Are your non-verbals helping or hurting your presentation?
Updated: Jul 22
Think about preparing for your last presentation. Words. It was all about getting the words right. Draft. Redraft. Maybe throw in some visuals. Some charts.
But how much time did you spend thinking about how you’ll use your body during your presentation?
How you move during your presentation is as important as what you say. Remember, more than half of the communication of your presentation will come from your body language. The words only account for about 7 percent!
Are your non-verbals sending the right message—or is your body language sending messages that run counter to your words?
Oh, great, you say. Another thing to worry about when it comes to presentations.
Fear not. In this post, I will give you some simple rules for using your body during a presentation that will make it easier for you to share your message. Practice them a bit and you’ll rock your next presentation.
The teachings in this post are drawn from our leadership seminar The Art of Skilled Presentations. In fact, we spend an entire session talking about what to do with your body. Participants practice and present real content and receive supportive and individualized feedback and coaching.
Here’s a sample of some of the tips you can use right now to make your presentation more effective.
Ready? Let’s go!
Stand tall and lean in
We want to start with getting your body strong and grounded. When it comes to presentation posture, we don’t want extreme—weak or aggressive. You’re going for neutral and positive. What you want is an assertive posture:
Feet shoulder-width apart, firmly on the ground. Equal weight distribution
Bend your knees slightly
Stand tall—imagine a string pulling your head upward
If you are presenting while sitting at a table, the same still applies. Be sure your feet are connected to the ground (resist the urge to cross your legs) and sit tall in your chair.
With that foundation, I want you to slightly bend at the waist. I want you to lean in. Leaning into your audience tells them, “I want to connect with you!”
And when that connection is made, that’s when the magic happens.
Conversely, leaning away from your audience, even just a little, whether you’re standing or sitting, conveys a strong message to your audience: I want to distance myself from you or I don’t believe what I’m saying. Your audience will pick up on this subtle body language and it won’t help your message.
When it comes to movements, make them deliberate
I’ve taught hundreds of leaders to improve their presentation skills, and I’ve noticed that most beginning speakers tend toward the extremes. They freeze. No movement whatsoever—just hiding behind the lectern. Or too much movement—pacing like a tiger in the zoo!
Whatever you do with your body, look for the “goldilocks” spot: just right. Too much movement and you’ll appear rattled. Too little movement and you’ll appear scared.
Whatever movements you make, make them deliberately. Make them for a purpose. I advise leaders to make a movement while they’re talking—perhaps moving to the right or the left of the lectern—and then pause. The pause is so critical. Do nothing for 5 seconds.
That simple act of pausing emphasizes the point you’re making and gives the audience time to digest it. You don’t want your presentation to be one long run-on sentence.
This isn’t a race—as much as you might want to get it over with!
Leveraging facial expressions
As I said earlier, much of our meaning that gets across to people will be our body language. At the top of that list is our facial expression. We are so attuned to what message a person is giving us by the way their face looks.
The human face is incredibly expressive. So many nuances! Our facial expressions can reveal our true feelings on a subject and influence emotions in our audience. However, if our face and our message don’t match, our audience can get confused: Why is he frowning when he’s delivering “good news”? “Why is she smiling while telling us about possible layoffs?”
Once again, we don’t need extremes here. If you are naturally more restrained in your expressions, please don’t feel you need to become Robin Williams. Simple actions such as a raised eyebrow, a smile, or a sideways glance can make a huge difference in how your message comes across.
The point is to make sure your face and your words match. And be deliberate in your expressions. Decide what you want to do with your face for what purpose. Then . . . practice!
“Catch and release”—the secret of eye contact
I remember a presentation I sat through once at a person’s home. For some reason, he decided to lock his eyes on me for the entire presentation. It was so uncomfortable! Did I do something wrong? I felt like a fish on a hook.
I learned an important lesson. While maintaining eye contact is important during a presentation to portray trust and engagement, it needs to be tempered.
We don’t stare at our audience—get them in our “sites.” We want soft eyes. Eyes that connect and release.
A great strategy is to look at one person for a moment then casually move your glance to another person for a few seconds. And so on.
Think about when you’re talking to a friend over coffee. It’s probably not uncomfortable to look straight into their eyes. That’s how it should be in a presentation. Just look them in the eye, then away, then back, then away.
What is a gesture? A gesture is a movement that helps to express and reinforce an idea.
We use gestures all the time, sometimes with language and sometimes to communicate non-verbally. If I don’t know the answer to something, I might shrug my shoulders. When I want to help my audience see how big something is, I will probably spread wide my arms and hands.
Gestures help our presentations but to be truly effective, they must appear authentic. Not a gimmick you picked up somewhere. Natural. Don’t force it. I cringe when I witness a speaker who has been obviously coached to use certain gestures like steepled hands (all fingertips touching), hand slicing, or head nodding to make a point.
Don’t limit gestures to just your hands and face. Use your arms, shoulders, and torso. The whole package. So many messages you can send!
Two things to consider with gestures:
First, make sure to adapt your gestures to the space you’re in. The smaller the space, the smaller the gestures. If you’re in a vast auditorium, you can gesture more fully.
And second, let’s not forget that certain hand gestures we might use in our culture may be highly offensive in someone else’s culture. Do your homework.
We send out non-verbal body language all the time. Using body language such as leaning in, moving, appropriate eye contact and gestures all work together to reinforce our message and aid us in connecting with your audience. The key here is to plan how you’re going to move and practice, practice, practice.
Did you like this post? Try Bringing energy to your presentation
So, what now? Want to take your presentations skills to the next level? Check out NobleEdge’s The Art of Skilled Presentations leadership workshop. Participants practice and present real content and receive supportive and individualized feedback and coaching. Individual and group sessions are available.
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Marie Tjernlund is the Co-founder and President of NobleEdge Consulting. As an accomplished executive coach, certified Conflict Dynamics Profile® facilitator, and a professional performer, Marie brings her positive energy and enthusiasm to clients around the world. You can contact her at Marie@NobleEdgeConsulting.com.