And our presentation skills suffer.
Whether it’s because of a fear of public speaking, or we simply are unaware of the cues we’re giving off, our body language says a lot about us.
My goal in this blog is to help you identify the chinks in your own body armour, before showing you how to appear more confident, more measured and more approachable.
These simple presentation tips will help you to improve your presentation skills beyond measure.
So let’s start with your head…
Leonardo Da Vinci’s portrait of the Mona Lisa shows her with her head turned at a 45 degree to her body.
Walk through any art gallery or castle in Scotland or England and you’ll see portraits of monarchs holding the same posture.
It appears to show the superiority of the monarch over their subjects, in all their resplendent beauty.
It’s how the perfect photograph is taken even today (unless your model has a very thin face, we’re told).
Just look at some of our own profiles for our presentation skills and media training courses – we’ve been posing in the same way.
The trouble is that when we’re talking to an audience and we want them to agree with us on something, any air of superiority must be taken away.
You and your audience must be on the same level.
I see many presentations when the presenter unwillingly turns his/her head at an angle during the presentation.
It happens even more frequently during the question and answer session.
The presenter is asked an awkward question from the audience.
She takes a pause, turns her head at an angle and addressed the questioner condescendingly as if to say ‘how dare you?’.
I’ve heard feedback from audiences that this can have a seriously negative impact on the presentation.
So make sure you have your entire body – including your head – facing the audience.
That says “I’m open, I’m confident, and I’m ready to listen to what you have to say”.
Do you get that feeling from Mona?
There’s an old joke in Glasgow:
“How do you spot a confident Glaswegian?
When he says hello, he looks at your bootstraps rather than his own”.
In Glasgow, and the UK in general, we often avoid that eye contact by looking down at our feet.
So let me ask you to do something.
Lower your head slightly and roll your eyes down to look at the floor.
How do you feel?
Looking down at your feet can make you appear several things.
Here are a few:
Downbeat. Nervous. Disinterested. Unhappy. Guilty. Disheartened. Ashamed. Miserable.
Ask yourself: how many of the above are helpful?
Many presenters, however, continue to look down during their presentations.
If it’s the occasional glance at your notes, that’s fine.
But if it’s frequent, or it happens when asked a question and you’re deliberately avoiding eye contact, it can be dangerous.
At best, you look nervous.
At worst, you look disinterested.
Either way, it’s very unlikely you’re going to persuade the audience of anything.
So let’s take a different approach:
That demonstrates your confidence – and ultimately your belief in yourself.
I used to have a colleague who spoke with confidence on some very technical matters. He was engaging, bright and insightful.
When he pitched for new business, however, a strange thing happened. He partially covered his mouth with his hand.
People have different theories for the hand-over-mouth gesture.
For me, my colleague placed his hand over his mouth because he didn’t 100% believe in the words that were coming out.
At the same time, his shoulders hunched (we’ll come to this) and he folded his other arm into his body, as if to protect himself from criticism.
Subconsciously, he was blocking his own communication to relieve him of the ownership of the very thing he was communicating.
Others play with their hair.
We even had somebody come in once for a presentation skills training course who played with her chewing gum throughout her entire presentation.
She chewed it, took it out of her mouth, paused and put it back in.
When we played this back to her in front of her colleagues, she was mortified.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”, she shrieked.
Amazingly, she failed to notice that she was even in possession of the gum in the first place.
Contrast this with someone who speaks to you slowly, sincerely and passionately, smiling and using their hands to make positive gestures.
That’s going to help convince me of your point.
So keep your hands away from your mouth.
Instead, face your audience, maintain 100% eye contact and keep open.
We’ve all been there.
We’re being sold to – and every time we attempt to speak, we’re interrupted.
The salesperson may have no interest in what you’re saying.
“I understand what we’re saying”, they might say.
Translation: “I completely disagree”.
Worse, they may avoid the question altogether:
“Interesting question about the warranty, but the important thing to focus on here is the price”.
Communication is a 2-way street.
By failing to listen, our presentation skills ultimately fail.
Imagine walking in and saying to your partner: “how was your day?”
Your partner replies: “awful”.
Are you then going to say:
“Great, well, I had a fantastic day – and we had such a laugh”.
No. You’re going to listen.
So do the same with your presentations.
Listen in advance to people’s concerns. Listen during the questions and answers.
Only by listening effectively and using your ears as well as your mouth, can you become a truly great communicator.
“Sit up straight!”
It’s something most of us will have been told at some point, whether by a teacher or a parent at the dinner table.
Yet it’s something many of us fail to do when we present.
I’ve seen many a presenter in our Glasgow studios grab the podium as if they’re teetering over the edge of a cliff, terrified of letting go.
A straight back and a tall posture helps you to project your voice.
It also helps you to project confidence.
Hunching your shoulders, in contrast, can make you look withdrawn and lacking in confidence.
When our team concedes a goal or a try, we often hunch our shoulders and put our hands on our head.
We feel vulnerable and we retreat into ourselves.
We feel small.
On the other hand, when our team scores, we leap in the air with outstretched arms.
We feel tall.
Take this feeling into your presentations.
Stand up tall with a straight back, rather than hunching your shoulders over the podium.
You’ll look confident, positive and approachable.
A close relation of the hunched shoulders is the folded arms.
It’s the most obvious sign of closed body language – and one of the most often repeated presentation tips.
Why do we do it?
Psychologist David Straker:
“Crossed arms indicate anxiety…either driven by a lack of trust in the other person or an internal discomfort and sense of vulnerability”.
Others say it means you’re closed for debate.
One thing we can all agree on is that it undermines your presentations.
It looks defensive – as if you have something to hide.
It says “don’t dare criticise me”.
Open body language, using your hands to gesture, says:
“I’m open, ask me a question. I’m here for you”.
So unfold your arms, sit up straight and project yourself with confidence and positivity.
We ran a presentation skills training course recently, in which we were unable to hear the content of the talk due to one simple factor.
The presenter had forgotten to take breakfast with him, so he popped into the supermarket on the way, exchanging a £5 note for a 27p banana.
£4.73 in change.
To be precise, four pound coins, one 50p, one 20p and three pennies.
By the end of the presentation, the only stimulation the audience had was to guess which coins were interacting at which precise point.
Nobody was listening to what he had to say – because they were distracted.
The rules are simple:
Coins, keys and clickable pens have ruined many a presentation at Glasgow studios over the years – so leave them behind.
When you’ve done that, make sure your hands stay out of your pockets and ideally in front of you, helping to underline your points.
Why do we sometimes cross our legs when standing up to give a presentation?
A: We feel it’s a more comfortable way of standing.
B: We’re nervous
C: We’re completely unaware of the fact we’re crossing our legs.
Perhaps all three.
The problem is that, much like the hand over the mouth, it’s giving a signal to the audience that we feel uncomfortable presenting.
The audience wants to feel that it’s in capable hands – and they’re only going to feel that if you uncross your legs and stand up straight.
The hardest thing is catching yourself do it, as we’re often completely unconscious of what we’re doing.
So make sure you record your presentations, watch them back and pick these negative body language gestures up – so you can get rid of them.
Having your feet pointed inwards is the equivalent of crossing your legs, just closer to the ground.
Apart from the fact that it affects your balance and could result in a spectacular fall, it can also betray nerves.
Yet, like the crossed legs, many are unaware they’re even doing it.
Keep your feet together and pointed straight towards the audience, so your entire body is facing towards them.
That underlines your confidence, rather than undermining it.
Read our checklist of presentation tips that will improve your presentation skills.
Once you’ve done that, go through your body language checklist.
The perfect stance is…
When you hold yourself confidently, the audience will feel that confidence – and naturally believe in you.
For all the presentation tips and presentation techniques you’ll learn over the course of your life, I believe you’ll find that these make a huge difference.
Andrew McFarlan is a director of media training and presentation skills training firm Pink Elephant Communications in Glasgow.
You can view his full profile here.
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