Editor's note: This is the second installment in a three-part series that looks at powerful presentations and effective communication.
There is a plethora of advice out there about the correct body language to use for presentations. But have you ever noticed that most of that advice includes the word “don’t”?
When I searched “body language advice” on the Internet, the top hit was an article titled “18 Ways to Improve Your Body Language.” Seven of the 18 ways to improve body language in a wide range of situations from presentations to job interviews had the word don’t in the title.
According to this advice, when talking to someone else, don’t:
- Cross your arms or legs.
- Be afraid to take up some space.
- Touch your face.
- Stand too close to the person you’re talking to.
Of the remaining 11 ways to improve your body language, eight include the word don’t in the description. For example, you should “use your hands more confidently,” but “don’t use them too much.”
Which brings us to the body language advice you should ignore no matter what type of presentation you are giving: any advice that begins with—or includes—the word don’t.
Do be yourself
Instead of focusing energy on all the things we shouldn’t do with our body language, wouldn’t it be better to focus on what we should? For presentations, the key to successful body language is summed up in two words: Be yourself.
Whenever we deliver any kind of presentation, whether it’s one-on-one or to groups, we need to achieve two goals. First, we need to convey a message. Second, we need to convey our personality—who we are as individuals and why we can be trusted.
If Marshall McLuhan was right and “the medium is the message,” in any form of oral communication, the speaker’s personality is the medium through which the message must travel to be believed, received, understood and acted upon by the audience. This applies whether we’re expressing our ideas in a speech, presentation or one-on-one exchange.
Each of us conveys our message and personality every day during relaxed conversation. By extension, therefore, relaxed conversation is our best possible communication style.
With that in mind, body language advice becomes relatively simple: Be yourself. And the science even supports this view.
The work of psycholinguists
Psycholinguists are psychologists who study the psychological and neurobiological factors that enable humans to acquire, use and understand language.
Professor David McNeill of the University of Chicago has been studying non-verbal communication for more than 30 years. In his studies, he has concluded that people communicate best when they make unconscious and spontaneous gestures.
The key words here are unconscious and spontaneous. If you clasp your hands behind your back because you simply have no idea of what else to do with them (often because of how many times you’ve heard or read the word don’t), you are being neither unconscious nor spontaneous.
Most of all, you’re not being yourself. If you’re not being yourself, you are not conveying your personality. If you don’t convey your personality, the audience will be skeptical of your message.
If you gesture while talking on the telephone (and virtually all of us do), use those gestures during interactions with individuals and groups, regardless of whether it’s for formal or informal circumstances. Focus on communicating effectively, and let your natural, spontaneous, unconscious gestures take care of themselves.
A case in point
Consider the generally accepted taboo of “Don’t cross your arms” when giving a presentation (No. 1 on the list above).
Years ago, I conducted media training for an organization that was facing a potential strike. Prior to the media training portion of the agenda, the company’s director of human resources spent about 45 minutes talking to the group about what to expect at strike sites. She was an excellent communicator. She was completely focused on helping them understand what they would face.
Later, when we discussed body language in broadcast interviews, I crossed my arms and asked the group if what I was doing was appropriate. Everyone said, “No, it is inappropriate.” They told me that someone looks closed off when they do that.
I turned to the HR director and asked if she would ever stand in front of a group and present information with her arms crossed. She said she would not. I asked the group if she would ever do that, and the 20-plus people in the room all said that she was far too professional to ever cross her arms while standing in front of a group.
However, that was exactly what she did when she presented to this group. I was sitting at the back of the room, with my video camera on a tripod, so I recorded her with her arms crossed while listening and talking to the group. When I played back the video, everyone was surprised that they hadn’t noticed that her arms were crossed during the presentation.
The point I made to this group was that, because the HR director was communicating effectively and naturally as herself, they didn’t even take note of her body language. Crossing her arms was natural body language for her; and what’s natural for her may be unnatural for someone else, and vice versa. If she had been standing outside the room having a conversation with an individual from the group, her arms might have just as likely been crossed, but she’d be listening with the attentiveness that only human resources professionals can display.
Focus on communicating effectively
Research conducted by psycholinguists strongly suggests that attempting to control gestures increases cognitive load. In other words, when you spend time thinking about all the “don’ts” on your list, you take away from doing other things well, like communicating effectively with one person or many.
In any presentation, you must convey your personality. When you’re delivering an idea, we should see the same person talking to us, regardless of whether we’re the only one sitting across the boardroom table from you, or we’re with 30 of our peers watching you present.
Be yourself. Be on your best behavior, certainly, but be yourself.
If you focus on communicating effectively and you allow your natural body language and gestures to take care of themselves, your ability to influence others will be greatly increased.
The next article in this series will examine the importance of answering questions clearly, concisely and effectively during a presentation, and will introduce a simple metric of audience engagement.
Eric Bergman, ABC, APR, MC, has been a member of IABC for most of his 30-year career. He is a former president of IABC/Toronto and former chair of the IABC accreditation committee. His first book, Media Training with Excellence, was published by IABC. His latest book is 5 Steps to Conquer ‘Death by PowerPoint.’