How to Speak with Body Language

by Steve Evans | Blog

Here’s Looking at You, Kid!
If you think that speaking or presenting is only about the right words, well-spoken, you are only seeing part of the picture.  What you do visually can make a huge difference in how effective you are in front of a group.

“Your actions speak so loudly,

I can not hear what you are saying.”

― Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Big Four

There are four elements to a speech or presentation. These elements can be looked at as the tools you have at your disposal to get your message across.

The words you speak

How you say the words.

How you look when you say the words.

How you feel when you say the words.

In this post we’re going to explore the power of how you look and move when speaking.

Dr. Mehrabian’s 7-38-55 Rule

The visual aspects of delivering a speech or presentation can be as important as what we are saying, some say, even more so. You may have heard about the Dr. Albert Mehrabian’s 7% – 38% – 55% rule which emphasizes the importance of body language in personal communication over the words you are saying and how you are saying them. This study is often misunderstood because the professor was conducting experiments with communications of feelings and attitudes only, but it does point out the importance of how you look when you are speaking in general. His formula breaks out this way.  When you are speaking, here’s what the audience is actually paying attention to.

7% spoken words

38% voice, tone

55% body language

In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about how vision is the most powerful of all human senses.  He puts it this way, “The human body has about eleven million sensory receptors.  Approximately ten million of those are dedicated to sight.  Some experts estimate that half of the brain’s resources are used on vision.”
I think you get the picture so enough with the numbers.  Let’s just say that our body language and how we move on stage are very powerful tools at our disposal and we should be aware of how we can use these tools to be most effective.

What Not to Do

Let’s begin by looking at how body language and movement are misused.  We’ve all seen speakers who stand in one spot as if their feet are encased in cement or they’re being held hostage.  This has been referred to by speech coach Bill Hoogterp as “mono-spot the boring cousin of mono-tone.”  The audience will begin to tune out because nothing is happening visually to keep them engaged.

We’ve also seen speakers who pace back and forth like they’re trying to increase their daily step count.  This is sometimes referred to as the “Caged Lion Approach” and is usually the result of a speaker who is all amped up because of nerves and this repetitive action can be very distracting.  Once again, the audience will begin to disengage.  It’s not just movement we’re looking for here, it’s moving with meaning, moving with purpose.

rigid man

How to Move with Purpose

Many speakers will use movement to transition from one part of their speech to another.  They will deliver a point then pause and move to another section of the stage and deliver another point then pause and move to another part of the stage to deliver another point.  This movement at specific points in your speech, signals to the audience that you are moving on to something new.  Movement can be used as a transitioning tool.

Different points on the stage can also signify different times when telling a story, a visual timeline so to speak which can go something like this:

“First, this happened” (move to the left).

“Then, this happened” (move further to the left).

 “And, finally, this happened” (move further to the left).

 “I wish I had known how it would all turn out when I began this journey” (said while moving back to the first position).

Moving forward, closer to the audience can also be a great way to emphasize a point and engage them in a more intimate way.

Watch how other good speakers move and experiment with various techniques.  The point is to move with purpose and not just meander around.  Everything communicates.

Body Language and Movement Online

You may be wondering if you need to think about body language and movement when you’re speaking or presenting online.  After all, they can only see the top half of you, right? The answer is, the same rules apply even if you are only appearing in a box the size of a computer screen.  Body language especially facial expressions is even more important because everyone is up close and personal in the virtual world.  I would suggest that you invest in a good microphone and camera so you can stand and move when speaking. People will be able to see more of you and you can use your hands more effectively.  You can also move around in the area as you would on stage.  It’s a smaller area but it can be really be used to your advantage.  Mike Carr won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest last year.  The contest was held online, and I believe one of the reasons he won was the way he used the video medium.  See how Mike communicated visually in his winning speech, The Librarian & Mrs. Montgomery.

What to do with my Hands

While we’re at it, let’s talk about the number one question on the minds of beginning speakers. “What do I do with my hands?”  Somehow this isn’t something we worry about when we’re in a normal conversation but when we’re a new speaker in front of a group, we can become hyperconscious of ourselves. Suddenly our hands feel like giant lobster claws that need to be controlled.  I would recommend that you just keep them at your side and use them as you would in any conversation. Like actual lobster claws, they will behave naturally if left alone.  Of course, they can be put to good use if you are pointing, describing, counting, clapping or expressing emotions such as shaking your fist or putting your hand on your heart.
Woman Hands_63250037
Mark Bowden is a body language expert, public speaker and author of several books on the subject including his book, Winning Body Language.  In the book, he talks about the importance body language in communicating to an audience.  He is an advocate of gesturing in the “Truth Plane” which is the area which extends horizontally from your navel.  He maintains that open gestures in this Truth Plane immediately signal to the audience that you are a friend that comes in peace, not carrying any tools or weapons (see the open hands) and you are there to help.  He goes into great detail in his book or if you would rather, check out his brilliant TED talk below.

Don’t Forget Your Face

Yes, your face is a part of your body and a very important part when it comes to public speaking.  Everyone is looking at your facial expressions to get an idea about how you feel about what you are talking about especially these days when we do most of our communicating online.  Facial expressions are a great tool for expressing the emotional content of your speech.  I go into this in more detail in my blogpost entitled The Magic of Mirror Neurons. I will also cover it in an upcoming post about “How you feel when you say the words”.  For now, just remember, when you’re speaking in front of a group or presenting online, you’re communicating not only intellectually but emotionally, as well.  The audience will look for how you feel about what you’re talking about and those emotions are communicated through your tone of voice, body language, movement and your face.

Speaking Without Sound

Before the late, Roger Ailes became the notorious head of Fox News, he was a speech coach and media consultant. He was often hired by local TV stations to help them improve their local, TV news shows.  He would fly into a market, rent a hotel room and watch the local newscasts including the station’s competition for a few days then meet with the local station management with notes about how to improve their production. This could include ideas about format, set design and the effectiveness of the various newscasters.  One of the things he would grade would be the visual aspect of a newscaster’s presentation which he would rate by watching that person deliver the news with the sound off.  If their presentation, without sound, captured his interest and made him want to turn up the volume, that person got high marks.  If not, they may be looking for a job in radio.

Here’s a Great Exercise to Improve the Visual You

This “sound off” approach is a great way for you to check out what your body is saying while you are doing all the talking.  Tape a rehearsal of your next speech or presentation then grab your script, play it back with the volume off and take a few notes.

Are you moving with purpose or simply meandering around the stage?

Are you pacing back and forth like the caged lion?

Are you making other movements that are distracting?

Are your gestures natural or forced?

Is your face expressing the emotions that would naturally accompany your content?

Are you using your body language and movement to communicate your message?

Like everything else, this is going to take some time.  The fact that you are paying attention to your body language and movement at all, is going to put you way ahead of most speakers.  Watch how other good speakers use their body and movement, experiment and have fun.  Using body language and movement is just another way to make you a winning public speaker.
Steve Evans, Speech Enthusiast



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