Giving a great presentation: your body

How do you give a great presentation?

In this post I want to focus in on one key element of presenting: what you do with your body.

Statue of a groaning man under a burden, from the St. Louis City MuseumLet’s start off with the bad news.  In public speaking there are many bad habits to avoid, and we can all envision some of them by reflecting back on problem presentations we’ve endured in the past.

We’ve seen speakers hunched over their notes or laptop so protectively as to crush their voice into muttering near-silence.  Some speakers hide behind a lectern, become invisible.  Others make eye contact with anything not human and actually in the environment: furniture, the ceiling, invisible entities swirling around the audience.  I’ve seen presenters gesticulate randomly, or so it seems, twitching and lunging without reference to their content or their audience.

Some of these misbehaviors occur without our conscious awareness, because public speaking can be terrifying, and we do not always behave at our best when gripped by fear.  Alternatively, sometimes we present on stage as though we were speaking off stage, hanging out with friends.  We use postures and gestures that work well for intimate settings, but crimp a formal presentation to dozens or thousands of people.  Consider it a transcription error.

For example, consider these misuses of the body:

  • Hunching over or bowing the head.  This can be a protective move when you feel threatened, curling down to shield your chest and stomach.  In face-to-face conversation this posture can be a nice way of making a conversational partner less intimidated, especially if you’re larger than the other party.
  • Sticking hands in pockets.  This is something we do when we’re embarrassed, nervous, or just don’t know what to do with those fingers.  I find men like to jingle objects in their pockets when competing with other men.
  • Breathing shallowly.  When nervous we sometimes breathe quickly, failing to suck air down into our lungs.  Done right, this expresses excitement in person.  But in a public presentation shallow breathing cuts power to our voice.

Obviously, avoid these.  But please don’t feel that shunning these errors means you have to present as a frozen or groaning statue.  There’s good news to counteract the bad.  One secret to successful presenting is to amplify your content by using your body.  Stance, gestures, voice, movement are all ways to accentuate your points, to better connect with your audience, to more fully express your ideas – and also to have more fun while doing it.

Cartoon of Bryan gesticulating at BETT 2015, by Reitse Sybesma

Sometimes I have enough fun presenting that cartoonists get in on the action.

Consider doing some or all of these things with your body instead of being a presentational statue:

  • To emphasize a major point, lean forward.  Loom over the lectern, if there is one.  Push your head and chest ahead.  Become, briefly, a human exclamation point.
  • For the opposite idea, lean back, rearing back your head.  This is good for dramatizing a reaction to something you’ve said: surprise, shock, horror, change.
  • Keep your arms and hands in play.  Wave, point, clasp, hold, set arms akimbo, make jazz hands, paw the air, shrug… all kinds of arm waggling telegraph meaning to your audience.  They break up a monotonous body presentation.  These movements also open up your chest, making it easier to breathe and make sounds (I’ll return to this later). And they’re fun to do.

Bryan says "eh", by Jennifer Adams

The preceding assumes you’re stuck at a lectern, podium, stand, or desk.  Hopefully you won’t be.  Personally, I like to pace across a stage, and to get into a crowd among folks if possible.*  You might not go that far, but moving away from a fixed location has many advantages.  A moving presenter is more interesting to look at, for starters.  Removing the visual obstacle of a table, desk, stand, or lectern gives you much more range for bodily expression, too.

Moving on foot also opens up a whole world for physical expression.  Once you cut loose from a podium, you can emphasize a point by stepping forward, even taking a few steps in quick succession.  You can move your body from left to right, illustrating competing points.  You can step back to indicate shock, retreat, reaction.  Remember, your arms and legs are now fully visible to the audience, so your gestures get full play.

If the preceding seems foreign to you, take a few minutes to explore body language.  Believe me, this will expand your ability to understand and communicate with people.  I can’t recommend a good book or video on this, but the Web is generous, and that Wikipedia article is a nice starting point.

Remember, when presenting, and just before, breathe deeply when you can.  A deep breath works well between major sections of your talk, as it marks a clear pause.  Draw air all the way down, not just to your lungs, but to the pit of your stomach.  Exhale fully.  This might feel and/or sound goofy, but it’s utterly worth it.

So what works for you and your body when presenting?  Got any horror stories of other presenters to share?

*One teaching observer remarked I paced like an animal in a cage.   I think that was a good thing.

(statue photo taken at the excellent Saint Louis City Museum, by me; cartoon of me gesticulating at BETT 2015, by Reitse Sybesma; photo of me shrugging by Jennifer Adams)

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9 Responses to Giving a great presentation: your body

  1. Great tips Bryan – no wonder you’re so engaging! I’ll certainly be paying more attention to my use of body language at my next presentation.

  2. Bryan, over the past year or two I have been ditching slides for selected presentations when they are more conceptual. I find this affects tremendously the physical form of the presentation, since my notes become so much more important to keep the presentation moving on track (rather than having the crutch of a slide display behind me against which I can move). I am stuck behind the lectern more so, as a result, so find that I work harder on eye contact, individual callouts to engage attendees whose work is relevant, and so forth. Ultimately, I find it is a lot more preparatory work. I wonder if you have any other thoughts about ditching the slidedeck in general and specifically how to make that work in terms of “your body.” Thanks for this series of posts – it’s really terrific of you.

  3. Bryan,
    That sketch sorta says here is the Jesus Christ of presentations!
    Great blog post!

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