Body Language

photo of man discussing on white board

The verbal language that you use is hugely important in presenting, but it isn’t the only factor. As well as what you say and the visual aids that you use to illustrate it, your non-verbal communication, or body language, is a big factor in a good presentation.

Non-verbal communication can include a range of things, from your facial expression, to your posture, how much you are moving (or how you are moving) to what level of eye contact you are making with the audience. All of these things combine to amplify or diminish your message by either engaging or boring your audience, by presenting yourself as credible or at the other extreme making the audience tense or suspicious.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at some tips on how to use your body language to your advantage and give the impression of a credible and clear expert communicator rather than a boring or unreliable source!

One of the simplest and most useful things that you can do to use body language to make a presentation work well is to smile! Smiling serves two purposes, firstly (because of a biological phenomenon called “biofeedback”) smiling actually makes you feel good and reduces stress and secondly because smiling inspires confidence and relaxation amongst the members of your audience. If you seem enthusiastic about your topic, this could motivate your audience to feel the same. If, however, you don’t seem to be able to muster much positivity then why should your audience? Obviously this, like many of these tips, is very context specific. It wouldn’t be advisable to stand grinning as you deliver bad news about the company’s financial state!

photo of man smiling in blue suit

Your posture is another important factor that affects how your message is received. Standing or sitting with your shoulders pulled forward gives an impression of fatigue and tension, hardly confidence inspiring! Standing with your shoulders pulled back and your stomach pulled in will create a much more confident impression. Not only can this help you to look professional, but also facilitate good circulation and keep you breathing deeply and calmly and through the aforementioned biofeedback mechanism actually help to keep you calm and relaxed.

While we’re on the subject of breathing, try to remember to keep breathing deeply and calmly. If you’re panicking and start breathing quickly you might not be getting enough of that all important oxygen to your brain. If you don’t get plenty of oxygen your brain isn’t going to be operating at maximum capacity, which is exactly what we need for a demanding task like presenting.

Many people use meditation based breathing techniques or yoga inspired “ujjayi” breathing to keep their respiration regular and help them not only to stay calm, but to have enough air in your lungs to be able to get to the end of long sentences and to speak as clearly as possible (especially if you find yourself having to speak much louder than normal do that all of your audience can hear you clearly).

Eye contact is one of the aspects of non-verbal communication that some presenters find most daunting. Too little can make you seem suspicious and unsympathetic, too much can make you seem intimidating or confrontational. Avoiding these extremes can be tricky, especially if you’re feeling nervous, shy or a little lacking in confidence. One strategy that many people use is to select a person in the audience and imagine that you are speaking directly to them. after a while, find another member of the audience in another part of the room and move your focus to them, then another and so on. As you progress through your presentation you will be able to give the impression of having addressed the whole room but your experience will be more similar to having spoken to a few individuals one at a time.

person laptop working sitting

Another popular way of dealing with the issue of eye contact is to use a similar technique as just described, but rather than looking into people’s eyes, looking at the tops of their heads. This can give the audience that you are addressing them, but without any feelings of being confrontational that could actually make you feel more intimidated and nervous! A general rule would be that you should try to keep your attention on the audience and any visual aids that you are using, that way you can see how they are reacting to your presentation and can use your visuals more effectively. Whatever you do, don’t face away from your audience for too long or let your nerves make you spend most of your time looking at the floor!

Again, it is worth noting that this depends on your context. If you are in a small meeting room with a few well known colleagues, eye contact should be quite natural and focussed on the person or people that your message is most relevant to.

Depending on the venue, you may have some space to move around. Moving around a little can help you connect with different parts of the room and can help to make you feel more confident and less “trapped” at the front of the room right in everybody’s gaze. This can be especially important sometimes just for the sake of getting out of the way of your projector image so that the audience can see it clearly. Walking around in a relaxed and leisurely way while you speak can also help to give the impression that you are confident in the information that you are communicating.

Gesturing may or may not feel natural to you depending on your level of comfort or relaxation or your culture. Northern Europeans seem to find moving their arms around while they speak much less intuitive than Mediterranean people! Moving your arms can help give a sense of animation to what you are saying, creating interest. Obviously, this doesn’t mean waving your arms around in a bizarre manner, but rather pointing at visual references, using gestures such as a repeated “hammer” movement to emphasize points or showing your palms to highlight a question. One strategy that you may have noticed politicians using when emphasizing a point is to make a “finger wagging” motion but with the finger tucked into the hand so as not to look like you are pointing, which can often be interpreted as authoritarian or domineering.

collage photo of woman

Your facial expression is one of the most powerful tools of non-verbal communication. Not only is it capable of expressing extremely reliable information about your thoughts and feelings, but is also a universal language, as many facial expressions communicate basic emotions like fear, disgust or surprise in exactly the same way in all cultures all over the world. learning to use facial expression to express calm confidence or passionate enthusiasm can really make a difference to a presentation, as the messenger influences the message or at least how it is interpreted.

If you watch a lot of expert presentations like TED you’ll see the same range of expressions as when you’re watching a comedy routine or a theatrical drama. Of course, you don’t exactly need to be Jim Carey to explain last quarter’s temporary staff expenses.

In summary, all of that may seem like a lot to think about, but the reality is that if you have dealt with your nervousness well and have a good understanding of your material and how to talk about it, you will probably do most of these things naturally without thinking about it. If you’re well prepared and enthusiastic, people will feel your energy and confidence. However, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of how body language can impact your presentation and how that impacts on your audience.


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