"What do I do with my hands?" That's the question I get asked the most when it comes to public speaking. It's as if our brains seem to shut down when we have to speak in front of an audience. Why do we suddenly become so self-conscious that our natural body movements seem alien to us? I believe it's that fight or flight response we get when we are nervous. We know that the people in front of us are not going to attack us physically, but we are afraid of being attacked emotionally. Putting ourselves in the spotlight opens us up to judgment that we fear will be harsh. Read the comments made on Twitter and Facebook if you don't believe me. Worrying about what others will think of us makes us hyper-aware of everything we say and do, including our body gestures.
I've seen people on stage rooted to the ground as if they were a statue. Their arms pinned at their sides, and their feet won't move. I've seen people pace the stage back and forth until it feels like we're watching a tennis match. I've seen people talk about a tragedy with a nervous smile on their faces. Of course, they don't realize they're doing this. It all stems from feeling uncomfortable and tense. When we incorporate solid body gestures and movement in our presentations, we will deliver an impactful message.
When we watch someone tell a story and put their whole body into it, we're not just listening. The story draws us in not only with words but with facial expressions, gestures, and body movements. A good speaker is a performer. Here are three key points that will make even the most anxious presenter more confident in delivering their speech.
Have you ever seen a speaker tell you a story with little or no facial expression? We're left wondering if the speaker is trying to be funny or not. Mixed signals happen when we're not showing the message on our faces. If you're not sure how you're coming across, try doing your speech in front of the mirror, videotape yourself, or, better yet, perform in front of family and friends. Ask for constructive criticism. The more you practice, the more confident you'll become.
Here's what you need to know about eye contact. Try to imagine that you're at a party with your friends. You want them all to hear your story. As you speak, take your time and look people in the eye. Not for very long because then it becomes creepy. If you're making a point or getting to a punchline, pick one person and say the line to them. It will feel to the audience that you're speaking to them as well. Maintaining eye contact with people will help you gauge how well your message is received.
Gesturing helps to add to a story visually. It has to be a natural movement. If it seems forced, our message could come across as disingenuous. It's essential to keep from fidgeting with hair or jewelry. It becomes distracting and will take away from your talk.
Hold your hands between the top of your chest to the bottom of your waist as you're speaking. You can steeple your hands together or clasp them in front of you. You can also let your arms hang loosely by your sides. When listing points, you can use your fingers to show the numbers. Use a tiny bit gesture when you are talking about something small. When emphasizing a vital point, clap your hands together. A grand gesture is when you have both of your hands apart and palms facing towards the audience. A "me" gesture is any time you bring your hands towards your heart or chest. A "we" gesture is when you open your arms as if you're wrapping everyone in a hug.
Whole Body Movement:
Using your body engages your audience and puts them in the story with you. It's essential to have good posture and radiate confidence, but don't be afraid to move with your narrative. For example, if you're explaining how you needed to be on your tiptoes to see out the window, replicate the action. Let the audience see you on your tiptoes looking out the window. Using your body to be a character in your story or to show activity creates dynamics. It's this type of level changes that keep your audience engaged. Move across the stage with purpose. Introducing a new idea or transitioning to the next part of your speech is an excellent time to walk to one side of the stage. When you walk to the front of the room, it creates intimacy. The opposite happens when you leave too much distance from you and the audience. People will feel disconnected from you, and they may not know why. If possible, walk into the audience. It's a great way to ask questions directly and get everyone involved.
Eye contact, hand gestures, and movement all come together when you take the time to prepare. It's uncomfortable to be a statue and even more painful to watch someone be a statue. Remember to breathe and keep your neck and shoulders relaxed. Believe it or not, people want to hear what you have to say. They also respect the time and effort you put forth to give them an informative and engaging presentation. If you're genuinely passionate and enthusiastic about your speech, your audience will feel it too.
Celeste DeCamps has a B.A. in Communications from the University of Miami. She worked in radio and television, was a professional belly dancer, drummer, percussionist, nightclub owner, and a sales rep for Southern Wine and Spirits for 12 years. Throughout her different career moves, speaking to and teaching women how to be more confident is Celeste's most fulfilling job.
5 Quick and Easy Tips to Help You Become a More Polished and Confident Speaker
What Does It Mean to Be Yourself?
What To Do When You Draw A Blank
How Confident Are You?
What’s Wrong (and Right) about Filler Words?
How Well Do You Listen?
Why Does Change Scare Us?