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Powerful Presentation Body Language

As printed in Professional Speaker Magazine

‘‘The body says what words cannot.’’ Martha Graham

The New York Times   March 31, 1998

On his way to the first televised presidential debates, Richard Nixon bumped his knee severely while getting out of his car. Refusing stage make-up for his appearance and sweating profusely, he stood behind his podium favoring his injured leg, his body leaning to one side, making him appear crooked. These factors, in conjunction with his pain-filled face and his hands hidden behind the podium, made him appear dishonest to his television audience. According to the poll of the radio audience, who only heard him speak, Nixon won the debate by a landslide. In the poll of television viewers, Nixon lost by a landslide. John Kennedy won the presidency. If Nixon had known the significance of body language, he might have paid closer attention to the image he was projecting.

What makes body language so significant? What makes those thousands of cues that you give out every minute, so important? Well, while you are rapidly giving out these cues, your audience is subconsciously processing them. In other words, they just look at you and go with their gut. However well supported and prepared your speech content is, it is your nonverbal delivery that establishes your credibility for an audience.

And, most importantly, however you hold yourself, however you move through space, and however you gesture, your body sends messages back to your brain. So, if you are standing with your shoulders drooping and head bowed, the little pharmacy in your brain creates, and sends, negative chemicals into your bloodstream in less than a fortieth of a second - to make you feel the way you look.

The great news is, if you know what creates powerful body language messages, and you integrate that with an awareness of your own body language, you can feel as powerful as you wish to be.

What makes a speaker positively powerful? Attributes like full control of the space, relaxed body language, a posture that is open, and a strong, authentic presence. To begin feeling that power yourself, imagine a lion in the jungle. She establishes her space and territory; she’s queen of the jungle. She’s relaxed; she moves gracefully. If she met a mouse on her path, it’s the mouse who would be tense. Her posture is open; she stretches out her limbs. She’d never have to battle for an armrest on an airplane. She’s -authentic; she carries her confidence and stability with her. She’s herself. She’s not a zebra, though she may study zebras to be a better hunter.

Hold on to that image of the lion as you begin to become aware of your presentation body language. First, start with your feet, those little doo-dads on the floor—the part of the body, normally, under your least conscious control:

× Notice how far apart your feet are, in a normal stance.

× Move your feet one inch further apart to create a lion-like stability and presence. Feel the difference.

× Let your weight shift back so you are aware of your heels, and feel your feet connect to the floor.

It’s surprising how years of pushing a gas pedal, or sitting on a wallet, can lengthen one leg, making us put our hip out to the side, rock back on our heels, or teeter back and forth. Remember the image of the ‘‘crooked’’ Richard Nixon? To make sure you are ‘‘on the level,’’

× Keep your weight evenly distributed on both feet.

× Walk around the room like a lion. Notice how your body feels, how your legs move, how your arms swing. Do your legs and pelvis lead, as they should?

× Take long purposeful strides and allow your arms to freely swing.

× Women, in particular, may want to remember to walk with their feet that extra inch apart, and slightly move the elbows away from the body.

Space and Territory: Next, let’s focus on expanding and using space. Imagine yourself in a conference room or banquet hall. Survey your jungle. The whole room is yours. Take control of it by:

× Ditching the podium. Lions don’t stand behind them. Podiums are poison!

× Tape off the back rows, or take out extra chairs. An audience that is close together creates great jungle fever.

Movement through Space: Your motion is like music. Move quickly—it stirs up the audience. Move slowly—you can keep them entranced. Show your power and control of the space as you move through it.

Get wild, run up and down the aisles, stand on tables and chairs, move furniture. Talk to the people in the back of the room. You want to connect with even the quiet group sitting on the back row of the jungle. Use your space to create transitional separations in your speech:

× Speak on your first point, and pause. Move, then address your second point.

× Speak formally from far away. Silently come forward to get more intimate when giving your personal opinions.

× Make positive points from one side of the room; negative ones from the other.

× Use the walls of the room to make points. Point one - front wall; point two - left wall, etc.

Posture: Now, move your awareness from space and territory in order to focus on your posture. Is there a little voice inside your head that sounds a lot like your mother or father, saying, "Stand up straight.''? Use it to remind you of the importance of good posture. When we are fearful or stressed, our shoulders tend to draw up towards our ears, and our backs arch slightly. Instead of being powerful and open, we may hunch forward so our shoulders curve in, protecting the heart. If we continue to do this, the muscles across the chest will shorten and grow tight, and it will become difficult to take full complete breaths, so we won't exactly be relaxed lions. Deep breaths are crucial to relaxation. Since I have a double curvature in my spine, and standing up straight is not easy for me, I have developed some tricks I use for better posture:

× Square your shoulders and let them relax. Squared shoulders communicate power and stability—here is someone who can shoulder any burden. I use shoulder pads in all my ``speaking'' suits.

× Every day, practice "rowing the boat," pulling the double oars forward and back, all the way with each stroke, to stretch and strengthen neck and shoulder muscles.

× Each morning, stand with your head and shoulders against the wall, to make sure your body is straight and tall. Carry that posture with you all day.

× As you speak, imagine wearing a royal cape to build your confidence.

× Take up Tai Chi, racewalking, massage, or movement therapies like Feldenkrais or the Alexander Technique.

Gestures: Now, how about your hands and arms? My most frequently asked question in my Public Speaking Workshop is "What do I do with my hands?'' Well, the answer is, "Do something!''— because animated gestures help audiences understand and retain more information by creating visual images that appeal to the right side of the brain. They also enable you, as the speaker, to think on your feet, by creating more chemical linkages in the brain, so that information becomes more easily accessed.

Like all body language, the gestures you use can quickly change the way you feel. Now, here are some answers for what to do with your hands:

× Keep your hands in view, rather than behind your back or in your pockets. Lions don’t hide their paws, and you don’t want your audience wondering what you’re hiding. When I trained law enforcement officers on interrogation, I taught that one of the key places to look for deception is the palms of the hands. It is very difficult to lie with the palms of your hands exposed.

× Take all change and foreign objects out of your pockets, so you don’t sound like Santa’s sleigh. If you must put one hand in a pocket, one stress-busting trick is to leave a nickel to squeeze.

× Let your gestures flow naturally. They are a reflection of your authentic presence; your personality flowing out, having impact like waves on the shore.

× Turn up the volume on your gestures. Practice being more animated, more expansive, more powerful. I’m only five feet tall, yet over the years, most of my audiences are surprised when they approach me after a session, and discover than I’m a munchkin. That’s because I have Queen of the Jungle body language.

× When making points, using your fingers to count, hold your spread-out hand high, so the audience will know that you are counting for them.

× Be aware of distracting hand motions— rubbing an earring or your mustache, clicking the top of your magic marker, twisting your hands, pushing back your hair. Lions don't fidget. We often use these gestures while under stress, touching ourselves for reassurance. Watch yourself on videotape, or have someone monitor you— even if you've been speaking for years.

× Diversify your gestures. I've never coached anyone who gestures too much, but I've often seen people do one particular motion too much.

× Use your arms and hands! They project out from your heart and express emotion more powerfully than any other part of the body.

Eye Contact: Finally, I want to end by talking about the eyes. Eyes were designed to go towards movement, so we could spy moving game and catch our supper. Now, as speakers, it is obvious, yet so vital, to make eye contact with our audience (often after supper). Maintaining eye contact with an audience is proven to make the speaker appear more skilled, experienced, and powerful, and the people we look at are more likely to remember what we've said. Since we take in 80% of our information via the eyes, monitoring the audience throughout a presentation is critical. It allows us to be authentic; truly ourselves instead of actors on a stage. The primary function of eye contact is to establish relationships. Each person in the audience, with whom eye contact is established, will feel connected to, even befriended by you, the presenter, and that energy will give you even more confidence.

× In a small audience, be sure to include as many individuals as you can, even those who aren't smiling and nodding their heads in agreement.

× For a larger audience, make and hold eye contact with various sections of the room.

× Look for everyone with BIG hair, then everyone wearing red, then in the middle section. See everyone smiling.

× In all instances, give the most contact to the person or section who needs it— someone who may be drifting away, or talking with a neighbor.

× Lion-like, steady eyes aid in processing information from our memory. Slowed blinking helps our overall thinking by giving us time to scan our brain for mental pictures, and respond to an audience. Integrate all this Lion Power knowledge with your body language and feel the magic.

Years ago, after a long month on the road, I was presenting to an after-dinner group. I was really beat. The audience was well-fed with steak, potatoes, and mixed drinks. I was definitely in the jungle, but I didn't feel like a lion. I was even having trouble remembering what I was going to say next. I focused and imagined myself standing tall and moving like a lion. I relaxed my shoulders. I began to speak, using expansive gestures. I walked down the center aisle, making eye contact as I moved. My words began to flow more easily. The audience laughed. Gee, I was even funny. I smiled. What a great audience! I was back to my powerful self, and roaring like a lion.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Patti Wood MA, CSP is a Professional Speaker and a Communication and Body Language expert based in Atlanta, GA. Patti's clients include Fortune 500 companies, government agencies and associations, and she has written seven books. Patti is currently finishing her newest book People Savvy. To learn more go to the People Savvy Web site www.pattiwood.net

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