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The (St)Art of Public Speaking: Body Language5 min read

Some people are innately good at public speaking, but the rest of us, unfortunately, have to work at it. It has never been something I’ve felt proficient in, and thanks to some free time during the pandemic, it’s a skill I’m trying to develop. From reading books, to listening to podcasts, and sometimes talking to myself (all in the name of practice of course), I am sharing some things I learn in this series for The Oppy.

Part 2: Body Language

Body language is the component of public speaking that has nothing to do with talking but sets an orator up for either success or failure. Subtle body language can draw people towards us…or deter interest. For example, what gives the impression that a person exudes confidence? How a person carries his or herself, a.k.a. body language, is the reason for much of this initial impression. Body language can portray a level of self-assurance or betray us when we are feeling uncertain. Good use of body language is more likely to captivate an audience or, at the very least, trick the speaker into an elevated level of confidence.

There are five key elements of body language. The first is posture. Most of us can recognize a friend from across the room based on his or her posture alone. Seeing a person hunched over does not typically spark feelings of admiration or immediate respect. However, seeing a person standing tall with shoulders wide projects power. Others tend to think the person has control over the situation, or at the very least, is competent. Plus, standing or sitting up straight is good for your back. Conveying strength and no lower back pain? Yes, please.

Up next is eye contact. Eye contact is fundamental in making connections. Its proper and improper use can lead to varying levels of comfort for the eye of the beholder, literally. Individuals may feel those who do not make eye contact are untrustworthy. On the other hand, if someone is making unwarranted, intense eye contact, he or she will feel uncomfortable. Fortunately, there are ratios for how much of a conversation we should be making eye contact. In our culture, the typical amount of eye contact in a conversation is 50% of the time. This amount portrays sincerity without making anyone feel uncomfortable. However, in presentations, the norm is around 90% of the time while speaking. According to a study done in the U.K., average optimal eye contact is 3.3 seconds at a time. It is important to be aware of individual and cultural differences though. Too much staring can be intimidating for some. A simple trick is to mirror the other person’s eye contact frequency to match their comfort level.

The third element is smiling. Smiling triggers endorphins and dopamine and the line, “a smile is contagious” can be accurate. Get into the habit of walking into a room smiling. Smiling depicts confidence and good will…or possibly, a sense of blissful ignorance. But either way, people will be happy to see you! A memorable quote I enjoyed from How to Win Friends and Influence People is, “Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you. You make me happy. I am glad to see you.’” And yes, it is not lost on me that smiling is not something we can do with face masks on, but smizing is a real thing and we are not wearing masks on Zoom.

The next one is currently taboo but, hopefully, that will not always be the case. *Bring on a vaccine and herd immunity!* A firm handshake is key in communication and conveys a person is positive and respectful. The majority of “recipients” do not appreciate a weak handshake. If I finish a handshake and think, “wow, soft hands,” the handshake was probably too weak. That being said, please do not crush my hand. I bruise easily. A solid handshake gives a good first impression. How does this translate in elbow bump terms? I have no idea, just watch out for the funny bone. (The clinician in me must clarify that the “funny bone” is not a bone at all. It is actually the ulnar nerve that runs down the inside of your arm. The more you know.)

Finally, gestures can enhance and support a person’s words. When used correctly, they get points across effectively. The most popular TED Talkers used an average of 465 hand gestures. That is a lot of gesturing in an 18-minute period. Some examples include lightly tapping your finger tips (warning: do not over utilize this move, unless you are playing a villain in a kids’ movie), pointing (never at a person), winking (depending on who the audience is), eyebrow raising (I love when this is done well), head tip (the ultimate sign of acknowledgement), palms out (conveys “I come in peace,” unless done by Donald Trump), and a good ol’ fashioned shrug. This, of course, is an abbreviated list, but the idea is gestures, when done well, demonstrate that the speaker is comfortable in her skin.

Catch me on my next Zoom presentation. I will be sitting tall, making some great eye contact with my camera, and smiling to establish my friendliness. I have not figured out how to do a virtual handshake just yet, but my gesturing will be on point. Here’s hoping the content and deck will be good, too.

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