Body Language and Public Speaking: 5 Simple Hacks to Rock the Stage - Christine Kane

Last week’s article on public speaking gaffes garnered some thought-provoking comments – so let’s continue our discussion on speaking…

As a business owner, you already know that speaking is one of the fastest and most powerful ways to get our message out to many people at once.

You’ve probably also discovered that the first impression a speaker makes happens before she even opens her mouth. That’s the power of body language.

So how do you ensure that your body language has impact when you are in front of a crowd, or making a video, or even entering a networking event

Here are 5 simple hacks to UPLEVEL your impact in any public setting:

1 – Posture with Presence

Posture with presence is about length and alignment, without the tension of a puffed out chest, or stiff back.

A few guidelines:

  • Evenly distribute weight between your toe and heel. Stack ankles, hips, shoulders, and ears, using a mirror or friend’s eyes to check that you’re lining up.
  • Relax your shoulders and lengthen your neck, allowing shoulders to roll slightly back as opposed to hunched forward. Expand across the ribcage, rather than arching up.
  • Contract lightly at the belly. No, you’re not “sucking it in” like when you’re at the beach comparing yourself to the teenagers at the other umbrella. You’re simply holding an active awareness that gathers there, gently stretching the lower back.

Your presence is expansive. It reaches beyond the edges of the physical body. Standing and moving with that awareness alone broadcasts your presence. It’s the opposite of hiding. Practice this when you’re not on stage and it’ll get more natural at your next public speaking event.

2 – Friendly Eye Contact

From Christine’s “Imperfect Action” Files: The first video I ever made was way back when I was a musician. I filmed a DVD for my fans called “Backstage Guitar Lesson,” teaching them how to play some of my most requested songs.   A year or two ago, someone on my team found it and laughed uproariously through the entire video. I didn’t look at the camera once. 🙂   It has taken me a while to get over that shyness, but now I love eye contact, even with a camera.

Eye contact in any situation where you’re interacting with people forges the connection, puts both you and the listener at ease, and demonstrates that you’re showing up unafraid. (Or afraid, and showing up anyway).

Here’s how to do it right:

  • Be specific. Talk to ONE person in the audience at a time. Never talk to the whole audience. Holding the gaze of one audience member helps you feel more connected – and helps the audience feel more connected to you. Your energy becomes conversational, not presentational.
  • Look amicably, but don’t hold anyone’s eye too long. An unblinking stare is… aggressive. (It even makes some dogs attack.)
  • I’ve never been a fan of the whole “pretend they’re naked” approach. (Frankly, that’d make it harder to hold eye contact. But hey, that’s just me.)   But, if eye contact really trips you up, you can fake it by looking just above your listeners’ heads, especially if you’re on a stage, or standing while your audience sits.

3 – Ditch the Podium

Most places don’t have one of these stupid things, but if you are stuck behind a podium… or table… or a giant flag… or…

(You get the idea)…

Get out from behind it.

The last thing you want are obstacles that prevent you from connecting with your audience. Or something that makes you lean.

Get to where you can see all of your audience – this way, you know that they can all see you.

4 – Use the whole stage…

A common mistake speakers make is becoming trapped in the “speaker’s box”: a small square of space at the center of stage that – like a cage – hems the speaker in.

One of the things I learned as a performer is that center stage is a powerful focal point… until it’s not. It loses its magic after a while. That’s when the diagonals and the corners become magnetic.

Here are some tricks of the trade:

  • Move around the stage – or presentation “area” if you’re, you know, in the private function room of your local banquet hall or something.
  • Pause at the center and corners, making eye contact when you do.
  • Don’t be afraid to zig-zag a bit, or move on diagonals. In other words, don’t leave the speaker’s box only to be trapped in an across-the-stage track, constantly roving back and forth like a carnival game target.

5 – Ignore all of these 🙂

These are all great strategies. I can tell you to look at one person, not gaze too long, use the whole stage…

…and if you take this on like a series of directional tactics you must follow?

Then you’ll look like a bucket o’ crazy at your next talk.

The truth is: these body language strategies will start to happen naturally when you’re present, and after you’ve done a few talks.

Nevertheless, my go-to hack that has always helped with body language is this:

As you’re back stage or before you speak, get quiet.

Take some deep steady breaths.

Feel your heart.

Then, stand in your service.

See this thing you are about to do as total service. You are delivering and GIVING. It is a contribution. The energy of giving removes the stage fright and all the negative thoughts, because it’s no longer about your ego. It’s about your heart. That changes the game.

The most powerful speakers show up fully as their authentic selves. The more you return to who you are, and what you’re about, the more impactful you’ll be in your body language.

Okay, here’s a moment of eye contact… I’m looking at you now! (Gone are my old DVD days!) Did you recognize something here that you do (or don’t do) when you speak? Which one could you apply at your next speaking engagement?

  • Demetrius Abdelwahed

    My friend and i also have been simply discussing above this unique problem, linda is consistently planning to demonstrate myself incorrect! I am going to show her this type of article and also apply it in a little!

  • Marion Claire

    Hi, Christine,
    A friend turned me on to your blog. We’re in the same business. I admire what you do. Love your story about your first video. I used to get heart palpitations… until I learned how to neutralize them and how to breathe before I speak. We have a similar take on speaking. All roads lead to Rome, and the people we work with will get there in the end. Wishing you lots of success.

  • Lynne Watts

    Your speaking tips have been very helpful! I’m doing a one minute introduction of my business at the the local business association luncheon next week and I’ve been thinking a lot about what to say as well as body language. One minute doesn’t sound like a lot but I think you can actually pack in a lot if you plan ahead. Here’s what I would add to your list: smile. sometimes I see videos of me and I’m so focused and serious. Also when you smile… people usually smile back.

  • Jill Robson

    I speak really fast when I present, because I am nervous, my hands shake and so does my voice. I did my first speaking engagements last year, and I want to do more, so this article really helped. Making eye contact is a hard one for me too, so the “looking over the heads” trick is good to know.

    • Alfred Poor

      One little nit to pick with the article and your response: “podium” does not equal “lectern.” (Actually, the meaning is a lot closer to “stage,” though it really means “riser.”) 30 years as a professional writer has put me on guard against losing the meaning of good words.

      That one tiny comment aside, I completely agree about lecterns; I avoid them if at all possible. And if I’m trapped in the speaker box, I try to stand beside or in front of the lectern if at all possible (wireless mic or talk loud enough to be heard) to break the space for the audience.

  • Ann Marie

    Do get out from behind the podium and out of the “speaker’s box”. Move naturally, and if it is approprite to do so, move out into the audience a bit. Making the personal connection with eye contact and proximity and relaxed demeanor makes you seem more approachable and easy to listen to. If it is appropriate, I even bring a soap box to stand on during questions. As a soap maker, that little tongue-in-cheek gesture adds a touch of levity to the presentation, which in turn makes the Q&A more interesting to listen to. Do not be afraid to laugh a little at yourself!

  • Michelle Belanger

    This is a 20 minute TED talk about how your body language can change your body chemistry, making you more powerful and less reactive to stress. There is a great, simple thing we can do that takes two minutes to prepare for a high stakes situation. Christine, you will love this woman’s talk.

  • Ramona King

    I used to rock back and forth in my “speaker box” like Stevie Wonder (who has an excuse to stay in one place). The rocking works when singing or making an incredible point (somewhat like a preacher). I was doing a stage performance and it drove my director crazy. She blocked my show …a solo performance. She dared me to ever rock or lean from foot to foot ever again. I didn’t take her seriously until I saw myself on camera. After a while it looked comical. It was pretty obvious I was using the rocking and shifting from foot to foot as a default position before my audience which means I was no longer connecting. I like the suggestion to breathe deeply before getting onstage…to stand in my service and who I am. It certainly helped in my last performance on stage. Thanks for the post CK!

    • Alfred Poor

      Ramona, I suffer from the same rock and roll habit on stage, and I’m working hard to extinguish it. I find it helps me to only move with a purpose. Am I changing to a new topic? Am I asking the audience an important question? Do I want to underscore a really important point (which is when move-stand still silently for a long pause-then speak works well)? Rather than focus on what not to do, it helps me to think about how to use movement to my advantage, as it makes me more mindful of my motion on stage.

  • Wendy Robinson

    Wowzers! Your tips are coming right on time! I’m speaking this weekend in front of about 100 women…many who will be my ideal client. I’m a little scared because I only have about 15 mins to present my content when I usually have an hour. These steps are going to help me tremendously! Thanks, Christine!

  • Alexandre L’Eveille

    The thought more than the actual doing of getting on stage to give a talk (or video) is a challenge for me. This is one of my targets for the year. I will hold that thought of breathing deep and standing in my service, so I can get out of the ego fear of everyone looking at me and seeing my faults (and hopefully not seeing ME naked!).

  • Maia Toll

    I’m a sloucher and a leaner on stage so these are great reminders, Christine. One thing I’ve been working on (for years!) is my hand gestures. My students have confirmed for me that when I gesture upwards it raises the energy in the room and when I gesture downwards it slows or stops the energy…. which makes sense to me because when I think of a gesture to go with the word Stop! or No! it’s downward slashing. I *try* to be conscious of this when I’m speaking and to use it purposefully.

    (Slouching? Leaning? Gestures? ….What the heck was I saying?)

  • Candela Iglesias

    Thanks Christine, love the tips!
    I started a one-week course on public speaking last year when I realized that what I was teaching my undergrad students could help a lot of other people!

    Concerning your first tip, I also like to do an exercise I was taught in dancing lessons: imagine you have a string attached to the top of your head, and someone is pulling it up, it helps to stand up straighter!

    As for number 5, from my experience, if we blunder while on stage, and we recognize or joke about it to our public, it actually helps us win our public. People connect easier with our human, imperfect side!
    So next time you drop the microphone, instead of panicking and apologizing, say “it’s the third time today!”, and you’ll get some laughs and the public’s sympathy and attention!

    Happy public speaking to all the great people on this list!