Why is it that when we stand up in front of a group of people, we forget how to do things we mastered as toddlers? Talking at an appropriate volume. Looking at things with genuine interest. Using our arms and hands to gesture. Walking. Even standing! Suddenly, these sorts of basic practices become mysteries.
One reason for this short-circuiting is that we become hyper-aware of ourselves. This hyper-awareness spikes our adrenaline and triggers the fight or flight response. Our body feels under threat. So, we go into survival mode, which means . . .
We might hold extremely still to avoid attracting attention.
We might move around a lot, frantic to escape the situation.
We might protect ourselves by using our arms and hands to cover our vital areas: folding our arms in front of our abdomen, clasping our hands in front of our groins in the “fig leaf” pose, holding our hands together below our chins and in front of our chests.
Or, we might self-soothe by unconsciously swaying from side to side, or crossing our legs, or putting our hands in our pockets, or tinkering with our hair or jewelry or notes or dry erase markers, whatever we have in our hands.
And since we cannot just command ourselves to feel comfortable, we have to learn how to look like we feel comfortable. No problem.
There are ways to help yourself feel a little more comfortable when speaking to a group. I discuss some of these methods in other blogs, but they never solve the problem completely. More importantly, comfort should never be your primary goal. I’ve mentioned this point before but it bears repeating: performance should be your goal.
Here are three methods for projecting comfort and confidence with your body, starting with your feet and moving up to your hands.
How to Stand
I call it the speaker’s “first position.” Just as ballet dancers have a starting position from which they begin the training process, speakers should have a neutral, beginning stance.
This stance is designed to project symmetry, composure, and openness. It is created by:
- Standing with the feet about hip-width distance apart, with your weight balanced evenly
- Maintaining a confident, unexaggerated posture
- Letting the hands rest easily at your sides, not covering your body in any way
- Maintaining eye contact with audience members
Take a look at people who pay lots of money to professionals to advise them on how to stand:
And yet, you do not need to be a rich, powerful, male politician to show confidence this way:
When we cross our arms in front of us, or when we stand in a way that is lopsided, we come off as unstable or nervous. Humans trust symmetry, because symmetry projects confidence. Anyone of any size can achieve the benefits of this principle.
Do not stand like this for the whole presentation though. You should move and gesture plenty. This stance is simply your default stance for when you are not using your feet and arms.
How to Walk
Since confidence is your goal, do not saunter, wander, meander, ramble, sashay, or, above all, mosey. Walk easily but with purpose, a strict minimum of two steps while you maintain eye contact and continue speaking.
When should you move? You can move at any point, but a good rule of thumb is to move when there is a transition in your content. For example, imagine moving as you use a transition sentence, such as:
“Now that we have discussed the potential costs associated with entering these new markets, let’s weigh the potential benefits.”
Moving purposefully at a transition point like this will reinforce the structure of your presentation. If you are in a space that does not allow for walking around, that’s OK. Shift your body by re-squaring your shoulders to another side of the room.
How to Gesture
Just as too much chaotic movement with the legs and feet sends the wrong message to the audience, so does too much movement with the arms and hands. Continuous and directionless gesturing is like a run-on sentence of the body.
Here are the three guidelines for effective gestures:
- Gesture above the waist.
- Unstick the elbows from the body.
- Keep palms open.
Watch carefully when presenters gesture. Do they gesture below the waist? Are their arms or hands still grazing their sides when gesturing? Are their elbows locked against their sides, creating a T-Rex effect when gesturing? If so, note the way these gestures seem timid and unintentional.
Gestures above the waist that move outward from the body appear more purposeful and confident. Watch most TED talks. It’s clear they’ve had some coaching on how to gesture:
The visible, open palm is believed to be an ancient symbol of trust. Confident speakers do not hide their hands in pockets, behind backs, under tables, or anywhere else; and they do not clasp their hands in front of themselves.
Hiding the hands in any way is a signal of distrust. This is why dog trainers approach animals with open palms and law enforcement wants you to “show your hands.” Hiding the hands or using the hands to hide the body is a signal of insecurity. Oh, and relatedly, pointing is generally a bad idea.
You can use these principles in almost any context, from small sit down meetings . . .
. . . to major speeches:
Not only will you send the right message to your audience with these habits, you will also send the right message to yourself. When you keep your body open and confident, even if you do not feel open and confident. You send a signal to your brain that you are unafraid, and you are more likely to convince yourself that you got this.
Ben Crosby is a professor of rhetoric and a communication skills consultant. He teaches courses in public speaking and presenting, argumentation and debate, technical and professional communication, persuasion and selling, and the history of rhetoric.
His work is regularly published in his field’s top academic journals and conferences. He is also the author of Presentations as Performance: A Professional’s Guide to Better Speaking.
Ben’s areas of expertise are Public Speaking, Presentation Skills, Argumentation, Sales Training, and Professional Writing.
In his free time, he spends time with his wife, Rebecca, their four kids, and their cat, Arza. He is an avid Utah Jazz fan.