The nonverbal conversation – your body language dialogue with the audience – will make or break you as a speaker. It’s where authenticity is created or destroyed. And you can’t just wing it. The irony is that winging it looks fake – because a certain amount of fumbling around is involved and that looks fake.
Only the prepared can look authentic. That means you can’t leave your body language to the unconscious mind and chance.
Our unconscious body language developed over eons in order to keep us alive and functioning in the tribe. We had to learn to respond instantly to nonverbal cues because by the time they became conscious, it was too late.
That instant, unconscious response is less useful in the modern era, when we have to do civilized things like give a speech. Defensiveness, which makes perfect sense when you are about to have a confrontation with a saber-tooth tiger, creates a bad feeling when you are trying to connect with an audience.
Because our instincts can betray us, we have to learn how to manage them. We must be able to have the two conversations – content and body language – together in a controlled, useful, conscious way. That’s the essence of successful public speaking, and it’s a tall order. How can we make the unconscious conscious without losing spontaneity, power, and the appearance of ease?
The good news is that there is a simple way to control and align the two conversations. It’s just a few steps.
Your first task is to approach an audience as if you were comfortably at home talking to a loved one or a friend with whom you’re very relaxed. The point is to imagine delivering your presentation conversationally to a friend, practice it, note the nonverbal gestures that go with it, and then use this same body language when you’re in the less intimate setting. The overall idea is to relax and achieve an open stance so that you look comfortable.
Once you’ve mastered that openness, you focus on your audience. Your nonverbal posture orients toward them, and you zero in on their issues and problems. How do you connect? Obviously, you can’t grab the arm of every person in the audience when you’re giving a presentation, like you might do if you were having an impassioned conversation. But you can make direct eye contact with some of them. You can move closer to them when you’re making an important point. You can even get off the stage and get into the personal space of one or two audience members — the whole audience will feel that closeness.
Finally, you need to radiate some strong, appropriate emotion. Emotions are literally infectious; we pick them up from the people around us. So enthusiasm from a speaker – or anger, or joy, or sorrow – spreads rapidly to the audience as long as the emotion is focused and relevant.
How do you radiate appropriate emotion? Get clear about what underlying emotions play throughout your presentation. Then, rehearse your speech thinking about those emotions as they come up. Try to heighten them, bringing them to the fore by taking short pauses to get grounded in one after the other.
When you’re ready to give the speech, spend a few minutes before you start focusing on the first emotion in the speech. Are you excited? Joyful? Angry? Whatever the emotion, get it foremost in your mind in the seconds before you begin.
Then go out on stage and give the speech. You’ll find that the gestures take care of themselves.