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Body language and presenting

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A lot is usually written in books about public speaking about visuals. –charts, slides, movie clips, props, etc. But the most important visual in your presentation is not a PowerPoint slide packed with data; it’s YOU.

Obviously that includes your appearance, but most of your visual impact comes from your body language. Your gestures, posture, body movement and facial expressions all play a major contribution in getting your message across.

The oft-repeated statistics are (and you'll read these in - literally - thousands of articles):

  • 7% of a message is communicated by the actual words used
  • 38% % by the tone
  • 55% is via body language.

These figures are actually vastly exggerated (see Busting the 55/38/7 myth) BUT ... it is unarguable that the percentage of your message that is communicated by body language is huge.

It could even be argued that not using a lot of body language is body language itself, as your very self-control and stillness will send a powerful message to your audience.

Nixon TV debate
Richard Nixon failing the ‘Would you buy a used car from this guy’ test during the TV debate

And if your body and verbal language conflict (i.e. if you say one thing but your body screams something different, people will believe your body. How often have you said (or heard) about someone, ‘I didn’t like him. It wasn’t anything he said, it was just something about him’?

How often have you heard politicians described as ‘cold’ or ‘arrogant’ or ‘unapproachable’ or ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘aloof’ in conversations with friends or colleagues? If you asked them why they thought that, how often do you think they could back up their views with quotes of what that politician had actually said? Or do you think those judgements would really be more ‘gut feel’ and based on an impression they have gathered by watching clips on TV?

In televised debates between politicians (e.g. US Presidential candidates) the impression they create on TV through their  tonality and body language is probably more important than the answers they give to the questions put before them. People don’t remember the detailed answers   when discussing the debate at work the next morning. They remember the general impression they got, and whether the candidates passed the ‘would-I-have-a-beer-with-this-guy’ test. How else can we explain the fact that voters listening on radio often think one candidate came off best whilst those watching on TV think the opposite?

In the very first televised debate between Richard Nixon and John

  • Kennedy in 1960, Nixon’s sweated profusely throughout. Radio listeners thought Nixon won, but anyone watching on TV plumped for Kennedy.
  • George Bush Jnr’s. smirks, sighs and eye rolling when John Kerry was speaking during the second debate in 2004 (split screen shows viewers both candidates) gave the impression of a President who had a war to fight and didn’t want to waste time verbally sparring with someone who clearly didn’t understand the issues. The TV viewers who saw this thought he lost the debate, but those listening on radio disagreed.

So answer me this - how much time do you spend planning your body language compared to that spent choosing your words or putting your slides together? You probably spend hours or even days on script and slide preparation, but I bet you don’t give your body language a second thought.

Click on the links below to read a number of articles on body language and how it relates to public speaking.

The Power of Posture

Smile And The World Smiles With You

Look Me In The Eye When You Say That

Non-Verbal 'Leakage'

How to read your audience's body language

In addition, you can buy my E-Book, 'Whole-Brain Presenting'': written specifically for presenters and public speakers, this fascinating book doesn't waste time talking about courtship signals between lovers, how Amazonian tribes say goodbye or how to read a baby's mood from the crinkle in its nose.

It concentrates on the things YOU are concerned about when you're speaking - the messages your body language screams out when you are 'on your feet', how to use specific gestures to underline the message YOU want to deliver, and how to read your audience.

Over 12,300 words Over 23,000 words of the total 85,000 are about body language, brought to life by 180 photographs, (166 of them in full colour) of politicians such as Tony Blair, Barack Obama, George Bush, Bill Clinton, Gordon Brown, Condoleezza Rice, Arnold Schwarzenneger, John Kerry, Robert Mugabe, Rudi Giulianni, Vladimir Putin, John McCain, Sarah Palin, Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Silvio Berlusconi, Jose Zapatero, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Dmitri Medvedev, David Cameron and MANY MORE.

See the box below to purchase

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