Body Language Tips for Your Next Presentation

By Carol Kinsey Goman Ph.D.

Getting ready to go onstage?

There are two sets of nonverbal cues that audiences instinctively look for in presenters: Warmth and Authority. Speakers who send both signals have the most impact.

When you smile, make positive eye contact, and keep your body relaxed and your gestures open, you send warm signals of likeability, empathy, candor, and connection.

Authority cues show that you have the confidence and credibility people look for in a leader. Nonverbally, authority is most powerfully displayed by taking up room in height and space. That’s why being tall is an advantage. But even if you are petite, standing tall with great posture will send a similar message.

Here are six body language tips for displaying warmth and authority on stage:

  1. Manage your stress level

While you are waiting backstage, notice the tension in your body. Realize that some nervous energy is a good thing – it’s what makes your presentation lively and interesting, but too much stress results in nonverbal behaviors that work against you.

Before you go on stage, stand or sit with your weight “centered” – evenly distributed on both feet or sit bones. Look straight ahead with your chin level to the floor and relax your throat. Take several deep “belly” breaths. Count slowly to six as you inhale and increase the tension in your body by making fists and tensing the muscles in your arms torso and legs. As you exhale, allow your hands, arms and shoulders to release and relax.

  1. Make a confident entrance

Staying relaxed, walk out on stage with good posture, head held high, and a steady, smooth gait. When you arrive at center stage, stop, smile, raise your eyebrows and slightly widen your eyes while you look around the room. Don’t block your body; rather, move your arms away from your sides so that your hand gestures are open and engaging. A relaxed, open face and body tells your audience that you’re confident and comfortable with the information you’re delivering. Since audience members will be mirroring any tension you display, your state of comfort will also relax and reassure them. (This may sound like common sense, but I once worked with a manager who walked onstage with hunched shoulders, a furrowed brow and squinted eyes. I watched the audience squirm in response. It was an unsettling way to begin a “let’s get together and support each other” speech.)

  1. Maintain eye contact

Maintain steady eye contact with the audience throughout the talk. If you don’t, you will quickly signal that you don’t want to be there, that you aren’t really committed to your message, or that you have something to hide.

While it is physically impossible to maintain eye contact with the entire audience all the time, you can look at specific individuals or small groups, hold their attention briefly, and then move to another group or individual in another part of the room.

  1. Ditch the lectern

Get out from behind the lectern. A lectern not only covers up the majority of your body, it also acts as a barrier between you and the audience. Practice the presentation so well that you don’t need to read from a script. If you use notes, request a video prompter (or two) at the foot of the stage.

  1. Move

Human beings (males, most especially) are drawn to movement. Movement keeps an audience from becoming bored. It can be very effective to move toward the audience before making an important point, and away when you want to signal a break or a change of subject. But don’t move when you are making your key points. Instead, stop, widen your stance, and deliver the message.

  1. Read the audience’s body language

Pay attention to reactions from the audience. Are people engaged (as indicated by their smiles, nods, forward leans) or are they slumped, down in their chairs, avoiding eye contact, and leaning away from you? If you see their interest flagging, do something unexpected: Pause abruptly, change your voice volume or tempo, ask a question or involve the audience in an exercise.

  1. Keep sending warmth and authority signals while answering questions

Whenever you are answering a question from the audience, especially if it is a difficult or challenging one, remember to turn toward the questioner, maintain eye contact, lean forward slightly, keep your body and your gestures open, and pause (taking a deep breath) before responding.

As an international keynote speaker, I know the importance of well-written talking points, engaging stories, and self-deprecating humor. But I also know that body language can support or weaken a great speech. Use these tips the next time you go on stage and see for yourself the added impact they can give you.

Let us know your thoughts or experiences on this topic in the comments below!