Public Speaking: Body Language and Movement Tips

Should you sit or stand during a speech? Is it better to move or not to move?

There are no hard rules about body language in public speaking. Do what feels natural and comfortable—it projects confidence and helps you focus on delivering your speech as opposed to holding your body in a certain way.

Here are some tips to keep in mind.

Move (Or Don’t) in a Natural Way

Anderson acknowledges that some people feel more comfortable moving while speaking, and others feel less so. For this reason, he doesn’t prescribe one or the other, but he does give some tips to try and pitfalls to avoid for both.

If you prefer to walk, Anderson recommends you do so in a relaxed and natural way. When you make an important point, it’s a powerful method to stop walking, face the audience, and pause for a moment before resuming. This variety of walking and stopping can be an effective way to use your body. (Shortform note: Experts warn that too much walking can be distracting, but they encourage crossing the stage during the lighter moments of your speech and transitions between segments.)

If you prefer to stand, Anderson recommends keeping your weight evenly distributed between both feet. Avoid leaning to one side, continually shifting your weight, or rocking forward and backward. Those movements can be very distracting. Keep good posture in your spine and shoulders and use your hands to gesture to the audience from time to time. (Shortform note: This isn’t to say that you should stand still like a statue. Natural shifting of your weight is okay; rhythmic movement will draw the eye. You can also gesticulate with your upper body to keep from looking and feeling stiff.)   

If you prefer to sit (or need to because of a physical constraint) this is okay as well. Anderson emphasizes that there are no hard and fast rules about standing or sitting during a speech. Whichever method of movement (or stillness) that you choose, he stresses that it only be done in a natural way. (Shortform note: With the recent increase in video conferencing, it’s more common than ever to sit while presenting. In this instance, focus on posture (sitting straight with shoulders back) to display confidence, and use hand gestures and facial expressions for emphasis and emotion.)

Anderson suggests you record yourself giving your speech and pay specific attention to your body language. In public speaking, the way you move shouldn’t distract from your message. Ask your practice audience if anything you did with your body was distracting or off-putting, and make adjustments accordingly.

Tips for Managing Your Nerves

Whether you’re a seasoned speaker or not, Anderson says adrenaline comes with the territory. He explains that adrenaline gives you energy and animates your voice, which can be great for your speech. However, in large doses, it can also make you shaky, give you dry mouth, and cause anxiety. The following are ways that Anderson says you can manage your adrenaline and project confidence:

1) If your adrenaline is high enough to make you shaky, do something physical to get rid of the excess. (Shortform note: Anderson doesn’t say how far in advance you should do this, but we can infer that you should allow for enough cool-down time that you won’t be out of breath when you walk onto the stage.)

2) Five minutes before you speak, drink five or six ounces of water. This is enough to keep dry mouth at bay but not enough to fill your bladder. (Shortform note: Even if you’re hydrated, your mouth can still get dry because of nerves. For the stage, experts recommend that you stick to flat, room temperature water.)

3) In the minutes before speaking, focus on your breathing. Make sure the oxygen is going all the way down into your stomach (shallow breathing does more harm than good) and hold it for a moment or two before exhaling. (Shortform note: Too much oxygen in the blood raises its pH and leads to dizziness, tingling, anxiety, and chest pain. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, breathe into a paper bag or hold your breath for a few seconds before exhaling.) If all else fails (you begin stuttering or your mind goes blank), Anderson says to simply tell the audience you’re nervous. They want to root for you, and admitting that you’re experiencing nerves only makes you more relatable. (Shortform note: Mark Twain is famously quoted as saying, “There are two types of speakers: those who get nervous, and those who are liars.” Nobody in the audience is going to judge you for feeling nervous.)

Public Speaking: Body Language and Movement Tips

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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