Ten Tips on Using Body Language When Delivering a Speech

Body language

Today’s post features some valuable advice about your body language when delivering a speech or presentation. It comes from my friend, Douglas Kruger. Douglas, who hails from South Africa, is a speaker, author and trainer.

In his three-minute video below, Douglas demonstrates several simple but powerful techniques that you can use to enhance your message the next time you are on stage. 

There are several key takeaways from the video and I have set them out below.

1.  Stepping away from the audience creates a “negative” feeling. The energy level is diminished.

2.  Stepping toward the audience creates a positive feeling. The warmth and energy return or increase. Use this technique when you want to encourage or persuade your audience.

3.  Distracting movements below the waist—and not just the famous “Elvis the Pelvis” thrust—can make you seem uncertain and hurt your credibility.

4.  Anchoring yourself at key moments and only moving from the waist up enhances your authority and credibility.

5.  You should only move on stage with purpose. For me, this is the seminal point of the video. The other points are really just specific examples of this point.

6.  When telling a story, moving about and gesturing can be effective. Many speakers like to “stage” their stories. They use one part of the stage to tell one part of the story and another part of the stage to tell another part.

7.  The main point of the story should be delivered front and centre.

8.  The way in which you use space and time convey something about your level of authority. Using little space and speaking quickly is not very convincing; using more space and speaking slowly is much better.

9.  The way in which you use your stage communicates something to the audience.

10.  Your body language and gestures should be natural. Although Douglas did not specifically mention this tip, he certainly embodies it. Watch the video again and focus on the times when he speaks to the camera (instead of demonstrating). His movements are fluid, natural and effective.

Photo courtesy of David Hofmann on Unsplash

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  1. Nice summary John, thanks for highlighting this video.

    One thing I also tell the people I work with, is the dramatic difference gestures can make to your vocal variety. I learnt this when doing voice over work for radio. Tape yourself with and without using gestures and you’ll see what I mean.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Sharon. I agree with you. In fact, I do some work on the radio and always use my hands in order to convey some of the emotion over the air. Of course, it drives the tech guys crazy when I come close to knocking the microphone!

  2. Great advice! Being a Body Language Expert myself, I’d like to add that when we speak to a group it is important to remember that speaking is delivered in a funnel fashion, therefore one should include the front left and right side of the audience. The more natural a speaker is, the more charming and convincing the messages will be delivered.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Renate. Good points. I tell people that when they speak to a small group, they should be sure to make eye contact with every person at some point. However, for large audiences, a simple trick is to mentally divide the room into a tic-tac-toe (3×3) grid and then be sure to alternate your view among the nine sections: front, middle, back, left, centre, right.

  3. Thanks, John.
    We hear so much about the importance of nonverbal communication. But it’s great to get the most important aspects narrowed down. It’s hard for beginners to keep too much in mind while also focusing on speaking. What would you say are the three most important nonverbal rules?

    1. Thanks for the comment, Steve. Good question. If I had to limit myself to three, I would say:
      1. Maintain eye contact. This helps build rapport and “shrinks the distance” between you and the audience.
      2. Move with purpose. As discussed in the post, moving with purpose enhances your credibility and keeps distracting movements to a minimum.
      3. Keep your gestures natural. Your non-verbal communication should not appear forced.
      Of course, the rules are easy to say but take some practice to master. Watching yourself on video is a good (if painful) way to weed out bad non-verbal habits. Another way is to be aware of how you speak in a non-speech setting. For example, if you’re discussing last night’s big game with colleagues at work, your gestures are likely to be natural. How do you move? What do you do? There are clues as to what might work for you on stage.
      Hope this is helpful.

      1. John,
        I completely agree with your choices. The very basics. And using video to hone your skills can be very helpful but as you say painful. Still if you really want to be great, you have to go through the early cringing to fix things. Better to see it yourself and change it than have audiences responding to it for years to come.

  4. Hi John!

    I agree with 90% of what both you and Douglas shared. Slightly disagree about stepping forward when you sell – that can definitely work against you when doing takeaway selling or any type of pitching to investors. We naturally want what we can’t have and there’s a very strong way you can actually step back during the sales portion of a presentation to enhance that.

    Actually this is a really great debate point I’d love to share with my readers in Speaking Magazine next month. Check your inbox for details.

    Jake Gudger

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jake. I could take the easy way out and just say that it is Douglas’ video … but I won’t. In fact, while I agree with Douglas, I can well understand your point. Any gesture that is overdone or out of sync with the moment can definitely work against the speaker. I look forward to your email to hear more about your idea.

  5. I always love a video with a tip/tool. It connects all the dots and certainly brings a clear vision to the impact a forward movement can make.

    There was a speaker on Oprah a few years back talking about not being taken to the second location if there was abduction. When he stepped forward towards the audience and said those words so strongly “NEVER, let them take to you to a second location”, the audience looked shocked and were silent. Probably one of the most intense speaking moments I have seen. Just that purposeful step with the words. Chills me still.

    Great job, thanks for sharing!

  6. As regards body language, I had seen few speeches by Hitler where he makes lot of movements with his hands and head. How do you see this?
    I tried to search your blog for analysis of Hitler’s speeches, but could not find. The fact that Hitler’s speeches have been effective in moving the people, I would be keen to read your analysis of his speeches.

    1. Thank you for the comment. Without question, Hitler was an extremely powerful orator. It is important to keep in mind that a large part of the success of Hitler as an orator stemmed from the particular circumstances that existed in Germany at the time he came to power. The economic conditions, the burden of reparations from the First World War, the general feeling among Germans that they were being unfairly treated by the other major European powers … all of these things created an atmosphere in which Hitler’s speeches would resonate with many people.
      Analyzing one of Hitler’s speeches would be a delicate matter. Still, I think it important to study speeches even from people who did terrible things to gain insights into why their rhetoric was successful and how we can be aware of such dangers in the future. I hope to do such an analysis one day.

  7. Hi John,

    There was some great advice in your post. Thank you.

    I still haven’t got point 3 figured out yet. I’ve been public speaking for around 5 years, and I have a habit of rocking my legs, which some in the audience find distracting! 🙂

    1. Hi Hiten,

      Thanks for the comment. There was a fellow at our Toastmasters club who did the same thing. I told him for his next speech to just anchor his feet and stand in one spot the entire time. Of course, this is not ideal either; it should be a blend of standing still and moving with purpose. But the idea was to get him to be able to stand still. Then, he could start to work in meaningful moments.

      Question: Do you also rock your legs if you are speaking from behind a lectern and your legs are hidden?

        1. Hello Hiten,
          If you walk around you will be feeling at ease and your legs will not feel nervous.

        2. Hi Hiten,

          Perhaps a note to yourself on a Post-it Note stuck to the lectern along the lines of “Don’t rock!” would help at least remind you of it. Let us know if you find something that works for you.

          Best of luck.

  8. Thanks John (and Douglas). I really like how this video’s short and to the point, and that you’ve summarised it in text — which can be a much quicker way of reviewing its content (and is also handy for people who can’t access YouTube at work, etc).

  9. It was very informative. I have a speech in school in the next 2 days so , i have to speak about 8 mins on the internet, will a slideshow be handy?

    1. Hello Aaron. I have been traveling on business and so did not have a chance to respond before your speech. How did it go? Slides can be a great way to enhance a speech or presentation. Having said that, slides are not always necessary and, indeed, sometimes it is better to go without slides.

      As for a speech about the Internet, I would need to know more details. For example, if your speech was about how we spend too much time on the Internet, then maybe you don’t want any technical aspect to your speech. (Slides, of course, are not the Internet, but they are still text and images on a screen like the Internet.) Or, if you wanted to introduce people to the Internet, then actually having the Internet running and up on the screen could be very useful.

      The thing to always remember is that slides should be used to enhance your speech or presentation. They should not be the speech or presentation themselves.

  10. I will be delivering an Oration in front of the crowd for the first time and these sure help me a lot. Thnx by the way. Wish me luck.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Reymart. I wish you the best of success with your speech. Break a leg! (If you are not familiar with the expression, don’t worry, it is a good thing to say!)

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