Your body language at any given moment is a fascinating and formidable mix of history and how you’re feeling right then – the habit and the moment. Your habits have developed over time and represent characteristic ways you respond to the world – how you think and feel about both good and bad events, stress and joy, opportunities and disasters. As such, they’re a palimpsest of all your accumulated reactions, decisions, fears, and joys. Your personal history is written in your body and its literal, physical attitude toward the world.
So what is your body telling the world? Is it defiant, or do you stand like a victim? Do you dominate the space or take up as little as possible? Are you a leader or a follower? Do you effortlessly drive a team to get things done, or do you spend huge amounts of time keeping score of all the little ups and downs you encounter along the way, like a spider weaving memories into her web? All of this shows up in your body, especially as it ages.
Before you even walk out on stage, the kind of speaker you are is already mostly formed, and you telegraph it before you open your mouth.
And it’s hard to change: that habitual attitude to the world becomes more and more unmistakably you, but it also, naturally enough, comes to limit the possibilities as time goes on.
That’s potentially damaging enough. But when you reflect that most of those attitudes, intents, emotions, and desires that come to shape your body’s typical response to the world are unconscious and shaped by your unconscious memories, then you start to see why it’s so important that you understand consciously what’s going on.
Can you take charge of your unconscious performance? Can you become an intentional communicator?
An important element to understand is that there’s a part of your body that you’ve been ignoring, mostly, and that needs to change. We have something like 100 million neurons in our gut. It’s a little brain, approximately as big as a cat’s. It is the only part of our bodies not completely stage-managed by the big brain in our heads. It’s capable of autonomous action, and that’s a good thing usually, because it takes care of the all-important task of converting food into the energy that keeps our systems going. Further, it defends our bodies against poison, bad food, and your Aunt Millie’s stew. But when you get ready to speak, that little brain starts to manufacture fear.
The feedback between the two brains—or more specifically among the big brain, little brain, unconscious mind, and conscious mind—works both ways. When we say we have “butterflies” in our stomach, what we’re talking about is the emotional connection between the big brain, its unconscious part, and the little brain. The signals can originate in either place and send terror racing up the vagus nerve from the gut to the unconscious mind, and after that to the conscious mind.
The result is that we can feel fear, for example, before we know it (consciously) or its source. Messages from the gut create emotion, and emotions in the big brain feel real to us and affect our ability to perform as speakers.
So taking charge of your body language as a speaker begins with understanding the role of your gut in producing the natural fear that accompanies public speaking. You can begin to address the fear in your gut with breathing, meditation, positive self-talk, and a host of other mind-over-matter techniques, but the first step is to simply become aware of the role of your body in manufacturing the emotions that precipitate so many problems for speakers and make public speaking so difficult for most people.