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Ace Your Public Speaking: Top Tips for Improving Your Body Language

[Public Speaking Part 1 of 2]

The secret to effective public speaking isn’t perfection. If you watch the top 25 Ted Talks, you’ll notice that open, enthusiastic, confident speakers with well-ordered content are vastly appealing, even when they occasionally bobble a phrase, flail a gesture, or stumble on a line. This is good news!

You don’t have to be perfect to be an outstanding public speaker.

However, there are a few tricks that people find compelling in a speaker, and these tips will help you to quickly up your game.

public speaking tips to help you kill on the stage

In the last blog on public speaking, we mentioned the fact that effective public speaking has to appeal to all three parts of the brain: the rational neo cortex, the emotional limbic brain, and the survival-instinct hind brain. For this week, we’re going to drill down a bit further on the concept of body language. Strong body language is critical, because it is interpreted by the hind brain, which is the fastest part of the brain. Before people react to your ideas, their first instinctive reaction will be to your body language.

And we all know that shorter guys can be at a disadvantage for first impressions, but if you bring a lot of positive energy to your body language, people will respond to that intuitively.

Tip 1: Relax Your Body and Vocal Cords

When your body is stressed out, your brain releases “fight or flight” hormones, because it doesn’t do a good job of distinguishing between physical threats and more abstract stressors. So, even when it would be really inappropriate to throw a punch or sprint for the hills, your muscles prime themselves for serious action. And all of that chemistry needs to go somewhere. If you don’t shake it out, burn it off, or stretch it out, your posture will be stiff, and your voice (which is controlled by subtle muscles in your throat) will be more likely to squeak or stutter. Before you walk into the room, do a few quick wall push-ups, take a few deep breaths, and hum a bit to relax your muscles. If you can dissipate the stress chemistry, your stride and posture will naturally open up.

relax and stretch before public speaking

Tip 2: Adopt a Confident Posture

This happens naturally when you think about a personal success, but you can also adopt the posture consciously. Straighten your spine and pull your shoulders back. Keep your chin up and your hands loose at your sides. The more open and relaxed your posture, the more inviting you will be.

open and relaxed body language creates an inviting public speaking situation

Tip 3: Smile

Newborn infants are primed to respond to adult faces, and a smile is one of the first expressions that children learn to mimic. When someone smiles at you, the impulse to return the smile is deeply instinctive. If you can smile directly at your audience for more than three seconds, your audience will want to smile back at you. And a long, slow smile can buy you time to gather your thoughts before you speak. (Having said that, a real smile will wrinkle the corners of your eyes. If you’re only smiling with your mouth, the audience won’t respond as strongly.)

smiling while public speaking helps to create an inviting atmosphere

Tip 4: Head Tilt

You want to use this trick if you’re trying to charm the audience and make them feel comfortable. Tipping your head slightly to the side (about 15 or 20 degrees) is an intuitive gesture that people are most likely to make when they’re speaking to children, but it works on adults as well. Basically, it exposes your jugular, which (in body language terms) means that you don’t perceive the person you’re addressing as a threat, and that you are not threatening to them. People interpret this as a friendly or receptive gesture. (Note: it’s great for diffusing tension, but it won’t be a go-to maneuver if you’re trying specifically to exert your authority. If you want to prove that you’re the boss, keep your back straight, your chin up, and your head slightly forward.)

head and posture help with public speaking

Tip 5: Gesture Palm Up

When you gesture with your palms up, you are inviting the audience to collaborate with you. A study done by Alan and Barbara Pease discovered that when a speaker gestured palm-up, the audience was far more likely to rate the speaker as likeable, agree to act on the speaker’s suggestions, and clearly remember details from the presentation’s content.

palms up and open help to create an inviting public speaking scenario

Tip 6: Make Eye Contact

Over the course of your talk, you should try to make eye contact with a variety of different audience members. It actually doesn’t matter who you’re making eye contact with, exactly, but the audience will respond much more strongly to a speaker who is looking directly at a person (any person), than to a speaker who consistently addresses the wall or the ceiling. It will feel natural if you switch eye contact every time you move to a new thought.

Tip 7: Stay Engaged with the Audience

That first smile will start to build a connection with the audience, but it will be up to you to maintain it. The good news is that once the audience starts to respond positively to you, you will also instinctively respond more positively to them—creating a feedback loop of energy and attention that you share with the audience.

stay engaged with your audience while public speaking

Short guys who change the world are famous for having huge personal presence, and that comes from a strong projection of self-confidence. But the best part is that if you train your body to project self-confidence, that strong body language will reinforce your positive brain chemistry. And let’s face it—once you learn to own the room, effective public speaking can be an incredible experience.

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