“Take Stage” During Your Presentation: The Power of Your Physical Presence

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Some studies reveal that roughly 55% of the success of your business speaking is dependent upon your physical presence and non-verbal communication.  At first, this may seem like a high percentage, but it is not surprising when we note the findings of a 2007 study by the American Optometric Association:  vision was found to be the number one sense that people would not want to live without.  Dr. Vince Young, an ophthalmologist at Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia, says, “Americans tend to fear vision loss more than anything, more than memory loss or heart disease.”

Savvy business speakers, like actors, are always mindful of the fact that as long as your listeners can see you, they are observing many non-verbal communication pathways:  your behavior, eye contact, facial expressions, gestures and posture, and the physical distance you establish between yourself and your listeners.

Here are a few guidelines to help you command attention and make a dynamic impression when you speak for business.

Take Stage Like a Broadway Actor:

How do professional actors get the audience’s attention and keep them riveted to the action of a play?  One answer is that they “take stage”:  they inhabit the space with a “do or die” purpose and an attitude of complete belonging.

Business speakers need to do the same thing, in order to persuade and inspire a business audience, whether it’s a formal presentation or an informal business talk.  Here are some techniques for taking stage, to command audience attention and keep it:

  • Focus the audience’s attention by walking to your speaking spot (whenever possible at the position of power: front and center) with a relaxed, unhurried pace, with shoulders back.
  • As you walk and when you arrive at your speaking spot, make eye contact with the audience, pausing for a slow count of five before you begin.
  • During the pause, take a few deep breaths from your mouth as you SMILE. (Yes, the good news is that you are happy to be there and that your message will benefit your listeners!)
  • Speak clearly at a volume appropriate for the size of the room, focusing the volume level so that the people furthest away can hear you.
  • Consider beginning with a gesture at the beginning, (to make additional contact with the audience), when it is organic and culturally appropriate.
  • Begin with both feet planted firmly on the ground, and imagine that your legs are tree trunks and your feet are roots extending deep into the ground.  This initial grounding helps you claim the
  • Pace as your own and helps give weight to your subsequent movements.  It helps you project confidence and authority.
  • Stand away from furniture and resist any temptation to lean for support.  If someone offers you a podium, politely decline it if you can.  Whenever possible, eliminate physical barriers between your body and your audience.  If you must use a podium, stand tall and do not lean on it!
  • Whenever possible, give any handouts you may have after your presentation has ended, not before or during the presentation.  When you give people reading material, you are inviting them to focus on a piece of paper and inviting them to ignore you!  Distributing material to your audience can sometimes suggest that they did not need to attend your presentation – that they could have just as effectively read your content and not come to hear you live and in person!
  • Take stage at the beginning of your talk, during the body of the talk, and at the end.  After your final remarks
    • Pause for a count of five
    • Maintain eye contact with the audience
    • Receive and experience your applause with a SMILE

Many speakers feel uncomfortable about the use of their hands when speaking publicly.  Remember the following points:

  • The hands and forearms should be available and open for natural movement – not in your pockets, clasped, or behind you.
  • The hand should speak: the movements should match both your content and the energy in your voice.
  • Gestures should come from above the waist, with the forearms parallel to your ribcage and elbows a few inches from your sides, for expansion and the projection of authority.
  • Use both hands to gesture whenever possible –  for power and punch.
  • Put down pens, papers, and pointers when not using them.
Don’t Let Your Body Language Betray You:

Messages communicated through body language vary according to culture.  Here are a few things to remember about general perception among people raised in the United States:

  1.  A strong subtext is communicated through eye contact or lack of it.  Eye contact can project caring, interest, honesty, and sincerity, while refusal to make eye contact can project arrogance or contempt.  Be sensitive to “moral looking time” (the length of time you can hold eye contact with a stranger without sending a particular message):  about three seconds.
  2. A smile is the most direct way to say, “I’m happy to be in your presence.”
  3. The head nod is very important in communication and tells the communication partner “I understand” and/or “I agree”.  It elicits a positive response in the partner and is particularly effective for salespeople and anyone involved in business discussions or negotiations.
  4. Raising your hand or fingers in front of your mouth during business discussions communicates a withholding of information or reluctance to be completely forthcoming.
  5. Pointing with a finger (and especially with an object, such as a pen) often sends a message of aggressiveness.
  6. A subtext of disagreement is sent when your arms are crossed over your chest while you are speaking or listening.
  7. When you are listening, leaning back in your chair with fingers joined behind your back communicates confidence, relaxation, and pleasure in what the speaker is saying.
  8. Helplessness and/or an urgency to be understood are communicated when you speak with your hands open at chest level and spread sideways with the palms up.
  9. Speaking with the hands up and palms facing outward can communicate messages influenced by gender:  When a man does this, it often sends a placating message; when a woman does it, the message is often interpreted as flirtatiousness.

Here are some techniques that will enhance your physical presence during business conversations and presentations:

  • Keep your hands open and available for natural gestures; do not plan or rehearse gestures!
  • A waist-level position for the hands (with palms relaxed and fingers slightly curved) is often appropriate.
  • When gesturing, use both hands whenever possible.
  • Put pens and pointers down when you are not using them.

Savvy business speakers think about non-verbal communication the same way that actors do:  they are conscious of the fact that listeners who can see you are observing you very carefully and interpreting meaning from every aspect of your physical demeanor.

As you speak for business, be mindful of any physical behaviors you exhibit that may be sending unintended messages, and make appropriate changes, even if it initially takes you out of your comfort zone.  This will have a dramatic impact on your projection of confidence, warmth, and authority — as well as your ability to persuade.

Be sure that every aspect of your physical presence enhances your credibility!  Put these techniques into practice, and you will command attention, keep your listeners engaged, and influence them to take the actions you recommend!

Copyright © 2013-2015 Maria Guida

Maria Guida  is an executive speaking coach/trainer, professional speaker, and Broadway actress.  With her experience on stage, TV and film (working with Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, and  Kevin Kline), she helps savvy executives in all industries enhance their credibility and generate business by speaking with poise, passion, and persuasive power.  Delighted clients include American Express, JPMorgan Chase, and Johnson & Johnson.  Maria travels extensively to deliver interactive and entertaining keynotes and workshops.  She can be reached at 718-884-2282 and maria@successfulspeakerinc.com; or visit www.successfulspeakerinc.com.

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