Jack had a very specific problem – one that is common to many presenters. He spent considerable time and effort to prepare his presentation. But when it came time to present it, he stood in one place, hands stuffed into his pockets, swaying back and forth on his feet. To his audience, he seemed disengaged or lacking confidence. Every time he watched a recording of his presentation, he would vow to never do it again – only to repeat it the next time he had to present.
This is a classic example of a speaker not using their body language effectively in a presentation. As a professional public speaker and coach, I’ve seen this behavior even among senior Fortune 50 leaders.
Presentational body language encompasses posture, gestures, expressions and physicality. Exhibiting powerful body language doesn’t just impress people – it engages the audience meaningfully and empowers you as a speaker.
Using effective body language is not just relevant when speaking in person or on stage. Confident body language on camera creates engagement and impact with online audiences as well.
The good news is, you can develop strong body language by being mindful about how you’re using your body, gestures and expressions during a presentation.
In this article, I’ll share 6 tips to help you master your body language in any room, on any stage or camera. These tips will help you feel comfortable, stop seeming awkward and leave a deep impression on your audience every time you deliver a presentation.
1. Stability below, dynamism above
You’ve probably seen a presenter frozen in place like a statue on the stage, or perhaps one who paces like a caged tiger. Neither is an effective way of showing confidence. How do you find that sweet spot between the two?
Here’s the secret: it’s all about balancing your body for dynamism and stability.
Think of your upper body as your “action zone,” where you use gestures and subtle movements to keep things interesting – allowing audiences to perceive you as dynamic. Your lower body, on the other hand, is the anchor that keeps you grounded, giving you stability and allowing you to project confidence.
When you’re presenting to an in-person audience:
- Standing tall with feet shoulder-width apart can create a strong base by bringing your core into action.
- Don’t sway, shuffle or step randomly: I’ve seen a lot of speakers stand in one spot and sway back and forth on the balls of their feet. This creates unease for anyone watching you – you seem to be unsure of yourself, fidgety even.
- The idea is not to stand rooted in one spot – but to spend enough time in one spot. See step 2 for how to move with impact on stage.
When you’re addressing an online audience:
You may not be able to move around while talking to an online audience, but you can use your body for stability and your hands for dynamism.
- Sit up straight by engaging your core. Leaning forward too much makes you seem too “in-your-face”, and reclining makes you look too laid-back and potentially disengaged. Good posture exudes confidence and presence.
- Plant your bum firmly in the chair and avoid swaying or swinging in your chair – it is distracting and makes you seem noncommittal.
- Using your upper body for gestures helps you engage your audience better. See step 4 for impactful gestures to use.
2. Own the space
One of the ways to truly connect with your audience is to use the space that you’re in intentionally – whether you’re speaking online or in person.
How to own the stage:
Here’s my secret technique for confident movement on stage: the three-point move.
To implement this technique, pick three distinct spots on the stage: one in the center, one on the left, and one on the right. Each spot becomes your temporary home base as you move between the three to deliver your message.
Let me share a few pointers so you can ace this technique:
- Stay on each spot for a while, elaborating on your idea then smoothly move to the next. You can take these steps while transitioning from one idea to the next as well.
Photo from the Kennedy Center
- As you move to each spot and address that section of the audience, everyone can feel like you’re directly addressing them.
- Remember – don’t pace continuously between the three spots. Stay at each spot long enough so that you come across as confident, comfortable and in control.
How to own the screen:
It’s important to be intentional about your “space” – in this case, the frame of the camera – when you’re speaking online.
A common mistake that I see speakers make is positioning themselves too close to their webcams. This often also prevents us from seeing their gestures. Don’t sit too close to the camera or too far from it. Make sure your head and torso are comfortably within the frame. This lets your body language and expressions be clearly visible to the audience.
Use the right camera angle:
Imagine the camera to be your audience’s eyes. Looking up into the camera (high camera angle) makes you seem small and looking down (low camera angle) feels imposing.
A simple rule of thumb you can remember: position your camera at eye level. It creates a relationship of equals with the audience.
This applies to both in-person as well as on-camera presentations.
When you’re speaking in person, you can move towards the audience when sharing something significant or responding to a question – it creates a feeling of closeness and connection.
You can move back if you’re asking them to zoom out and consider the bigger picture.
How do you maintain proximity with an online audience?
Be mindful of the distance between yourself and the camera. The ideal distance to maintain from the camera is about an arm’s length (approximately 2 ft).
3. No poker face
I’ve found that a lot of speakers unintentionally sport a poker face when they speak. They’re lost in thought, but by forgetting to be expressive, they’re losing out on the opportunity to build a relationship with their audience. Worse still, they come across as stiff, robotic and without empathy.
Smile with your eyes:
Starting the talk or presentation with a friendly smile can put you and your audience at ease immediately. It shows you’re confident, approachable and happy to be present. However, when it comes to smiling, not all smiles are created equal.
Did you know that there are a few different types of smiles?
The most genuine smile is called the Duchenne smile – where the corners of your eyes wrinkle up as you smile. It’s called “smiling with your eyes” or “a smile of pure enjoyment.” It’s contagious and makes you instantly likable.
Credit: Image by Giphy
Use micro-expressions intentionally:
Micro-expressions help you communicate the emotions that go with what you’re saying. They’re called micro-expressions because they occur in 1/15 – 1/25 of a second.
Did you know that there are seven universal micro-expressions? They are disgust, anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and contempt.
When you become more aware of your micro-expressions, you ensure that you don’t accidentally show negative expressions (like furrowing your brows) and instead, intentionally convey positive ones (curiosity, engagement).
Here’s my recommendation: Record a video of yourself when you rehearse your presentations. Then watch it back, paying close attention to your expressions. This way, you can find your natural micro-expressions and identify whether you’re missing any.
With enough practice, you’ll be able to use the right micro-expression for the right topic at the right time.
4. The best gestures to use
Research indicates that children recall words easily when those words are paired with meaningful gestures. The same is true with adults as well – using our hands to supplement our words helps us understand each other effortlessly.
Here are 3 types of gestures you can use for maximum impact:
Make an open gesture in the first 10 seconds of your presentation. This will make you come across as confident and trustworthy.
- To show trust and openness use a palms-up gesture. Tilt your open palms towards your audience (with one or both hands). It conveys that you have nothing to hide.
- By extending the palms towards your audience you convey that you’re creating a bridge between yourself and them.
- If you want to emphasize a point, bring both hands up with open palms facing each other, like holding a big ball.
- When addressing an online audience, keep your hands in sight as you make gestures, but give them a break off-screen sometimes.
Paint the space with your hands:
This technique is inspired by improvisational comedy where you only have your hands to create the scene. Using this technique, you can visually illustrate complex concepts.
Think of your hands as an extension of your words, adding another layer of meaning to what you’re saying.
Let’s say you want to show the impact of a new technology you’re explaining. Hold both hands with palms facing each other in front of your chest, and as you speak about the impact, move your hands outwards to emphasize growth or expansion.
Discussing progress or improvement? Show it with a “level up” gesture: Hold your hand out in front of you with the palm facing down, then slowly raise it, like climbing invisible stairs.
Okay, one more: say, you want to illustrate the rising cost of living. Start with one palm facing down, representing the initial cost of living. Raise it diagonally, mimicking the growing inflation over time.
Count to make it count:
When you have several things to talk about, you can hold your fingers up and use them to count them off as you speak.
Counting with your fingers helps your audience understand your message visually.
Added benefit: counting with your fingers acts as a visual guide for you, preventing you from forgetting the order and ensuring that you stay on track.
Avoid these negative gestures:
- Covering your mouth with your hand: this gesture makes you seem secretive or unsure.
- Fidgeting, adjusting clothes: this can unnecessarily distract your audience and betray your nervousness.
- Closed hands, tight fists or holding one hand with another while you talk: these are signals of anxiety, stress, or that you aren’t open, confident or approachable.
But remember: it’s essential to have variety. Getting stuck in a loop of the same set of gestures will become repetitive and distract your audience.
Pro tip #1: Don’t force yourself to use a gesture you aren’t comfortable with. Record yourself delivering the presentation each time you practice and identify the gestures that you frequently use. Picking the ones you want to use and practicing them will help you master the gestures quickly.
Pro tip #2: Don’t overcomplicate your gestures. One or two well-chosen gestures can be more powerful than a flurry of hand signals.
5. Best way to make eye contact
Eye contact is the bridge that builds trust, engagement and understanding. Mastering eye contact with both in-person and online audiences can take a little practice.
For an in-person audience:
Nausheen on the TEDx stage in 2023
- Smile and position yourself: As you walk onto the stage, take time to settle into your spot at the center or side of the stage. You don’t need to start speaking until you have settled in position.
- Look around the room and make eye contact with your audience: Before you start your presentation, take a moment to scan the audience. Aim to identify a few friendly faces in the crowd. Those are your allies – you can use them to bolster your confidence as you start.
For an online audience:
Making eye contact with an online audience can be tricky. The challenge is that you want to look at the participants in the webinar or presentation. But when you look at them on your screen, from their point of view, you are looking off to one side rather than at them. On the other hand, when you look at the camera, you miss out on the expressions and reactions of your audience.
Here’s a technique you can use to overcome this dilemma.
Make your Zoom or Google Meet window smaller and position it at the top-center of the screen until it’s just below the webcam. Using this window layout, you can alternate between looking at the audience on your screen and directly into the camera. This gives your audience a sense of being seen and heard. Moreover, you make sure you don’t miss cues from your audience.
6. Use the mic like a pro
Sometimes you’re given a hand-held mic rather than a collar mic or a headset. A lot of speakers find this awkward or strange and don’t feel at ease.
Credit: Image by wavebreakmedia_micro on Freepik
Here’s how you can optimize using the mic so that it doesn’t get in the way of being impactful and effective:
- Resist the urge to gesture with the hand holding the mic. This will make you sound distant each time the mic is far from your face. Keep the mic hand steady and use the other hand to make gestures.
- Clenching the mic tightly makes you look tense. Hold it with a comfortable but loose grip.
Here are my top three watchouts to improve your speaking presence.
Hands in pockets or behind your back
Tucking your hands out of sight prevents you from making gestures that connect with your audience. Keeping one hand in the pocket is ok once in a while but watch out for doing this all the time.
Avoid excessively touching your face
Scratching the chin, touching the nose or covering any part of your face can also project you as lacking confidence.
Keeping your hands relaxed by your side or using them for natural gestures is the best way to use them.
Be culturally sensitive
It helps to be mindful of cultural differences if your audience is multicultural. For example, a thumbs-up sign that’s friendly in most places might be offensive elsewhere.
From mastering your micro-expressions to painting with your hands, we’ve covered six powerful body language tips to take your presentations to the next level in 2024.
You can think of using effective body language as adding spice to your words. A sprinkle of confidence, a dash of eye contact, a pinch of dynamic movement – they all blend to create a presentation that’s not just informative but truly unforgettable. But most importantly, don’t forget to have fun when you present to an audience! When you’re enjoying yourself, it shows in your performance.
I hope you’ll try out some of these tips in your next talk or presentation; do let me know how it fares for you. If you need my help to master your presentation skills in 2024, let’s talk!