Focus on speaker attributes.

Share this

In addition to the preparation of the visual aids to be used in a presentation, it is equally important to pay attention to the presenter himself. In particular, we need to consider the non-verbal aspect of his performance: body language.

Body language “is the language of gestures and postures. Studies of body language analyze the emotions transmitted through movement, such as facial expressions and the movement of eyes, hands, legs, feet, and the whole body. These studies show us how the body language of a person can reveal to us his or her state of mind and intentions, and personality traits such as self-confidence, shyness, aggressiveness, greed, rivalry[i].”

In other words, when the presenter stands in front of an audience what he does not say sometimes speaks louder than his words. He expresses feelings and attitudes through the use of his eyes and facial expressions, the use of his arms and legs as well as his gestures, his posture and overall movement.  Each one individually, as well as in unison, can signal:

  • Repetition and/or Contradiction: they can emphasise or contradict the message the individual is trying to convey. For example, a smile or a frown stress specific emotions.
  • Substitution: they can function as a substitute for a verbal message. For example, a person’s eyes can often convey a far more vivid message than words, and often do.
  • Complementing: they may add implied meaning to a verbal message. For example, a pat on the back stresses praise expressed verbally.
  • Accenting: they may accent or underline a verbal message. For example, pounding the table with your fist or moving closer to the audience can underline a message.

These areas need to be investigated more closely.

Attention to Eye Contact.

The visual sense is dominant for most people. Consequently, eye contact is an important type of nonverbal communication. The way you look at someone can communicate many things, such as interest, respect, sincerity, affection, or attraction.

In particular, “the best public speakers sweep the audience with their eyes, making brief eye contact with as many responsive faces in the audience as possible[ii]”.

This eye contact should not last too long, because a member of the audience may feel singled out or embarrassed. Avoiding eye contact with the audience may signal that the presenter is uncomfortable with the group or with his role. Consider presenters who look at their notes or read from them, or stare beyond the audience.

Failing to establish a connection with individuals in the audience can hurt the presentation. “One study found that speakers who looked at the audience over 60 percent of the time were judged as basically sincere, while those who looked at the audience only 20 percent of the time were rated insincere[iii].”

Maintaining constant eye contact is neither necessary nor practical. In fact, when quoting or referring to statistics, it helps to read the information from the notes or presentation screen. This helps to focus the audience’s attention and to explain the information discussed.

In general, eye contact is important:

  • In maintaining the flow of conversation.
  • For gauging the other person’s response.
  • In demonstrating  self-assurance and honesty.

Attention to Facial Expressions.

With facial expressions we can convey a whole range of emotions, from the deepest to the most superficial. For instance, if something is bothering us, our annoyance is reflected in a hard or angry facial expression. On the contrary, happiness is expressed with a soft mobility of the facial muscles.

In particular, “The expression on a person’s face can make a significant difference to the meaning of a message. If we want to send a warm or positive message, we back it up with a friendly smile. If it is a serious message, we show a serious, solemn or cautious expression[iv]”.  For example, raising your eyebrows when you’re surprised and “making a face” when disgusted are common indicators of what you express verbally. In reverse, you can raise your eyebrows to indicate surprise or frown to indicate disgust.

There are eight basic emotions that the face can display: “happiness, surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt, and interest. Others add bewilderment and determination” [v]. We can use affect displays, that is, facial expressions supported by body postures, to manipulate, too; children will often cry not to express hurt, but simply to get attention.

As a rule of thumb, a presenter’s facial expressions should be non-threatening, and certainly not dominant or arrogant. Confidence should be shown, but there should be no hint of judgment.

Attention to Arms and Legs.

The way we position our arms and legs during a presentation largely depends on whether we are sitting or standing hidden behind a podium or in plain view. The more “exposed” we are or feel plays a significant role as to what we do with them.

However, “we need to consider the physiological condition of the person’s body before we read a meaning into the way a person crosses his/her arms and legs” [vi]. For instance, at the end of a long, tiring day we may lean on the table with both arms.

Nevertheless, there is a strong tendency to attribute a series of meanings to the way we position our arms and legs. Here is a list of possibilities:

  • Crossing your arms in front of you: negative, defensive or nervous attitude.
  • Leaning on the podium with both arms: dominant, self-assured attitude.
  • Placing your arms behind you: open-minded attitude, authority or power.
  • Placing your arms on your hips: aggressive attitude, annoyance or exasperation.
  • Crossing your legs when sitting: competitive attitude.
  • Crossing your legs while standing: submissive or defensive attitude, uncertainty.
  • Sitting with your legs wide apart: openness, dominance, acceptance.
  • Leaning on one leg: comfort or boredom, indifference.
  • Tapping your foot while standing: excitement or nervousness.

It is equally important to keep in mind that there are no hard and fast rules about how speakers position their arms and legs or what these positions really mean. Every positioning could be interpreted individually within the particular social, professional and, above all, the cultural context of both the speaker and the audience.

As a rule of thumb, try to position your arms and legs in as neutral and relaxed manner as possible. If you are doubtful as to what is culturally acceptable, observe your audience. Furthermore, avoid alternating between different positions too frequently. Focus on the ones that make you feel comfortable, those that do not distract the audience from the main aim of your presentation. Keep them in the same position as long as possible (this could mean a bit longer than average) before moving to another one.

Attention to Posture.

Posture is used here to refer to the positioning of the whole body whether standing or sitting down. It is differentiated from the positioning of arms and legs in the sense that it can be more difficult to control.

“Though some aspects of body language can be controlled, it’s likely that the attempt to suppress your unconscious body language will display itself in other ways. If you’re trying to suppress signals that you’re nervous, for example, that nervousness may show itself in your posture or gestures[vii] “.

There are different postures and meanings that people assign to them. Again, the physiological conditions of the individual should be taken into account. There are no hard and fast rules how to interpret them. Here is a list of possibilities:

  • A slumped posture: low spirits, fatigue or feeling inferior.
  • An erect posture: high spirits, confidence.
  • Leaning forward: open-mindedness, genuine interest.
  • Leaning away: disinterested or defensive attitude.
  • A rigid posture: defensive, aloof.
  • A relaxed posture: openness, eagerness.

As a rule of thumb, try to position your body in as neutral and relaxed manner as possible. Think of the message you want to convey. Furthermore, avoid alternating between different postures too frequently. Focus on the ones that make you feel comfortable, those that do not distract the audience from the main aim of your presentation, the content. Maintain the same one as long as possible (this could mean a bit longer than average) before moving to another one.

Attention to Gestures.

Gestures are defined as a motion of the hands, head, or body to emphasize an idea or emotion, especially while speaking. In a way, they bring together facial expressions, the positioning of arms and legs and posture.

“It is important to note that each gesture should always be interpreted in the particular context in which the person is. It can happen that the meaning is other than that mentioned here. All the body signals should be added to obtain a correct total if we are to interpret body language integrally [viii]”.

Small movements of the hands can be used to emphasize or punctuate ideas. “These are movements or actions that ‘illustrate’ a verbal message. You may mime hitting yourself on the head when you’ve made a mistake, wag your hand in the air to express uncertain or conflicted feelings, point forward when you say ‘Let’s go!’ or even draw an invisible picture in the air. We don’t plan to use them, we’re often not even aware that we’re using them[ix] ”.

They are by far classified as culture-specific and considered appropriate or acceptable in different social or professional contexts. For instance, a gesture that can be understood completely differently depending upon where you live is nodding the head. In most parts of the world, it is a positive or “yes” gesture. In Greece, it could mean “no” if the speaker moves his head upwards from the neutral position.  Other examples of involuntary communication are rubbing your hands together to express anticipation, drumming fingers to express impatience or putting a hand on your cheek when thinking deeply.

Attention to Movement.

During your presentation, your audience will be shifting their attention between yourself and your slides. It is important to facilitate them during these shifts by indicating quite clearly when you want them to pay attention to you and when you want them to pay attention to the slide.

Allow them to follow your movements around the room (along with your gestures) while they are focusing on you. Avoid moving while you are drawing their attention to the information on the slide.  After they have looked at the slide or perhaps after they have taken some notes, your audience should be able to see where you are easily and not try to locate you in the room.

This should not be understood as a rule to stand still. Move around as you progress through your presentation. Signal a change in topic with a change in location. Vary your distance, your posture and your gestures within limits. Overdoing it may have the opposite effects.

Remember: What the audience sees is what the audience understands.

If posture and movement of an individual are closely interdependent with his psychological state, would not stylized posture and gesture be relevant to a general psychological trend in their life?” [x]

In conclusion.

Some general guidelines[xi]:

  • Avoid blinking constantly; this betrays hesitation and insecurity.
  • Establish eye contact with other people; this reveals sincerity and decision.
  • Do not bite your lips; these are signs of shyness, insecurity, hesitation, and indecision.
  • Keep your mouth shut and lips together when you are listening to others; this shows that you are calm and self-confident.
  • Always keep an appropriate posture and avoid constant sudden movements; these denote discomfort, nervousness, fear, and lack of control.
  • Stay alert but inexpressive while others are talking to you. Make your opinion known at the right time, not before.
  • Control your hand movements; keep your hands visible.

[i] Retrieved from “Body Language”, http://www.bvsde.paho.org/tutorial6/i/pdf/topic_05.pdf, on December 17, 2012.

[ii] Body Language II: Reading People, The Teaching Guide, Learning Seed, 2008 Retrieved from http://www.learningseed.com/_guides/1219_body_language_ii_guide.pdf, on December 14, 2012.

[iii] Body Language II: Reading People, The Teaching Guide, Learning Seed, 2008 Retrieved from http://www.learningseed.com/_guides/1219_body_language_ii_guide.pdf, on December 14, 2012.

[iv] Retrieved from “Body Language”, http://www.bvsde.paho.org/tutorial6/i/pdf/topic_05.pdf, on December 17, 2012..

[v] Body Language II: Reading People, The Teaching Guide, Learning Seed, 2008 Retrieved from http://www.learningseed.com/_guides/1219_body_language_ii_guide.pdf, on December 14, 2012.

[vi] Retrieved from “Body Language”, http://www.bvsde.paho.org/tutorial6/i/pdf/topic_05.pdf, on December 17, 2012.

[vii] Body Language II: Reading People, The Teaching Guide, Learning Seed, 2008 Retrieved from http://www.learningseed.com/_guides/1219_body_language_ii_guide.pdf, on December 14, 2012.

[viii] Retrieved from “Body Language”, http://www.bvsde.paho.org/tutorial6/i/pdf/topic_05.pdf, on December 17, 2012.

[ix] Body Language II: Reading People, The Teaching Guide, Learning Seed, 2008 Retrieved from http://www.learningseed.com/_guides/1219_body_language_ii_guide.pdf, on December 14, 2012.

[x] The NONVERBAL DICTIONARY of GESTURES, SIGNS & BODY LANGUAGE CUES, David B. Givens, Spokane, Washington: Center for Nonverbal Studies Press, 2002.

[xi] Retrieved from “Body Language”, http://www.bvsde.paho.org/tutorial6/i/pdf/topic_05.pdf, on December 17, 2012.