Bad body language: five ways to ruin your presentation

Body language is usually the last thing anyone thinks about when preparing a presentation. They may design their slides with love and care, choose their words with precision and even practise out loud to get the volume, pace and intonation of their speech right. But they give no thought at all to how they are going to stand, move, gesture and use their eyes.

However, just as effective body language can support and reinforce the words being spoken, so inappropriate body language can undermine and obscure them. As the American essayist and Poet Ralph Waldo Emerson put it: ‘What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say’.

Here are the five commonest body language blunders I regularly encounter in my work as a communication skills coach.

  1. Defensive posture

An open body posture, with arms held loosely at elbow height, exposes you to your audience (not literally!) and encourages them to trust and hear you. A closed posture builds barriers that inhibit clear and honest communication. The main no-nos here are:

  • Arms held across the body, either in front or behind;
  • Hands stuffed in pockets;
  • Standing behind a lectern or table – and all-too-often clinging onto it for dear life!
  1. Weak stance

I used to write descriptive captions for keep-fit exercises, which normally started ‘Stand with feet hip-width apart and feel the ground beneath your feet’. I now give the same advice to the presenters I coach. This firm, powerful stance helps you feel in control and conveys confidence, authority and ease to your audience. If you start with a weak stance – feet too close together or weight unevenly distributed – you will inevitably start shuffling around and shifting from foot to foot, which makes you look (and feel) nervous and hesitant. Your audience will start worrying about you – and as soon as that happens they will stop listening.

  1. Inappropriate movement and gestures

Standing stock still throughout a presentation is never a good look. You need movement and gestures to punctuate and reinforce your content. But they need to be congruent with what you are saying. So, moving to another area to emphasise a break between topics is fine and helpful, but striding back and forth across the stage like a caged lion is distracting. Gestures that illustrate words – hands spread wide for ‘big’, brought close together for ‘small’, raised in the air for ‘up’ etc – are good; arms waving like demented windmills are not. And it’s always a good idea to avoid pointed fingers, which look aggressive and can be offensive in some cultures.

  1. Awkward relationship to the screen

You need to work out in advance where you are going to stand so that you can see the screen and gesture towards it without turning your back on the audience. There is usually a sweet spot in the room that allows you to do this. I always advise presenters to get to the venue at least 45 minutes early, not just to check that all the technical stuff is working but to identify the sweet spot for presenting. Sometimes the organisers will have placed you somewhere difficult – directly in front of the screen, for example, or immediately beside it. Or they may have put you to the right of the screen, which inhibits your natural tendency to point to the screen with your right hand (or vice versa). You then have time to change things round.

You might think this doesn’t matter if you are presenting from a laptop because you can simply look at the laptop rather than the screen, but actually staring at the laptop is another way of shutting yourself off from your audience: far better to gesture inclusively towards the screen.

  1. Little or no eye contact

I am very short-sighted, and when I was a youngster doing amateur dramatics I used to leave off my spectacles during performances, not out of vanity but because I thought it would put me off if I could see the audience. The same self-consciousness afflicts many of the presenters I work with. And, of course, the more text-heavy slides you have to read out – another presentation no-no – the easier it is to avoid eye contact altogether.

This is a big mistake: eye contact is what keeps your audience engaged, alert and attentive because you appear to be talking to them. As soon as you turn your back on your audience you give them permission to disengage from you.

Eye contact is a big subject, to which I will be returning in a future post. But for now just remember that if ‘eyes are the windows to your soul’ you need to look at your audience if you want to have credibility.

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