How important are body gestures to your speech? How many types of body language are there to begin with? Could a lack of proper body language really harm my speech?
Very. Many. And yes.
Body language is an essential tool in emoting. Your content is vital, but delivery is the icing on this cake. You can elevate your speech to a whole new level by incorporating these elements into your speech.
So, let’s get right to it!
Table of Contents
- What is Body Language?
- Why Does Body Language Matter in Public Speaking?
- Elements of Body Gestures in a Public Speech
- What Body Gestures to Avoid in Public Speaking
- Types of Body Gestures to Enhance your Speech
- Wrapping Up
What is Body Language?
Body language can often be one of the loudest forms of communication. It involves a wide range of elements: movements, gestures, and, most importantly, postures. How you look and carry yourself plays a significant role in how the audience receives your speech.
Most people think that a firm stance is all you need for a powerful delivery. While it is essential, there is much more to it. It is a subtle way to display your confidence without having to say a word. It adds unspoken credibility to your words.
Why Does Body Language Matter in Public Speaking?
A lot of people like to believe that content is king. However, a slumping stance and a rigid presence is just about the worst thing you could do to your well-prepared content. Some common mistakes include: not facing the audience directly, over or under using hand gestures, having your hands in your pockets, and so on.
Why body language is important is because your body is giving out quite a bit of information. It plays a big role in how your speech is received, especially if your speech is argumentative or persuasive. You need to exude confidence so that your listeners heed your advice.
Elements of Body Gestures in a Public Speech
You might be wondering, what exactly do you need to focus on? Don’t you worry! We have assembled a handy list of the different elements so that you can check them off easily. Here are the elements you need to keep in mind when delivering a public speech:
The checklist starts the moment you step onto the stage. Are you front and center? You need to establish that you are the center focus. To do so is why you want to assume a firm stance when you begin. Let the audience know you mean business. This means no fidgeting, no slouching, and making purposeful strides.
We tend to believe people more when they’re looking into our eyes. It conveys a certain genuineness. After all, eyes are the window to the soul. So you need to make sure you are looking at your audience. Try not to dart your gaze around too much and hold an assured eye-contact.
A lot of your content is expressed through your body language. If you’re telling a funny story, but fidgeting with poor eye contact, it will not have the same effect. You will look unsure, and the emotion does not come through. Think of how you would convey a sad story. Your eyes would drop, your shoulders might be low, and a convincing story includes all of them.
A warm smile can go a long way in building comfort. Even before you speak, your facial expression will be what establishes a connection with your listeners. However, it has to be moderated. You can’t be smiling while telling a particularly sad story. Make sure your face matches the story you are trying to convey.
Hand gestures are the next thing. You do not want to be a still mannequin frozen to the spot. Try to pay attention to how engaging storytellers weave their stories. With purposeful hand movements, you can really draw the audience into your presentation.
Pauses are underrated. They are an excellent tool for weaving tension. Pauses make sure that you are in control of the room. They are also a very effective replacement for filler words and sounds like “Uhm,” “you know,” “and,” and so on. This will prevent you from looking nervous and add more weight to your words.
What Body Gestures to Avoid in Public Speaking
It is always a good idea to know what you are working towards. However, sometimes it’s even more beneficial to be aware of what you shouldn’t do. When you’re nervous, it might be hard to remember the checklist of things you need to keep in mind. This is why we have drawn up the following list of body gestures that you need to avoid while giving a speech. A more effective way to practice this is to be aware of them, even in a regular setting.
Hands in your pockets
This is a common mistake that speakers make, especially men. When wearing a suit or a jacket, it’s easy to find yourself trying to hide your hands. Some people are nervous and experiencing a hand tremble. You might simply be conscious and trying to mask it. But, having your hands in your pocket does nothing but add to that nervous look.
This gesture really takes confidence away from your stance as it will make you either look too awkward or slouched. Make sure your hands are visible during your speech. It is part of a subliminal messaging that shows to the audience that you are open to them.
Besides, can you imagine the audience hearing your keys or loose change in your pocket? You have to make sure that your presentation and your message is their prime concern.
Hands behind your back
Let’s be real. Nobody has their hands behind their back outside of school PT and national anthems. It is an awkward visual to see. Relax! You’re not in trouble! Having your hands behind your back can be really distracting to the audience. They might start wondering whether this is part of your presentation. Again, it gives off closed-off energy.
Hands crossed in front
When we put a barrier between us and somebody else physically, it is a sign of feeling weak. This can also come off as nervousness. So when you have your hands crossed in front, you definitely do not emit the powerful energy that your speech needs. Make sure the audience not just knows but can feel that you are earnest and open.
Hands-on your hips
So far, we’ve established that we do not want to seem nervous or weak, but we also do not want to seem condescending. Nobody likes being told what to do or feeling like somebody is claiming to have all the answers. Even in an argumentative speech, you need mutual respect so that people are receptive to your words.
Having your hands on your hips can make you seem overbearing. Besides, when was the last time someone had their hands on their hips for a good reason. Never. Because it has always stood for when you’ve gotten in trouble. Therefore, try to avoid looking parental and work on a more friendly demeanor.
Crossing your arms
Crossing your arms is quite similar to having your hands crossed in front of you. Try to think of when you typically find yourself with your arms crossed. Often, you are in a new setting, with new people, or with a disagreeable person. Therefore, this stance is associated with a negative attitude.
Your audience will subconsciously view this as you appearing cut-off and less amiable altogether. It also makes you seem closed-off. When you try to deliver a speech with this stance, your audience is likely to misinterpret your words. You want to make sure that nothing gets in your way and your message, definitely not your arms.
Looking at your feet
Think about it. Even the title makes you think of a scared child, doesn’t it? Looking at your feet when talking is something you only do when you’re scared or feeling guilty. Neither of them is the emotion you want your audience to feel. You want them to trust you. Only then will they believe the words you’re telling them.
There is no way to convince an audience of your point of view, to argue, persuade, or demonstrate a strong point if you yourself don’t look like you believe in it. Even the best lies are based on a hint of truth. So make sure you have proper control over your eye contact.
Shifting your weight
As we’ve mentioned before, a firm stance is vital to a good speech. However, you might not be aware of what you’re doing wrong. When you’re nervous, you might be putting all your weight on one leg and constantly shifting every now and then. This is actually very visible and can be distracting to your audience. Therefore, you need to make sure that you have both your feet firmly grounded.
Types of Body Gestures to Enhance your Speech
Now that you know all the little elements that go into an active body language as well as what gestures to avoid let’s jump right into it. Here are the different types of body gestures that can help boost your speech to the next level. We also have included detailed instructions so that you can deliver the power-packed performance that you deserve.
First of all, do you know why we call it ‘power’ posing? It’s because not only do you look powerful, but this kind of pose makes you feel powerful. In the words of Henry Ford, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right. So believing you can is the first step to winning over your audience. This will also help you ease your nervousness.
So, how do we make this happen? Try to do the following in front of a mirror and see if you notice a change:
- Stand straight with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
- Relax your shoulders. They shouldn’t feel any tension but shouldn’t be slouching either.
- Keep your hands relaxed on either side of your torso. This keeps them in an easily accessible position for smooth hand gestures.
- Directly face the audience. If the audience is more spread out, then try to reach everybody with purposeful tilts and pauses.
Eye contact is essential to building rapport. You simply don’t trust someone who’s averting their eyes while talking to you. Does this mean you need to look into the soul of every single audience member? Of course not! So how can we achieve this?
Divide and Conquer
Divide the room mentally into a few sections. Usually, we go for three, but you can adjust based on the room’s size and audience. You want to make sure you make eye contact with all these sections equally. However, avoid having your eyes dart too quickly.
Take firm steps closer to each section of the audience and really convey that you are speaking directly to them. It works especially better if you have points in your speech that you can list while shifting your eye contact between these sections.
Hold It Right There
Scan the audience and hold a few gazes for a couple of seconds. Remember, you don’t want to be staring either. Long stares might make members in your audience uncomfortable. Aim for a window of 3-4 seconds before moving your gaze.
Mix it Up
Sometimes these public speaking tactics become well-known across the community. If you think that the divide by three methods is too plain or too obvious, how about mixing it up with a Z-formation?
First, look at someone in the left corner towards the end of the room, then move to the other corner. After a couple of seconds on each, move your eyes to the front left, and then to the front right. This way, you travel an invisible Z shape over the room. Make sure to pick different audience members so that the starting four don’t feel targeted.
The purpose is to make as many listeners feel connected as possible without looking unsure. Make sure your words align with your unfaltering gaze and win over the room in no time!
Read My Eyes
Eye contact is also an excellent way to read your audience. Do they seem bored? Are they drawn into your speech? Do you see people distracted and on their phones? These indications can help you gauge how your speech is being received. If a significant part of your audience seems distracted, it is a good indication that you might be a little monotonous. You can use this cue to switch things up or introduce a transition.
Facial expressions are critical to proper emoting. Your face is a big part of the story you are telling. Your expressions can transcend across countries and language barriers. People can primarily relate to these six basic emotions, which are considered to be universal. These are happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, surprise, and fear.
Instead of getting intimidated by these expressions, try to see it as an opportunity. Now that you can see what affects your audience, you can use it to your advantage. The best way to practice this would be to deliver your speech in front of a mirror or video record yourself to check whether your expressions match the emotions you are trying to convey. You can also keep the following points in mind:
- Use your smile as much as possible during a humorous, positive, or motivational speech.
- Lower your gaze and tilt the sides of your lips into a little frown to convey sadness.
- For anger, you can frown and widen your eyes.
- To show shock or confusion, raise your eyebrows and part your lips.
- Practice these expressions, but make sure you don’t overdo them as you do not want to come across as comical.
- Remember: Smiles are contagious! So spread it as much as you can to leave the stage positive and memorable.
We’ve already covered the hand gestures that we need to avoid. Gestures are a great way to amplify your expressions and add more weight to your words. They also can make you look both relaxed as well as powerful. Hand gestures are an essential tool in non-verbal communication and unmissable for a good body language.
So, how can you ensure you are using this powerful tool effectively? Here are some methods we’ve sourced for you:
- Have your hands in a relaxed position on either side of your body so that they are easy to move when needed.
- Let your hands tell part of your story. Are there verbs you can act out? For instance: points you can list out on your fingers or outlines you can draw to help visualize your story.
- Clasp your hands together to plead, raise them incredulously to show surprise, wave them apart to display excitement, put them on your face to show sadness or stress.
- When talking about shapes, sizes, or length, try to use your hands to stress how big or tall a particular thing is. This helps the audience stay better connected to your speech.
- This gesture does not have to be limited to your hands. Feel free to move your whole arm or body as long as it fits your material.
- Do not overdo it. Too many hand gestures or movements can be very distracting for the audience.
- Remember: Your hand gestures are supposed to complement your content and not outshine it.
Utilizing Your Space
We’ve stressed so much on the importance of a firm stance that you might think holding a power pose is all you need to do. However, movement is essential too. Why? Because it shows, you are confident enough in your material. It shows that you are speaking so naturally that even when you move around, you can still recite your content with ease.
Depending on the space you are given to speak, you might be limited by or have an abundance of space. It looks strange if you are glued to the center throughout the speech while there is so much space around you. A power pose is a great beginning, but if you pair it with purposeful strides, you will appear much more dynamic and exciting.
Here’s how you can make sure you are utilizing your space:
Practice Your Movements
We know we said that moving around the stage should make you look natural. But the keyword here is ‘look.’ The most fluid speeches are ones that have been practiced enough to have a natural flow. Here, the effort is the invisible ingredient that brings the smoothness you need.
Take a look at your speech. Identify which sections will require you to assume a firm stance to reiterate a point and which sections allow you to move with ease. Make sure your movements add to your speech and never distract from it.
Movement is also a great transition tool to break the monotony. If the audience starts to lose interest in your speech, movement is a good way to reset their attention. You are physically introducing a different portion of your speech. Since human memory is very unreliable, splitting your information to different stage areas can actually help your audience remember your main points better. This conveys your main message in short, digestible intervals.
To and Fro Movements
Try not to begin your speech at the edge of the stage. Give yourself room to move around. When you’re making an important point, moving closer to the audience helps highlight it. Even when you’re asking questions, if you change your stance and move closer, it tends to make your listeners feel more involved. They are also more likely to volunteer answers.
However, if you move to and fro too much, it can be seen as fidgeting. So try to limit moving on every single question or point as well. Save your purposeful movements for your most essential points to really bring the impact.
Try to face your audience as much as possible even when you’re moving around the stage or walking to the other side of the stage. Facing your listeners allows a subliminal trust-building. When you turn your back on them, it can immediately disconnect them from your speech and ruin the connection you’ve worked so hard to build.
While the strong movement is encouraged, if you don’t feel confident enough, then we suggest you don’t use it. Focus on a strong stance and make sure there is no swaying or rocking in one place. This goes for your hands and arms as well. Even if you do move around, your steps need to be certain, and it should not look like you are unsure at any point.
You might be confused. After all, what does breathing have to do with body gestures? Well, you would be surprised! How you breathe is a key factor in how you appear. It is evident when you are breathing too hard or panicking. This will likely make you look unprepared and nervous. If you relax and focus on controlled breathing, the results will show how you carry yourself and how you speak.
Here’s how you can implement this controlled breathing:
- Stand straight so that you allow your lungs its full range of capability.
- Look up some breathing exercises to calm your nerves before the presentation. Inhale slowly for 3 seconds and then exhale for 4 seconds. Repeat until you feel yourself relax.
- Notice that when you panic, you usually speed up your hand movements and vocal speed. Try to practice around people you know to build comfort so that you are not affected by stage fright.
Your voice is quite integral to a public speech. While it is not technically a body gesture, it is so vital to your speech that we include it to help. If Albert Mehrabian’s words are to be believed in verbal and non-verbal communication, “7% of our words convey meaning whereas 38% of our tone and 55% of our body language are what the audience will remember.
Therefore, voice modulation is quite significant when it comes to delivering your speech. Even with voice, there are so many elements: tone, pitch, speed, and more that can affect how your speech is received. Following are some of the things you can keep in mind to make sure you deliver a good speech:
- Watch famous speeches, both good and bad. Pay attention to how their voice adjusts to different sections and emotions of their speech.
- Record yourself delivering your speech and try to practice with different pitch and vocal speed.
- Standing straight will allow air to flow more freely and give you more control over your vocal expression.
There you have it, all the different types of body gestures you can use to enhance your speech. Knowing them takes you one step closer to wowing the stage. The essential ingredient you need to add is practice. Make sure you notice how these gestures work in your everyday life as well. Record your speech in a video or practice in front of a mirror to notice how well you incorporate these gestures. Other than that, the stage awaits! All the best!