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Body Language Can Help With Public Speaking

A speaker demonstrates good body language for public speaking
A speaker demonstrates good body language for public speaking
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Today, we return to the subject of successful public speaking centering on the physical message of presentation.

Some call this body language. Charles LeBeau is a professor of public speaking and has written several books about how to do it well.

Mr. LeBeau tells VOA that body language includes posture, eye contact and gestures - how you move your hands or arms.

“For the physical message, a lot of non-native presenters are going to have problems with posture, and eye contact, and gestures. I think a lot of this comes from nervousness.

"Not only are they nervous because they’re doing a presentation, but in addition to that they’re really nervous because of their English, and their lack of confidence, lack of experience in their English, they’re trying to figure out the grammar, what I want to say, and they’re having all kinds of difficulty doing that, and also controlling their body.”

We have all seen nervous presenters in classrooms and meetings. One effect of being nervous is moving from side to side. A presenter does not need to stand perfectly still. In fact an audience can lose interest in a speaker who does not move.

How a speaker moves is important. Whole-body movement should be slow and planned to command attention. Such movement helps to communicate confidence.

New public speakers know that they should look at the audience while they speak. But they look at their notes on a paper or at the screen if they have an electronic presentation.

Speaker Demonstrating Good Eye Contact When Speaking
Speaker Demonstrating Good Eye Contact When Speaking

“With posture, the typical problem that I see is that they are often moving back and forth, and they’re not facing the audience. They’ll often be facing the white board or the screen with slides and be talking to that rather than talking to the audience.

"Same thing with eye contact – they find it really, really difficult - some of them find it really difficult - making eye contact with the audience, because they’ll be looking at their notes, they’ll be looking at their computer, they’ll be looking at the screen, they will be looking at the floor. The problem of having notes, and trying to talk from notes , often is a big problem. So they have trouble with eye contact.”

Charles LeBeau says the best way to avoid this problem is to use images and few words for notes instead of sentences. The image should help communicate the point you want to make. Writing a few words with the image on your slide helps you remember that point. Then you can look at the audience while speaking.

“Another problem I’ve noticed is oftentimes there’ll be a lot of sentences or words on the slides and no images. So I think the key is if they can figure out what images to use that will communicate their message, because the images will communicate faster and more clearly than words.”

Charles LeBeau Presenting on Three Messages in Speaking
Charles LeBeau Presenting on Three Messages in Speaking

Holding on to notes also makes it more difficult for a speaker to gesture naturally. Mr. LeBeau’s book, “Speaking of Speech,” discusses this. He says gestures should support the point the speaker is making. For example, when talking about three ideas, hold up three fingers to introduce them. Then hold up one finger while explaining the first idea, two fingers for the second, and so on.

Other experts advise moving your body to a different place for each idea. Stay in place until you finish making that point. Then move to the next place on the stage or in the room.

Mr. LeBeau says a good way to change your body language is to make a video of your presentation and watch yourself. This helps you to become aware of what you need to change.

“I find often times, the gestures don’t look natural. They are poorly delivered, or they are just nonexistent. Students can video themselves, and then look at it, they can clearly see: “Oh, My! I had no idea that I looked like that! My posture! I’m moving all over the place. Look at my hips. It’s going back and forth and back and forth.

"And my eye contact! All of these other goofy things that I’m doing without noticing it, or thinking that ‘well, it’s not such a big deal.’ But if I can see it I can realize oh, ‘ok, I see, I see, I see what I’m doing.’ I think that helps them change more quickly. So they can do their presentation again, and work on changing, then they can compare, and they can see that they can make quick improvement.”

An important part of public speaking is practice. When you practice remember these important tips: Be aware of your posture, eye contact, and gestures. Record yourself using a phone, tablet, or camera. Watch yourself and plan what you will do to improve.

Look for opportunities to speak and gain more confidence. Mr. LeBeau says his students find the physical message the easiest thing to change in order to become a better presenter.

“The first thing that we deal with is the physical message. And the reason we do that is so students can have a real positive experience really quickly. You know, I looked like this in the beginning and now, after one day, or a couple of classes, now I look like this - I do look much better!

"I think it helps them feel more positive about the experience. It helps them see that ‘yes, I can do this, I can look confident.’ So, I think that it’s the easiest to change, and maybe the most important thing to deal with first.”

In our next Speaking Tips, we will look at the visual message, the visual aids you show the audience, and the story message, how to organize the ideas you present.

I’m Jim Tedder.

Dr. Jill Robbins wrote this story for Learning English. Catherine Weaver was the editor.


Words in this Story

posture - n. the way in which your body is positioned when you are sitting or standing

eye contact - n. a situation in which two people are looking directly into each other's eyes

gesture - n. a movement of your body (especially of your hands and arms) that shows or emphasizes an idea or a feeling

nervousness - n. having or showing feelings of being worried and afraid about what might happen

confidence - n. a feeling or belief that you can do something well or succeed at something

stage - n. a raised platform in a theater, auditorium, etc., where the performers stand

aware - adj. knowing that something (such as a situation, condition, or problem) exists

opportunityn. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done

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