Body Language in Public Speaking

Need to give a speech? Plant your feet.

The art of public speaking

Even if you are a one-person shop, you will need to speak to others in public at some point. That could be a sales demo in a retail space, on stage at a seminar, a Zoom call, or an informal “huddle” in the hallway. If you are a manager, you will need to motivate your people. If you are an executive, you need to do all of the above.

Public speaking is an amazing skill, but it is the No. 1 fear for many people. The quickest and easiest way to be more effective is to fix your body language.

“93% of communication is non-verbal”

From a 1967 Albert Mehrabian study to Eddie Izzard, many people have cited the overwhelming importance of body language in public speaking. If your audience is distracted by something you are doing, they will lose interest, and you will lose focus. If you don’t think body language is critical, John F. Kennedy called himself a donut in his famous 1963 speech at the Berlin Wall, and the crowd barely noticed. Regardless of percentages, how you look and sound is way more memorable than what you say. In a study of TED Talks, people liked the speakers just as much with sound as on mute.

Effective public speaking requires focus

When you need to speak in front of others, you need to keep your audience focused on the content you want to communicate. It’s important that you be heard and that your info accomplishes the desired outcome. You’ve thought about what you want to say, you know what your call to action is, and you know how much time you need to deliver your speech. Make sure your audience focuses on what you say, not on you. If there are distractions in the room, your job will be difficult. If you are the distraction, your job becomes exponentially harder.

Happy feet

No, not the quaint family comedy about penguins. This is what happens to the vast majority of public speakers who have not actively trained themselves to avoid it. It starts with a lean, then morphs into a step, then eventually turns into a back and forth shifting of your weight between the front foot and back foot. Sometimes it turns into a few steps back and forth, almost like dancing. It feels good to be moving because it lowers your anxiety and gives you something to do. It’s also killing your presentation. People become more focused on what you are doing and why. Your words drift off into thin air. Mumbles start appearing in the crowd.

Perhaps you’ve done it yourself, but you’ve absolutely seen it (even if only subconsciously). You will definitely see it now.

Happy hands

Less prevalent than happy feet but also a distraction. Rubbing hands together, bending fingers, folding arms, hands in pockets; produces the same effect. The audience starts to focus on your hands to figure out why you’re fidgeting.

Filler words

“um,” “er,” and “ah” are filler words that give the impression of indecisiveness and make you look insecure about what you are saying, as if you might not believe it yourself. If you don’t believe it, why should your audience? Used sparingly and with purpose, they can act as punctuation or a chance to change the presentation’s focus. Used too often, they lose your audience.

Some quick fixes

  1. Plant your feet like a tree.
    • Pretend you are standing in a bucket of cement or strapped into a snowboard. Bend your knees a little to feel the weight of your feet on the ground. Shift your balance around to get comfortable, and then stay there. This will fix 90% of what’s distracting your audience.
  2. Grab something.
    • A presentation remote is your best friend. Place one hand on a podium or a desk. Lean against a sales counter or grab a register. If giving a sales demo, hold the product or a brochure and use it as a visual reference to reinforce what you are saying.
  3. Breathe
    • So much of what trips people up is their inability to relax. Oxygen will help. Taking a long breath can help you form your thoughts. Letting out a long breath will calm your happy hands and feet. People will wait an extra second or two while you compose yourself. The suspense will add importance to what you want to say too.

Purposefully move if you have to

My wife used to love watching daytime dramas. One big thing that always bugged me was how they moved all the time. This is to leverage a multiple-camera setup and stage lighting. People don’t actually move when they’re having a conversation unless they have something to move to or from. The same applies in speeches. If you have a stage, use it to interact with different parts of the audience to help everyone feel included. If you have props for a sales demo, use them to show off the products and features.

Hand gestures are a different animal. They don’t have to make any sense at all as long as you are doing them purposefully. You could be describing a square while moving your hands in a circular motion; the audience won’t notice. But the second you start pulling at a loose thread …

Facial emotion

If you’re telling good news, smile. If you’re delivering bad news, keep a neutral expression. You want the content to do the talking, and your expression should reinforce the meaning behind the content. For example, never smile when you are firing someone. Save the sad face for one-on-one discussions to show empathy. Anger can be effective in specific situations, but a good general rule is to avoid it. Stay professional.

Control your body, control your message

Public speaking requires control and commanding the space you occupy. You are the authority behind your words, so you should also be the authority behind your physical presence. Leadership starts with acting like a leader. Leaders are confident, in control, and knowledgeable. When speaking publicly to an audience of 3 or 300, planting your feet and maintaining focus will give you the best chance of having your voice heard.

Dana Curtis

Dana Curtis


Dana Curtis is the founder and CEO of Biztools, a strategic consulting firm that helps small businesses multiply revenue through improved customer experience and pivot to new markets.

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