to the words coming to you. Rather see the body language of the speaker. It speaks the facts not audible. - Bhavesh Chhatbar
When you speak, you don’t just speak with what you actually say, you also speak with your body language. From your facial expressions, to your posture and eye contact, they all add up to the ‘truth’ behind what you are saying. If you’re feeling nervous, your body could be giving a different message to your audience than the one you’re saying.
Body language is an essential part of public speaking success. Your non-verbal cues will impact on the way your message is received, how engaged your audience is, and what they think of you as an individual. Even if you’ve prepared the best speech in the world, if you aren’t animated, open or active then your audience won’t know what you’ve said.
Working on your body language can make a big difference to how you come across to your audience, and how you feel about public speaking in general. We’ve put together 8 of the most important elements of your body language that will shape how successful your speech is, explaining why they’re important and how you can use them to your advantage.
Why? In 2011, US social psychologists Amy Cuddy, Dana Carney and Andy Yap proposed that holding a ‘powerful pose’ resulted in people actually feeling more powerful. Their theory suggests that an open pose can raise testosterone levels and lower your cortisol levels - ie. increase your dominance and lower your stress. If you have confident body language and pretend you feel powerful, you’re more likely to actually feel it! And, who doesn’t want to feel powerful on stage?
Amy Cuddy demonstrates a power pose — spreading your arms wide to appear more powerful. Image from TED.
Note: Issues with replicating this theory
There has been some debate recently as to whether power posing is actually effective. Read more here: Power posing replication failure
Why? Making eye contact with your audience builds a connection between you and them and they feel more valued by you. This makes the audience more likely to respect and listen to you because they feel important. It also makes the audience trust you more because people tend to avoid eye contact when they’re lying.
Confident body language can also be used as a feedback loop. Making eye contact is the easiest to way to receive feedback from the audience about your speech. You can see if your audience are listening and read their facial expressions to see if they are interested, bored, angry, happy, and so on. You can then alter your speech accordingly based on the feedback you see. Without making eye contact, you could go through your whole speech irritating the audience!
Practice your eye contact in the virtual world with the VirtualSpeech app. A heatmap shows you where you were looking.
Why? When used correctly, hand and arm gestures can help enhance your message and make you seem more confident and relaxed. Gestures amplify your stories and will help you come across as more genuine and believable. They’re an essential element of our non-verbal communication in showing others how we feel, and in turn how we make them feel.
Hand gestures are one of the most clear non-verbal ways we communicate confident body language or nervous body language - and your audience will react more positively to the former.
Why? Moving around the stage is a great way of showing your audience you are confident in what you’re saying and including everyone in the conversation. Commanding the space around you shows strong leadership and, after all, when you’re presenting you are the leader. When you have confident body language, you’ll be more dynamic and interesting to listen to and your audience will not only be more engaged but they will have more trust in your message too.
Why? People depend on facial expressions to interpret motives and emotions so an audience will respond better to you if you are expressive. This is a bit like acting - you want to emphasize your expressions so that everyone in the audience can interpret meaning from them.
You could film yourself speaking and identify artificial or unfriendly facial expressions you make when telling a story and replace them with more genuine, believable expressions. Try to practice speaking with your face to show happiness, sadness, anger, and surprise. Your face should reflect the emotions within your stories.
Why? Mannerisms are the nervous habits most people have that detract from your message and can make the audience feel uncomfortable. They are key to confident body language. Common habits you have that you might not be aware of are fiddling with your hair or suit, putting your hands in your pockets, and excessively using filler words such as ‘um,’ ‘so’ and ‘like’.
Why? Even though your audience can’t see your breath, it is a significant factor in portraying confident body language. Maintaining a slow, steady breath can reduce your stress levels and make you less likely to revert to nervous habits, bad posture and excessive movement. Relaxed and deep breaths also ensure that you’re speaking at the right pace and your voice can project across the room, which in itself will make you feel and sound more confident.
To maximise your breath, and thus your voice and consequently your influence, you should aim to fill your lungs all the way down. Image from RADA Effective Communication.
Why? Your vocal expression is physical and so your body language has an effect on your voice and can enhance or detract from the message of your speech.
Albert Mehrabian wrote extensively on the relative importance of verbal and non-verbal messages and his findings have been quoted for years as the ‘7 - 38 - 55 Rule’. That is: our words convey 7% of meaning, our tone 38% and our body language makes up 55% of what the audience will remember.
When you combine these 3 elements, your audience will be more engaged and connected with you. So don’t forget that your body language should always enhance your voice and emphasize your message.
Most of our body language and movement is subconscious so it can be difficult to retrain ourselves away from habits we’ve had for years. However, to master the art of public speaking you must also master your body’s language too. Of course, you don’t want to distract yourself from your speech by consciously thinking how you are standing, where you are looking, and if you’re breathing correctly.
So, as with any other skill, regular practice is the secret to success and the quickest route to confident body language. You could practice the techniques above in your day-to-day life so that they become deep-rooted habits and then you won’t have to consciously think about doing them when you’re on stage.
For more public speaking techniques, take a look at our Essential Public Speaking course. You can learn with online tutorials then practice with virtual reality and receive instant feedback on your speech. We’ll even send you a virtual reality headset so you don’t have to worry about it!