Ultimate Guide to Body Language 1

Believe it or not, more than fifty percent of everyday communication takes place nonverbally. You are constantly sending nonverbal messages. When you speak in public, your listeners judge you based on what they see, as well as what they hear.

Communication is Not Just Verbal You Know!

The aim of this blog series is to help you learn to use your entire body as an instrument of speech. As you read on, you’ll learn how nonverbal messages affect an audience and how to make your body speak as eloquently as your words. Part 1 covers the following topics: energy, posture and gestures.

But before we jump into the details let’s first consider what is actually meant by body language.

What Is Body Language?

Body language is the non-verbal movement you make when you communicate, from waving your hands to involuntary making facial expressions. It’s important to know that all of the physical body movements you convey are subconsciously interpreted by your audience. This can work for or against you depending on the kind of body language used.

Body Language

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Actions married to words will strengthen the impact of your speech. This should be your simple aim when speaking. To become an effective speaker, you must understand how your body speaks.

Dr. Ralph C. Smedley, the founder of Toastmasters International, once wrote:

The speaker who stands and talks at ease is the one who can be heard without weariness. If his posture and gestures are so graceful and unobtrusive that no one notices them, he may be counted truly successful.

1) Energy

The first topic on body language is definitely one of the most important. As a speaker you have a responsibility to project energy and enthusiasm for your topic.

3 simple ways to inject energy as a public speaker are volume, presence and passion.

  • Volume: If you remember nothing else about projecting energy, remember this: volume, volume, volume! Adding a little extra volume to the room (by using a microphone for example) will add energy to any performance
  • Presence: You must be sure to devote your full attention to being there in the moment. If you’re distracted, others will recognise it before you do. So be present!
  • Passion: If you’re not excited about what you’re saying, how do you expect others to be? It’s important to stay connected to your material. You need to experience the things you’re saying as you say them, to encourage your audience to do the same

2) Posture

The position of your body when presenting communicates its own special message to the audience. More than anything, it reflects your attitude, telling your listeners whether or not you’re confident and alert, and in command of the presentation. It also helps you to breathe properly, project your voice and decrease nervous tension in the body.

Body Language

Here’s a how to guide from Toastmasters official

  1. Stand straight but not rigid, with your feet about six to 12 inches apart
  2. Balance your weight evenly on the balls of your feet
  3. Lean forward just a little. Your knees should be straight but not locked
  4. Relax your shoulders, but don’t let them droop
  5. Keep your chest up and your stomach in
  6. Your head should be erect and your chin up
  7. Let your arms hang naturally at your sides

Try those 7 steps right now! Do you feel comfortable?

When speaking at a lectern (typical politician’s pose), there are at least two options. You could simply rest your hands comfortably on top of the lectern, or else avoid physical contact with the lectern completely, by moving back a couple of inches and keeping your hands nested at navel-level. It’s all about choosing what’s most comfortable for you.

3) Gestures

Again turning to Toastmasters, here is the definition used:

A gesture is a specific bodily movement that reinforces a verbal message or conveys a particular thought or emotion.

There are many variations – gestures can be made with the head, shoulders, legs, feet, hands or arms. The use of gestures as a communications tool also varies extensively in different cultures.

Gestures Around The World

In some cultures, such as those of Southern Europe and the Middle East, people use their hands freely and expressively when they speak. In other parts of the world, people use gestures more sparingly.

The perceived meanings of gestures also differ around the world. For example, nodding one’s head up and down signifies agreement in Western cultures – but in some parts of India it means the exact opposite!

Why Gesture?

All good speakers apply gestures. Why should you?

  • To add clarity to your message and support your words
  • To strengthen the audience’s understanding of your verbal message
  • To convey your feelings and attitudes more clearly
  • To help dissipate nervous tension and allow you to relax
  • To stimulate audience participation and get them engaged
Types of Gestures

Below is a list of the main types and some simple ways to apply them.

  1. Descriptive gestures describe something or a situation. Example: drawing a comparison between something that’s big and something that’s small
  2. Emphatic gestures convey emotion. Example: putting your fists together and making an angry face
  3. Suggestive gestures depict mood. Example: stretching out your arms and saying “I welcome you with open arms”
  4. Prompting gestures prompt the audience to do something. Example: raising your hand as saying “raise your hand if you want to be a millionaire”

Body Language

Making Gestures Matter

Gestures reflect a speaker’s personality. What works for one speaker won’t necessarily work for another.

But no matter what your personality may be, every one of us has a natural impulse to punctuate and strengthen our words with gestures. The trick is to be genuinely and spontaneously yourself when you gesture. If you impose artificial gestures onto your style, the audience will sense it and turn off.

Some people are naturally animated, while others are naturally reserved. If you naturally use your hands freely when you converse informally, use them freely when you give a speech. If you’re by nature a reserved, low-key person, don’t change your personality just to suit public speaking situations

Here are three rules to follow when gesturing:

1) Suit the Action to the Occasion

Your visual messages must match your verbal messages when communicating the same thought or feeling. If you fail to match gestures with words, you will appear strained and artificial. To be effective every gesture you make must be reflective of your words. In this way your audience will note the effect rather than the gesture.

You must also make sure that your gestures fit the size and nature of your audience. A large audience usually requires broader, slower gestures. For smaller crowds, the opposite is true.

2) Deliver the Gesture on Time

A gesture’s timing is hugely important. The gesture must occur on the correct word – not before or after it. The most effective gestures are controlled.

Instead of keeping your hands in constant motion, you should aim to hold your gestures for just a second or two.

3) Make the Gesture Convincing

A gesture performed half-heartedly suggests that the speaker lacks conviction. To be effective your gestures should be distinct and should never follow a set pattern. Well received gestures are vigorous enough to be convincing, yet slow enough and broad enough to be seen.

Now What?

This blog post was a gentle introduction to the hugely important concept of body language. You should now understand the elements required to deliver an energetic speech, demonstrate correct speaking posture and use gestures to enhance your presentation.

Part 2 considers the important role played by eye contact. Continue reading here.