5 key areas of body language to keep in mind when presenting

What is the first thing you think of when you are preparing to give a presentation?

I bet it’s not your body language!  And yet how we come across to an audience plays just as important a role as what we are saying.  Your facial expressions, your hand movements, your stance all have a vital role in communicating your message to your audience.

Overall body language is an area a lot of our clients struggle with… “it doesn’t feel natural when making hand gestures”“I feel self-conscious moving around the stage”“I don’t feel comfortable making eye contact”.  These are all acceptable feelings when it comes to delivering presentations.

Below are our tips to help you focus positively on your body language the next time you present or speak in front of a group.


1. Posture / Stance

Standing up straight is one of the main presentation skills to learn and good for 3 reasons: the first one is we can look more confident when we stand tall; secondly it also helps us to project our voice; and thirdly, research has proven that when we stand in a positive stance, we increase our testosterone levels and reduce cortisol (aka the “stress” hormone).

Watch this brilliant TED talk by Amy Cuddy for the full story –  Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.  There have since been ‘discussions’ as to whether the research carried out by Amy and her colleagues was flawed.  Regardless of this, we believe there are great benefits in being conscious of good, positive, strong body language!

Other key areas to be mindful of in your stance are:

  • Keep your feet hip width apart;
  • Your shoulders should be back and relaxed, instantly making you feel confident.  If your shoulders are hunched or slouched forward, you are giving the audience the impression you are dis-interested;
  • Hands should be loosely parked by your side, except when gesturing (see tip 2 below)
  • Keep your chin parallel – this can really help with your eye contact and voice projection.  It also means you are not tilting your head downwards and speaking to the floor, nor are you tilting it upwards giving the impression you are looking down at your audience.


2. Hands / Gesturing

What is the one question we always get asked when we are coaching clients?

“What should I do with my hands?”

It seems a lot of you struggle with where to put them when you are presenting… in your pocket… behind your back… fiddling with your fingers… even crossing your arms!

When you have finished gesturing, our tip is to just let them fall naturally by your side.  It might feel odd to begin with but think about what you normally do when you have a conversation with friends… your hands probably fall naturally to the side of your body.  The only reason it feels strange when you present is because you are conscious of what you are doing with them.

Watch our quick video tip on where to put your hands in a presentation when you are not gesturing.

Gestures are a valuable form of communication and, when used correctly, will add impact to what you are saying.

Again, think about when you are talking to friends, do you worry about your hand movements? No, you just do what comes naturally.  So, the next time you are having a conversation, try to be mindful of what you are doing with your hands and incorporate those gestures into your presentation.  It will start to feel less uncomfortable because it’s what you naturally do when having an everyday conversation, meaning they will also look more natural to the audience when you use them.

If you do struggle with gesturing in a presentation, make sure you include a gesture in your opening sentence – this will increase your chance of gesturing the whole way through your presentation.

One of our top tips on gesturing is to do them above the waist and out from the body.  If you gesture below the waist, you are drawing your audience’s attention to your groin area… and you really don’t want that!


3. Eye contact

Have you ever sat in a presentation where the presenter sweeps their eyes from one side of the room to the other without engaging in any eye contact? We call this ‘light-housing’ and is not a technique we recommend!

I remember in school, we were advised to find a spot at the back of the room and keep looking at that spot. As a terrified teenager – this worked a treat!  However, when you want to build rapport with an audience, looking at a spot at the back of the room will not suffice!

We believe it is far more effective to look and lock – look at a person on one side of the room and really lock on them for a good 3 seconds.  Then, move your focus to a different part of the room and lock on another person.  Keep it as random as you can, it is far more engaging.  You will more than likely find they end up smiling or nodding at you!

The bigger the audience, the higher the number of people who will feel you are looking at them when you engage with the person in front of, beside, or even behind them.

If you have difficulties looking your audience in the eye, try instead to look at an eyebrow – they will not notice.  With a larger audience, say greater than 50, you will even get away with looking at their foreheads.


4. Facial expressions

Facial expressions are vital when it comes to communicating.  Your audience depend on your facial expressions to strengthen the meaning of what you are saying.  However, you must make sure that your expression matches your words.  It’s no good saying how delighted you are being there if you are frowning and looking miserable!  It’s all about being congruent – making sure your Visual, Vocal, and Verbal indicators are in sync.

Where appropriate, start your presentation with a smile – it’s like a virtual handshake with the whole room.  You will come across as being confident and relaxed, and the audience will warm to you straight away.

If you struggle with facial expressions, practice your talk in front of a mirror.  Try giving your whole talk without actually speaking and just let your face do all the communicating.  You will be amazed at how expressive you are when you next practice normally.


5. Movement

Movement during a presentation has its benefits – it adds a bit of variety to your presentation, keeps the audience interested and engaged, keeps energy levels up, and makes you look (and feel) confident in front of them.

Staying frozen in one spot throughout the whole presentation can give the audience the impression that you are nervous and don’t want to be there!

People are naturally attracted to movement.  However, constant movement can be distracting to your audience.  Which leads me to the 5 principles around movement:

  • You must move with purpose.  Shuffling on one foot from side to side, with the odd step forward or backward is not moving with purpose.  Consciously take a few steps to the left, right, forward or back.  There are some speaker coaches who recommend standing to the left (as the audience views you) if you are talking about the past, centre when talking about the present, and to the right when talking about the future.  If this works for you – go for it!  For me, personally, it does not feel natural so I don’t generally do it.
  • Building on the above point – if it feels natural, you may move to certain areas of the stage (depending on the layout) to specify certain points in your presentation.  For example, stand on the left side for your first point, move to the right side for your second point, and stand in the centre for your third point.  Or if you are sharing the pros and cons of a product/service, you could try standing on one side for the pros then move to the other side for the cons.  Again, I repeat, if it feels natural – go for it!  If not, don’t do it.
  • You must stop every so often.  A tiger pacing constantly, in its cage, is showing signs of distress.  If you are constantly moving – you could send the same signal to your listeners.
  • When you are making a key point – stand and deliver.  It makes your message much more powerful.
  • Ensure you don’t look down while walking.  Just last week, I was at an event where there were several speakers, good speakers!  One of them happened to be beside me afterwards and asked for feedback (as people often do, when they know what I do!).  I told them about all the wonderful things they did so well, and added that one thing I would suggest they look out for was looking down any time they moved from one spot to another.  So, ensure as you move, keep looking towards your audience.

Remember to do whatever comes naturally to you.

If you would like to learn how to develop your natural body language when presenting, you might like to attend our 1-day Open presentation Skills Masterclass, it’s one of the key topics we cover during the day.