When Delivering a Presentation, Look at Both Sides of Nonverbal Language

POSTED: Sep. 20, 2016

It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it.

Part of the “how” is nonverbal language.

When you deliver a presentation, people observe two things: Your verbal language – the words you use – and your nonverbal language – what your body language says about you.

In this article, I will present nonverbal language from two different perspectives: Your own nonverbal language that you use while delivering a presentation to others and the nonverbal language that your audience shows to you while you’re presenting. Both forms of communication are beneficial to you as you prepare, deliver and improve upon your presentation style.

First, let’s talk about you, the presenter.

Be Aware of Your Nonverbal Behavior as a Presenter

The most powerful nonverbal cues that you can give to your audience are these:

Walk with confidence. Have good posture. Stand tall. Walk confidently to the presentation area.

Engage in direct eye contact. Look into the eyes of your audience. Don’t look at the walls, floor or ceiling. Definitely do not read your notes to the audience. That will disconnect you from the audience.

Use hand gestures to reinforce your message. This is an important one. When using hand gestures, make sure they look natural. When they are natural, you appear to be authentic, genuine and real. I have seen speakers over-rehearse their hand gestures. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Yet it happens to be true. Over-rehearsing gestures creates a speaker who is artificial and robotic. Gestures, when they come from the heart, are interpreted as being true and honest. With that said, be careful of a few things: Don’t over-exaggerate. If the fish was just this big, then don’t say it was THIS BIG! Don’t use repeated gestures because they can distract the audience from your message. An example: If you have a tendency to “roll” your right hand when you are talking, then you don’t want to continue rolling and rolling and rolling. Pretty soon, the audience looks at your rolling hand gesture and doesn’t listen to your message.

Move a little. Movement is good for presenters. Too much movement is distracting. If you walk from the front of the room to the back of the room, that’s fine. If you move all around the entire room during your entire presentation, your audience will get tired of adjusting their necks or their chairs. A little movement is fine. Avoid repetitive movement. An example: Pacing. When you begin to pace, it creates a rhythm that has an almost hypnotic effect. Think of your pacing body as a pendulum, “you’re getting sleepy, very sleepy.” Before you know it, your audience will be anticipating your next pivot or turn to return to the other side of the room rather than listening to your message. Robotic pacing is a death knell to any presenter.

Express yourself! With more than 100 muscles in your face alone, you have the amazing capacity to share six primary emotions (fear, joy, love, sadness, surprise and anger) and more than 60 emotional expressions. All of that power comes from less than one square foot of space! What are you doing with it? If you are sharing declining numbers, show it. If you are delighted that you exceeded year-end quotas, show it. If you are sharing a sad story, show it. Your facial expressions reinforce your message. Just make sure that they are not in conflict with your message. If you say, “I’m delighted to be here today to deliver this presentation” and your face shows no emotion, your audience will believe your face. They will say, “She’s not really delighted. She looks angry.”

Enhance your image. Your appearance is the first thing people notice when you enter a room. It speaks volumes about who you are as a person and about your level of professionalism. Take a long, hard look at your professional attire. Are you wearing the same suits that you have been wearing since the 1980s? If so, throw them out! Nobody wants to see someone with larger-than-life padded shoulders (just think of the suits that David Byrne of the rock group The Talking Heads wore in the 1980s). Look at the colors you wear. You want to look current, not dated.

A few years ago, I was asked to coach a man on his professional style. The moment he walked into the room, my first impression was set. After we chatted a while, I shared with him those initial thoughts. You see, he was a “mousy” man and everything about him was “mousy.” He wore glasses, a light beige pullover sweater, a light beige shirt and brown pants. His communication style was on the quiet, shy side. Nothing about him stood out or communicated power. He was essentially invisible. I recommended navy blue as a more professional base color for him. Now when he walks into a room, he looks more businesslike and commands attention. A simple wardrobe adjustment has tremendous impact on how others see you.

Pause and be silent. Effective pausing, or silence, is one of the most powerful nonverbal cues that you can use while presenting. Yet, most Americans are accustomed to filling every second with sound. Within a presentation, there are certain portions that you want to emphasize. Let silence help you. You have the option of either saying “Our year-end sales were up 25%” OR “Our year-end sales (pause) were up (pause) twenty (pause) five (pause) percent.” This is much more powerful.

As you can see, your nonverbal language communicates a great deal to your audience.

The more you present, the more confident and comfortable you will feel.

Now, let’s talk about the nonverbal cues of your audience.

Analyze Your Audience’s Nonverbal Language

There is nothing more unnerving to a presenter than standing in front of a group of people for the first time. It could be 50, 500 or 1,000 people. What’s different is that you are often put outside your comfort zone. So why not treat that presentation to a larger group just like you would a one-on-one conversation?

Here are some nonverbal cues for you to be aware of during your presentation that could help improve your future presentations:

The energy level in the room drops. You have a feeling that your audience isn’t energized by your content. Unfortunately, sometimes a presenter can begin to lose energy or interest in his or her own presentation because of how they are interpreting the audience’s behavior. Now would be a good time to use a different approach. Share a short anecdote. Tell a story. Ask a powerful, thought-provoking question. Give a startling statistic. Anything that shakes up your audience will do. If they were with you all along, they’ll be with you even more. If they weren’t with you, they certainly will be now. The more energy you put out to your audience, the more energy they will return to you. It all begins with you.

One person in the audience is distracting you. What happens when you begin focusing on one person who you think is not interested in what you have to say? You make that judgment as a presenter rather quickly. The person’s nonverbal language is “speaking” to you. Sometimes you are right. And sometimes you are wrong. Don’t get distracted by that one person…who may have been up all night with a colicky baby and is falling asleep because of that rather than your content. Here’s my personal experience:

Several years ago, while delivering a full-day training program, I noticed a woman who – to me – seemed disengaged. She was looking down a lot. She wasn’t smiling or laughing at my humor. I was convinced that she wasn’t enjoying my program. (This is what we call “negative self-talk”). After the program ended, as I reviewed the evaluation sheets, I came across hers. I was fully expecting her to give me a 1 or 2 out of 5 points. Instead, she gave me all 5’s and added the comment, “I would attend any future programs facilitated by Christine.” Whoa. That was not the response I expected. Needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised. When we try to read other people’s nonverbal cues, sometimes we are right and sometimes we are wrong. Remember that the next time you try to read one person in your audience.

You are seeing a bored look on everyone’s faces. If you are using a PowerPoint presentation to accompany your remarks, click on the B button on your computer to go to black screen. That alone will get your audience’s attention. What going to black screen allows you to do is focus on a conversation with your audience. There is no other distraction. PowerPoint images, which are visually interesting to look at (sometimes) can also lull your audience to sleep! Take a break. Have a conversation with your audience about your topic for a few minutes. Then eventually click on the B button again to return to your slide presentation. This simple trick provides a simple visual mental shift. Now, if people truly are bored by your presentation, then it’s time for you to give that presentation a complete overhaul.

The next time you prepare for and deliver a presentation, think carefully about your own nonverbal cues and the nonverbal cues you are picking up from your audience. Being aware of both could mean the difference between delivering an average presentation or a stellar one.