Presentation Skills - A Very Detailed Guide (2) - Body Language

Using body language in presentations

Even the most seasoned of speakers can feel uneasy or anxious, walking out to give their presentation. After all, the speaker is the center of attention and there is a certain feeling of vulnerability that naturally arises, being featured at the head of group, large or small. Your objective should be to look relaxed, however, to not let the anxiety show. "Never let 'em see you sweat," as the old show business axiom says, but there's more to it than this. There are positive aspects to body language as well as negative. You can use your stance, posture, facial expressions, arm movements and many other things to great advantage.

Let's start with the obvious: grooming is obviously important. A sloppy appearance is never appropriate, no matter the audience or the setting, so see to it that you dress well. Groom your hair and dress appropriately. Do not choose flashy or gaudy garments or adornments, jewelry, etc.

Make sure you show a smile as you come to center stage and as you are introduced. No, not a toothy grin, just a warm sincere smile. Also, stand erect, hands by your side or clasped in front of you while the introduction is made. Yes, you may feel especially nervous at this time, but stay focused on your appearance, your audience is checking you out.

If you have a podium, do not be tempted to use it as a prop, leaning on it in any way. This conveys a weakness, believe it or not. It is an unconscious statement that you are nervous— a true enough statement, but not one you want anyone to know.

Continue to smile slightly as you make your opening remarks, "thanks for the introduction," etc. Remain smiling as you get to your introduction but use a more serious expression as you outline what it is you are going to be talking about.

An aside: Winston Churchill, arguably one of the greatest orators of this century, once said of public speaking: "First tell them what you are going to talk about, then tell them, then tell what it was you told." Good general advice for all speakers and teachers.

No doubt you can think of many good speakers who have used a finger wag or other hand gesture to emphasize a point. President Kennedy did this a lot, so does Bill Clinton, but be careful. If there is a note of admonishment in what you are saying then try to avoid finger pointing, it's insulting. An open palmed hand spread wide, as if in appeal, is far less confrontational and is there fore more likely to be seen as positive.

Other hand or arm movement is useful, positive even, if it is well chosen and sparse. An animated speaker who punctuates every expression with hand or arm gestures creates diversion or distraction. One who uses such occasionally, however, adds weight and gravity to important points.

Be sure to maintain eye contact with your audience, but spread it around. There is nothing worse for an audience member sitting off to the left, say, who gets the impression you are speaking solely to the center tables. Make eye contact with each individual in the room often, and stay focused long enough that each feels you are talking to them as individuals.

Do not pace. This often relieves tension for a speaker but is distracting for the audience. If you must roam, do it when you are injecting humor or at points of departure— say at question time.

If you need to take water, as many speakers seem to do, choose your moments carefully. Significant changes in subject or tone are the right time. Find a humorous remark to make about what you are doing, it eases the moment considerably.

Remember that your head and face are your key expression amplifiers. With appropriate movement and expressions of the face you can add emphasis where needed. At an appropriate moment an exaggerated eyebrow lift or the removal of eyeglasses momentarily can give the appearance of your own realization of the importance of the particular point being made. Expressing a negative point while shaking the head from side to side or a positive point while nodding are standard devices for amplification.

Finally, a word about voice tone, volume and pace. Your presentation should never be delivered in a monotone. Also, it should always be delivered slowly, though not too slowly. You should speak at about eighty percent of the pace you normally use in conversation— less if you are a fast-paced speaker. At points needing emphasis, go even slower and repeat the key sentences. Raise your voice level a little at moments requiring amplification or emotional content. And again, repeat what you say when needed using slightly different words and different pace and volume.

There's full meaning in the word monotony. With your body parts, tonal range, volume and changes of pace you can make reading the telephone directory interesting, for a while.

The Power of Body Language
Research shows that over half of human communication takes place on the nonverbal level through body language. If your body language communicates earnestness, enthusiasm, and sincerity, people will tend to believe your message. If you send different verbal and nonverbal messages, they will inevitably trust what they see and not what they hear! To be effective, your body language must confirm and support your words and graphics.

In a presentation situation, body language is so powerful because your audience empathizes with you as the speaker and mirrors your emotions and feelings. If you appear relaxed, confident, and smiling, your audience will relax, feel confidence in you, and usually smile back at you. If you appear nervous or frown (even unconsciously) they'll get fidgety and frown back at you.
    Besides communicating your feelings and attitudes body language does several things:
    It makes messages more meaningful and memorable.
    People are easily bored with things that don't move and naturally focus on things that do. People remember more of what they see than hear and even more of what they see and hear.
  1. It punctuates your presentation.
  2. Gestures, body movement, and facial expressions are to speech what periods, commas, and exclamations points are to written language.
  3. It relieves nervous tension.
  4. Public speaking activates the adrenal gland, creating an overabundance of energy which tends to sneak out as nervous mannerisms. Gestures and body movement, however, harness this nervous energy and make it work for you.

Five main elements of body language


    Without a word or even a movement, your speaking posture communicates whether or not you're confident, enthusiastic, and in control of the situation. Good posture enables you to breathe properly and project your voice effectively. It also minimizes nervous tension.
    To achieve an effective speaking posture, stand erect but not stiff, relaxed but not sloppy. Relax your shoulders and knees. Let your arms hang naturally at your sides with your fingers relaxed. You should feel alert and comfortable. Immediately before your presentation, take a few deep, slow breaths and consciously relax your shoulders, neck, and jaw.


Gestures, used correctly, are the most evocative form of body language and can tremendously enhance your words. There are four basic types of gestures: Descriptive gestures clarify or illustrate your words. Emphatic gestures emphasize your words, e.g. clench your fist or pound the podium. Suggestive gestures create a mood or express a thought, e.g. shrug your shoulders to indicate ignorance or perplexity. Prompting gestures evoke a response, e.g. raise your hand or applaud if you want the audience to do the same. Gesturing reflects each speaker's personality; what works for Zig Zigler probably won't work for you. Here are six things to keep in mind about gesturing:

  1. Gesture naturally according to what you think, feel, and say.  Regardless of your personality or cultural background, you have a natural impulse to gesture to emphasize things you feel strongly about. Don't inhibit that impulse. Be genuine and spontaneous. Don't concoct artificial gestures or your audience will peg you as a phony. If you're naturally reserved, try emphasizing your gestures a bit more than seems natural.
  2. Create the conditions for gesturing -not the gesture.  Involve yourself totally with your message-not in thinking about your body movement-and your gestures will arise naturally from your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Suit the gesture to the word or occasion.
  3. Make your gestures appropriate for the words you're expressing or you'll appear artificial, or even comical. Match the frequency and vigor of your gestures to your message, and don't overdo it. Powerful, vigorous, animated gestures are fine for young audiences but may threaten or irritate older or conservative audiences.
  4. Make your gestures convincing.  Each gesture should be a distinct, clearly visible movement. Hand gestures should involve the total arm and shoulder. Keep your wrists and hands relaxed. Use broad, slow, expansive gestures for large audiences.
  5. Make your gestures smooth and well-timed.  Timing is as important in gesturing as it is in comedy. The gesture must come on the correct word-not before or after. Don't memorize your gestures or they will appear canned. Simply practice your presentation until the gestures become natural.
  6. Make natural, spontaneous gesturing a habit.  Relax your inhibitions, and practice gesturing during informal conversation with friends. Have fun with it, and soon gesturing will be a natural part of your presentation toolbox.

Body movement

Whole body movement is the broadest, most visible movement you can make as a speaker. It automatically attracts audience attention, can reinforce your message, and is the quickest way to burn up nervous energy. Audiences stay alert with speakers who move. On the other hand, too much body movement distracts the audience. Be aware of the reasons for body movement, and then follow the rule: Never move without a reason.
Substitute purposeful movement for nervous movement such as rocking, swaying, or pacing. Step forward to signal that you are arriving at an important point. Step back to conclude an idea or let the audience digest what you've said. Step sideways to signal a transition from one thought to another. Dramatize physical action like throwing a fastball or running from a grizzly. If you move to your left, lead with your left foot. Never cross feet to begin a movement. Make your movements easy, natural, and smooth.

Facial expression

Audiences scrutinize speakers' faces, eager for visual data to add meaning to their words. Your face--more clearly than any other part of your body--reflects your attitudes, feelings, and emotions. Your audience wants you to be confident, friendly, and sincere and watches your face for evidence of these qualities. Effective speakers must communicate these qualities. The key to conveying a warm, sincere attitude is smiling throughout your presentation, not constantly--or you'll be labeled a lightweight-- but every time it's appropriate.
Be sure to remove expressions which don't belong on your face, those nervous mannerisms which distract from your message. These include licking, biting, or clicking the lips, tightening the jaws, frowning, or twitching any part of the face. Audiences attribute these expressions to nervousness or unfriendliness and become less receptive to your message. To reduce your apprehension about speaking, believe your message, practice it thoroughly, relax, and let your face reflect your good thoughts, attitudes, and emotions.

Eye contact

After your voice, your eyes are your most powerful tool for communicating. Your eyes either bind you to, or separate you from, your audience. Every listener wants to feel you are talking to him or her. Eye contact accomplishes this. In most cultures, direct eye contact signals sincerity; lack of eye contact signals insincerity, disinterest, or lack of confidence--all message killers. Your eye contact directly influences the attentiveness and concentration of the audience. If you don't look at them, they probably won't look at you or listen to you.

Here are three keys to using your eyes effectively in presentations:
Know your material.  Practice your verbal message until you don't need to strain to remember the sequence of ideas and words. Doing so frees you to concentrate on the audience, not on an inner mental turmoil.
Establish a personal bond with each listener. Every audience will have energizers--those people who are with you, alert, and usually smiling in agreement. Choose energizers in every section of the audience and focus on them. Maintain eye contact with and speak directly to each one for the time it takes to say a sentence or complete a thought, then shift to the next. Doing so will energize and encourage you, and everyone around these energizers will think you're looking at them.
Monitor visual feedback.  If the audience isn't looking at you, they're probably not listening, and you need to regain their attention. Do they look puzzled? Bored? Can they hear you? Is the microphone on? Visually monitoring your listeners enables you to make adjustments necessary to most clearly communicate you message.


Videotaping one of your presentations is an excellent way to discover your strong, effective body language as well as any unconscious, nervous mannerisms. Watch great speakers for ideas of how to maximize your own body language. Develop a strong message you firmly believe in and are excited about. Practice it thoroughly. Relax, be natural, and let your enthusiasm and sincerity project naturally to your listeners. Finally, have fun, and you'll do fine as a presenter!

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