Bad Body Language (and How to Improve It)

Actions speak louder than words. We hear that all the time, and it is especially true when speaking in front of an audience. It’s the pinnacle of sadness when a presenter goes through all the hard work of developing a visually pleasing deck, practicing the presentation and creating really insightful content, and then loses the audience to some physical awkwardness once it’s go-time.

Body language doesn’t have to be perfect to be effective (or, at minimum, to not detract from the presentation). In fact, many presenters are often able to incorporate body language into their on-stage “style”, taking comfortable behavioral quirks with them before the audience. It’s not that the audience is always looking for a professional presenter; they’re really just looking for authenticity. So how can you take your body language and make it natural in what, we have to acknowledge, may not be a real natural setting? Here are some tips:

1. Get a job for your hands: The #1 tendency for the unseasoned presenter is weird, distracting hand motions. Often, it’s because you’re trying to simultaneously think and remember at the same time, and our bodies are natural projectors of our mental state. Knuckle-popping, hand-wringing, fidgeting and sliding hands in and out of pockets are just a few of the many contortions we see on a regular basis.

Instead, try giving them a job. Have a whiteboard or flip-chart handy for writing down audience feedback or ideas or questions—in the meantime, your hand is holding a marker. Use a clicker for the slide deck whether you need it or not. Purposefully plan to point at sections of the slides, not because the audience can’t see but because you need something for your hands to do. Whatever the case, give ’em a job and you’ll cut down on wasteful gestures.

2. Plan your emphasis points: You need to give your mind a chance to chill every couple of minutes; otherwise, you risk going from presenter to droid recording. Pick spots throughout the deck that lend themselves to a moment of silence or some controlled audience questioning. You’ll feel a wave of relaxation hit you as your mind catches up with your presentation and that, in turn, will help your body language appear more natural.

3. Chart a course: Standing still behind a podium is fine for 4-H speeches, but it’s sort of weird for a presenter to clasp to the podium like the mast of a sinking ship. At the same time, pacing is pretty strange, too. Pick a spot on the stage where you’ll go every time you’re going to engage the audience. Pick a different spot near the projection screen where you’ll go to point things out on the slide. Then, use the podium as an anchoring point for times when you need to reel things back in and be the focus of their eyes again.

These three tips aren’t the only things you need to do to be great in front of the audience, but they help people with the three most common pitfalls for body language: hands, getting too far ahead of your brain, and knowing where to stand. You can make these adjustments right away for your next presentation, and once you’ve got them down we can talk about eye contact, how to point, and all the many other subtleties of good (and bad) body language.

Question: What do you do to relax your body and appear natural on stage?

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