Once upon a time a group of rising-star executives gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to take part in a special competitive event. Each was to present a business plan to be evaluated by the entire group. The best ideas would then be recommended to a team of venture capitalists for final evaluation. Participants saw this as a great opportunity to see how their ideas compared to others in an elite peer group.
If you had been one of those chosen executives, how would you have prepared for the event? Would you have concentrated on formulating a coherent description of your business plan? Developed a strategy for convincing others? Practiced your presentation skills?
The executives at the MIT event probably did all of these. But on the day of the competition, an additional component was added to the mix – one nobody had prepared for. Each presenter was outfitted with a specially-designed digital sensor, worn like an I.D. badge. This device, called a ‘Sociometer,’ would be taking notes on each presentation along with the rest of the group, but not on the merits of what was being said. Unbeknownst to the presenters, the Sociometer would be recording what wasn’t being said: tonal variety, vocal nuance, physical activity, energy levels, even the number of smiles and nods exchanged between presenter and audience.
At the end of the meeting, the group selected the ideas they agreed would sell best. And, with no knowledge of any actual content, the Sociometer readings also predicted (with about 87 per cent accuracy) which business plans would be chosen. That’s because, while the group thought they were making rational choices, the researchers at the MIT Media Lab who had developed the digital device knew better. What convinced the executive group is the same set of signals that also predict the outcome of any business presentation you may give – body language and nonverbal interactions.
In my work as a leadership communication coach, I emphasize the importance of delivering a well-written speech that has an inspiring vision, engaging stories, self-deprecating humour, and personalized examples. But I also know that leaders can sabotage a great presentation if they underestimate or ignore the power of body language.
I don’t want you to make that mistake. Here are seven of the most important tips for effective body language on stage:
- Manage your stress level
While you are waiting backstage, notice the tension in your body. Realize that some nervous energy is a good thing – it’s what makes your presentation lively and interesting, but too much stress results in nonverbal behaviours that work against you.
Before you go on stage, stand or sit with your weight ‘centred’ – evenly distributed on both feet. Look straight ahead with your chin level to the floor and relax your throat. Take several deep ‘belly’ breaths. Count slowly to six as you inhale and increase the tension in your body by making fists and tensing the muscles in your arms torso and legs. As you exhale, allow your hands, arms and body to release and relax.
- Get emotional
In order to engage an audience, they need to be emotionally involved. So before you go on stage to deliver your message, concentrate on emotions and feelings. How do you personally emotionally connect with what you are about to say? What do you feel about it? How do you want the audience to feel? (The more you focus on the emotion behind your message, the more convincing and congruent your body language will automatically become.)
- Make a confident entrance
Stay relaxed, walk out on stage with good posture, head held high, and a steady, smooth gait. When you arrive at centre stage, stop, smile, raise your eyebrows and slightly widen your eyes while you look around the room. A relaxed, open face and body tells your audience that you’re confident and comfortable with the information you’re delivering. Since audience members will be reacting to any display of tension, your state of comfort will also relax and reassure them. (This may sound like common sense, but I once worked with a manager who walked onstage with hunched shoulders, a furrowed brow and squinted eyes. I watched the audience squirm in response. It was an unsettling way to begin a ‘let’s get together and support this change’ speech.)
- Maintain eye contact
Maintain steady eye contact with the audience throughout the talk. If you don’t, you will quickly signal that you don’t want to be there, that you aren’t really committed to your message, or that you have something to hide.
While it is physically impossible to maintain eye contact with the entire audience all the time, you can look at specific individuals or small groups, hold their attention briefly, and then move to another group or individual in another part of the room.
- Ditch the lectern
Get out from behind the lectern. A lectern not only covers up the majority of your body, it also acts as a barrier between you and the audience. Practice the presentation so well that you don’t need to read from a script. If you use notes, request a video prompter at the foot of the stage.
- Talk with your hands
Speakers use hand gestures to underscore what’s important and to express feelings, needs and convictions. When people are passionate about what they are saying, their gestures become more animated. That’s why gestures are so critical and why getting them right in a presentation connects so powerfully with an audience. If you don’t use them (if you let your hands hang limply to your sides or clasp them in the classic ‘fig leaf’ position), it suggests you don’t recognize the crucial issues, you have no emotional investment in the issues, or that you’re not an effective communicator.
Human beings (males, most especially) are drawn to movement. Movement keeps an audience from becoming bored. It can be very effective to walk toward the audience before making an important point, and away when you want to signal a break or a change of subject. But don’t move when you are making a key point. Instead, stop, widen your stance, and deliver that important message.
Troy Media columnist Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead.