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What is Your Body Language Saying?

Body language is a very effective tool for public speaking. Here, Nigel Barlow, a professional keynote speaker and creative coach, gives advice on how to use your body language to enhance your presentation skills, whatever your style.


People hear your words and are simultaneously affected by what you do with your body to reinforce or detract from your points. In the same vein of giving you simple ‘punk’ advice, here are the three ‘chords’ of body language, characterised as three different people.


Static Sally. Stays in one place, at worst, behind a table or podium. The body signals this allows for are more restricted – hands can wave, yes, but the overall impression is one of reading a script rather than responding to the audience. Fine for press releases, presidential dictates and for a short burst, but it limits physical expression, passion and energy.


Roger the Rover. Wanders hyperactively and continually in front of the classroom or across the stage. This can be distracting as the audience is witnessing a lot of movement without it necessarily supporting the argument. Certainly it demonstrates energy, but it’s often distracting. One ‘Roger’ I witnessed did this so much that people in the back row started betting on which way he was going to roam next!


The Highwayman. This combines the positive aspects of Static Sally and Roger the Rover without their downside, adding an extra dimension of intensity.


‘Stand and deliver’ is the Highwayman’s credo – in the movies, at least. It’s great advice for the speaker.


Yes, do move energetically (thank you, Roger) to a fresh position, but then stand firmly in one place (a bit of Sally) – and deliver! The power of your point is emphasised by your feet being strongly earthed, and it’s as if energy is conducted upwards from this solid base, flowing up through your body and into the room more powerfully as a result.


The Highwayman posture also allows you to focus on using your upper body, hands and face more expressively. You can learn this by a bit of over-acting. Try being Italian, even if your version is rather hammed up from watching too many Sophia Loren movies or pizza adverts. You can’t do it without waving your arms around a great deal, and it’s hard to move your hands energetically without livening up your face, especially your eyes and mouth.



Back to your exaggerated Italian impression. The idea is to go over the top as a way of stretching, without straining, your expressive nature: you don’t want to be acting out a caricature. My experience is that most people, especially in northern Europe, find it hard to go far enough. So overdo it with your arms and face, then relax a bit and you will be about right. Your intuition will ‘get it’.


Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones is speaking intuitively when he says, ‘There’s an unwritten rule throughout music. I don’t know what it is, but I think I’ve got it.’


Similarly, be natural but animated with your body, and you’ve found that unwritten rule of naturalness. Remember the concept of speaking to a large group as if you are having a conversation with just one of them? Well, it’s right, but there’s one thing to add: it has to be an animated conversation. As Zola said, ‘We are here to live our lives out loud.’ It’s a good summary of a speaker or teacher’s life.


Everything you do with your voice and body has to emphasise and underline your material, as well as exciting people and creating visual memories.


At least once in every talk, I like to do something physical and unexpected. Talking about the ineffectiveness of most corporate ‘brainstorming’ sessions, I might go into the audience and lie down on the floor, feigning the torpor that descends on a group when the boss announces ‘I want your ideas – let’s brainstorm!’


Alternatively, I might physically act out parts of a story. My acting skills are negligible, but if I’m rocking it up like an enthusiastic amateur, it’s surprisingly attention-grabbing. Being yourself may not be enough: being your animated self usually works.


I’m not a fan of the pseudo-science of body language, or of learning hand gestures, techniques for physically mirroring an audience and so on. My experience is that unless the speaker has really worked intensely at adapting these methods to their own natural style, you can see the joins in their technique. Think of politicians and their mannered, freshly learned body signals.


Chopping, pointing and waving their hands, all too often to mask the vague abstractions coming out of their mouths.


The most compelling speaker I’ve seen broke all the rules of body language. He would sit cross-legged and talk for hours at a stretch about consciousness, science and meditation. Without moving his body, he moved you. It was all in the hands and the voice; he used rich analogies and stories to revisit the same point from fresh angles. You always wanted more, mainly because there was an inner quality, a consciousness, that made you think ‘he really knows this stuff’. And in a very natural way he was radiating it.


For those of us less enlightened, using your voice and body energetically helps greatly. As long as it’s natural, and by natural I mean effortless and without strain. Ronnie Wood was right: it’s not easy to explain, but you feel when it’s right.