We’ve all seen the two extremes of speakers able to wreck the most compelling material. Recall the aptly-named Father Stone from the sit-com Father Ted; utterly deadpan, lifeless and immobile with the most boring voice in Christendom. At the other end of the scale, caricature Gio Compare from the car insurance ads, for whom everything is an opera delivered larger than life at full bellow and gesture to match.
Clearly no one would aim to imitate either for a serious public address. You can check out Pippa Hammond’s many articles on public speaking which cover the speaking part; and an earlier part here on the art of gesture to accompany your speech.
But what about posture, body, language, attitude and general demeanour?
The issue with our own body language is that we are usually unaware of the non-verbal messages we give out. The first thing any regular public speaker should do is record themselves on camera and, however painful it may be to watch yourself, play it back. Often it may be the first time you see yourself as others see you. Presenters are often shocked by the body language and attitude underlying their ‘immaculate’ presentations and how it undermines their ‘performance.’
Because any kind of public speaking is a performance. Perhaps not Hamlet, but a projection of yourself to an audience, nonetheless.
I’ve seen tall, loud, confident and even brash men shrink and wither when faced with an audience. Instantly, that audience loses interest.
How you stand in front of the room your stance, tells the audience whether you’re happy and confident, or uncomfortable and scared before you utter a word. The audience may not be able to read your slide deck but they will read you.
Your public address begins from the moment your audience turns their gaze toward you. You have to hold their attention even before you begin speaking. In this, nanny knows best, along with many an old fashioned finishing school; stand straight, upright, with shoulders back and chin up. Face out into the room and meet the challenge head-on. Be somebody worth listening to. Be alive.
Here’s the tricky part. Being ‘alive’ does not mean cavorting about like a loon with St. Vitus dance. You’re there to present, not perform Riverdance. Stillness is a desirable quality. Someone who knows how to be still knows how to be the calm centre of a room. Stillness means not shuffling or tapping your feet. Stillness means being balanced on your feet or in your chair; not rocking to and fro like a bear in captivity. Keep your head level and your gaze steady.
When you’re not using your hands to gesture (which we discussed last time), find those moments of stillness in between the movement. Find a comfortable position in which to hold your hands. Clasped in front, behind, or held loosely at your sides; any of these positions are good. Arms folded in front of you is the classic defensive, ‘keep out’ pose, indicating either fear or superiority over the audience.
Constant fidgeting of limbs distracts the audience from your message. You can effectively upstage yourself. Likewise, playing with your ‘props’ is a distraction. Have you been in a presentation where the speaker continually spins or clicks a pen in their hand? Waves the remote control for the projector? Fiddles with their tie like Oliver Hardy? Waves their pointing stick around like Andre Previn conducting the Boston Philharmonic? Exactly. Did they realise they had all these ticks and habits? Probably not.
Be aware. It takes a little skill at multi-tasking, concentrating on your delivery and controlling your own body, but take heart; it can be done.
Remember that effective body language supports your message.
When you move, move with deliberate purpose. We’ve acknowledged that audiences respond to presenters who are alive and energetic, what you need is movement that is meaningful and supportive of the message. Regard energy and movement as your personal investment in the message.
The Eyes Have It
As we keep repeating, eye contact with your audience is very important. You need to move your gaze around the room and that means purposefully sweeping the audience making a moment or two of eye contact with everyone there.
We’ve all seen the “unaccustomed as I am…” nervous speaker whose eyes flick and dart all around the room as if seeking out an escape route in an exaggerated flight reflex. It fills an audience with unease. Even if you don’t want to be there, at least behave as if you do. RC
Robin Catling has trained corporate staff and trained-the-trainer in a variety business and technical areas for some major UK and International companies including First Choice, American Express and British Airways. It may not have improved his sanity – or theirs.
Related: How-to: Public Speaking – Gesture