You are talking but what is your body saying?

Appropriate and effective body language can enhance the meaning, impact and message of your speech, says Jane Cameron

If you’re giving a speech, you’ve probably thought carefully about the words – but have you thought about your body language?  

Unless your body language is aligned with your vocal language you are missing the opportunity to deliver the full impact of your message, and you risk creating elements of confusion among the audience.

Here’s some advice to ensure your body is saying the right things:

Are you ready? 

As you walk towards the speaking area, walk tall and with positive enthusiasm. Ensure any speech material or technology is prepared and set-up in advance. Take a few seconds to pause before you start speaking. Look round at the audience to establish eye contact and to engage with them; smile and/or give a slight nod to acknowledge the audience….and then begin!

Your centred speaking posture

You will appear and feel more confident when you stand tall with shoulders back, chest open, head up and arms straight, slightly out from your sides with palms open to the front. This posture helps open the lungs and diaphragm, allowing your breath to flow easily, your balance is stable, your voice is projected forward and you are displaying ‘open’ confidence to the audience. A natural smile will help relax you and engender empathy with the audience.

Move with purpose

Natural and confident movement will help dissipate nervous energy, add impact and variety to your message and can improve engagement with the audience. Identify your central ‘home-base’ on stage from which you can start, finish and return at various stages; a step towards the audience can make a point and a step back gives them a moment to consider an issue; use the left and right side to make alternate points. 

Stillness can also be a very effective communication tool; it can be a sign-post an important point or a transition, it can provide a literal pause and it can add variety to the overall speech delivery.   

Hand and body gestures

Gestures can aid the structure of a talk; e.g. a forward arm or hand gesture can indicate a new point and when repeated it can help introduce a list of upcoming points. A definite, firm gesture can emphasise a key message; a backward arm or hand gesture can aid your reference to a previous point.

Gestures can also enhance the content and delivery i.e. descriptive gestures can add depth to anecdotes or explanations and can emphasise the portrayal of emotion and sentiment.

Be aware of body movements which reveal anxiety e.g. clutching a pen, repeated hand clasping or lack of eye-contact. These can distract the audience and detract from your message.

Express yourself

A smile will provide a warm connection with the audience. Eye-contact establishes rapport, it engages the audience and portrays confidence. Raised eye-brows can communicate surprise, disbelief or questioning. A knowing side-ways look with wide eyes or even a nod and a wink towards the audience can elicit a significant meaning. Facial expressions can say a lot so use them meaningfully.

Putting it all together

The key to the effective use of gestures is to ensure they are appropriate to the content and context of your talk and to match your personality and your message. Fake, over-done or unnatural movements could compromise your sincerity and lessen the impact of your message; they could also make you feel distracted and uncomfortable and therefore defeat their intended purpose.

When preparing the content of your talk, consider key points where you could add an appropriate gesture or expression and where you can bring your vocal language and body language together to ensure optimum impact. 

When rehearsing your talk, practise different gestures and expressions to match and enhance your vocal variety and explore which feel most natural, comfortable and confident. Remember to check the size of the audience and the room as you might need to enhance some gestures or make them smaller. 

In summary, appropriate and effective body language can enhance the meaning, impact and message of your speech and it can help portray you as a confident and effective speaker. Consciously consider the different elements of body language and incorporate these into your speech. Remember – your body speaks so make sure it is communicating the right message!   


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