You’re on message, but is your body language? I’m not a body language expert, but I have sat through enough presentations, coached enough nervous presenters and trained enough sales reps to know when body language works and when it doesn’t.

I’m a firm believer that no one means to give out negative signals when they present – no one intentionally looks hostile or lazy; no one means to come across as overfamiliar or timid. The truth is that on the list of things to address when preparing for a presentation, body language comes pretty far down. Getting the message right, the content, the slideware, the handout, the language, the follow-up, the technology are all priorities so someone then addressing the message their posture is giving out is often a stretch too far.

This is a real shame because, in actual fact, body language has a huge impact on the audience and can – in many ways – make or break a presentation. Interpreting body language is a highly individual thing; different people take subtly different messages from any given posture. Because of this, coming up with a list of 1-to-1 substitutions (i.e. this behaviour means this) is impossible. However, there are certain traits that are broadly and universally interpreted in certain ways.

What’s interesting is that often the same behaviour can fall on either side of the spectrum, depending on its intensity. For example: movement. If you move around too much, you look like you’re uncomfortable and nervous – wanting to be anywhere but where you are. Alternatively, if you’re too stationery, your unnatural stillness is disconcerting and too intense to put people at ease. In this respect, positive body language is about balance – about not being too much one thing, nor too much the other. To put it another way, effective body language is best defined by what it isn’t, rather than by what it is.

With that is mind, it is more helpful for me to look at some of the behaviours you should avoid, rather than try to write a prescriptive list of behaviours for you to follow. Striking a balance between extremes of behaviour is often the best route to ironing out any issues you might be having with your non-verbal communication. Take a look at the diagram below, which roughly groups together the interpretation of certain behaviours.

body language lessons for presenters

Generally, there are two metrics for the impression that presenters give off – enthusiasm and confidence. Too little or too much of either can be perceived negatively.

Your posture is a key indicator of your mood. Looking too relaxed or comfortable (for example, by slouching or leaning against the wall) is going to come across poorly. However, being too still and rigid in your posture can make you look nervous or too intense. Your arms and hands also play an important role – keeping your arms folded or tucked away in your pockets can come across as being overfamiliar and unprofessional, confrontational and aggressive in extreme cases. On the other end of the spectrum, overly-expressive and wild gesturing makes you look unfocussed, erratic or just too intense. Your positioning is also crucial. The old adage that you should never turn your back to the audience is unhelpful; it’s fine to turn away if you’re directing the audience’s attention to the screen. However, be wary of spending too long facing in either direction and neglecting the other. A final word should be given to movement – both being too still and moving around too much is distracting.

So, what does that leave us with? As I said, the key is to achieve a balance, so the ideal impression to portray would sit bang in the middle of the diagram above – shown by the green circle. Without being prescriptive, you should aim for a natural, relaxed posture – engaged but not intense. Use open, expressive gestures, dividing your attention between the audience and the screen. Aim for a little movement, and an open, friendly demeanour. Your interpretation of what constitutes the above will be different from everyone else’s – aim for the right impression and you shouldn’t go far wrong.

body language lessons for presenters

Become aware of it

Once you know what you’re hoping to achieve, the first step to making your body language work effectively is to actually become aware of how you present at the moment. Often problems develop because people disregard it – letting their subconscious take over. It’s this inattention that allows bad habits to creep in.

The best way to become more aware of how you present is to see yourself do it. Mirrors don’t give you the full impression, better is to have a colleague record you presenting something. Obviously it would be great to do so in a ‘live’ environment, but a dummy run in a meeting room would work perfectly well. Watch back the footage and objectively assess yourself with some of the following:

  • What message would your posture convey to a stranger?
  • Are you moving around too much, or not enough?
  • Do you come across as professional?
  • How enthusiastic are you? Does it look like you’re going through the motions?
  • Do you look like you know your material?
  • How open is your body language? How expressive are you being?

Sometimes watching yourself back and becoming more conscious of your body language is enough to improve it. Often people have an innate understanding of the mistakes they’re making and how to fix them. Next time you present, bear in mind what you saw and what you would like to portray next time.

A third party

If it’s not immediately apparent if you have an issue, or what you should do about it, it makes sense to bring in outside opinions to help. Choose a colleague for support, but do so wisely. This isn’t the time for a ‘yes man’, someone who will simply say you’re doing a great job. Pick someone who will be honest and critical. Even better, get a group together – and aggregate their responses. As with any form of research, be careful when collecting their feedback – don’t lead them in anyway. So, questions like ‘What impression did you get from the presentation?’ work better than leading ones like ‘Do I look nervous to you?’.

Listen to your colleagues and pull together the common elements of their feedback. If there is anything that comes across as universally negative, it probably needs examining. Varied feedback, or comments that aren’t particularly strong in any sense usually indicate that your body language isn’t overtly negative, although it may not resonate as strongly as it could. Bear in mind what I said earlier about individual interpretation – people will likely take slightly different messages from how you behave. Don’t worry too much about this; try to get a general appreciation of how the group felt.

Effecting change

Once you’ve identified the problem, how do you go about changing your body language?

This is the tricky part. Changing your body language can be a case of trying to undo decades of learned and cemented experiences. Doing so is not only challenging for presenters, but even if achieved, can come across as robotic and unnatural – ironically leading to worse problems. What’s more, you don’t want your presenter to be so caught up in their delivery that they fail to get across their message. Remember, we’re talking about adding a level of polish to a presentation here – body language is a finishing touch and should never come at the expense of content. In short: if you can’t make it work, don’t worry about it.

Having said that, do give it a go. If you think you’re moving around too much, try to present a few slides staying still. If people have said you look bored, stand up straighter and bring more energy. Of course, the difficulty is sustaining your new behaviour and not falling into old habits. Again, it helps to have a trusted colleague with you to pull you up when you slip. The only way to improve and to keep it up is to practise – to keep presenting with your new behaviour until it becomes second nature. It’s a frustrating and often slow process, but the more you work on it, the better your results will be.

Improving your body language is a challenge, but doing so can have a marked effect on the success of your delivery. The first step is to become aware of it. From there, with the right guidance, you can transform the way you present. If you’re a nervous presenter, you might want to read some of these tips we’ve pulled together – especially if you’d call yourself an introvert.

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Written by

Kieran Chadha

Managing consultant

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