The 5-step cure for boring body language

Archive for June, 2011

The 5-step cure for boring body language

Thursday, June 16th, 2011

Could your body language be more expressive? Do you inhibit your natural body language when you’re public speaking because of your self-consciousness?

Or maybe you’ve been told (by a well-meaning but misguided person) that you wave your arms around too much? As a result you’ve shut down your natural gestures and become stiff and boring.

The secret to curing boring body language in public speaking is to replicate the state you’re in when you’re in an animated one-on-one conversation. When you’re in that state your gestures unconsciously complement what you’re saying and give your message energy and persuasive power. You’ll look and feel more confident. And there’s even evidence that natural gesturing makes you more fluent.

Here’s what to do to develop natural, expressive body language when you’re speaking:

1. Empty your hands

Put down anything you’re holding, whether it be a pen, the remote or your notes (once you’re gesturing naturally you can hold your notes or the remote, but for the moment they just make the task of freeing up your gestures more difficult).

2. Keep your hands free

Holding your hands together, putting them in your pockets, or hanging onto the lectern will stop you gesturing.

So where should you put your hands? For the moment just let them hang loosely at your sides (this is a default position – this is not where your hands will stay). I know that this feels awkward. You probably feel a bit like a gorilla! But have a look at the photo to the right… do most of these global leaders look like gorillas? No. The only one who looks awkward is the one who doesn’t have his arms hanging loosely at his sides!

Your hands will probably creep together without you noticing. When that happens, immediately separate them again.

OK. We’ve got rid of the barriers to expressive body language. Now what?

3. Talk to one person at a time

When you’re in a one-on-one animated conversation, your hands naturally gesture. So kick-start your hands into gesturing by replicating that animated state. Do this by looking at one person and feeling in that moment that you’re just talking to them – and to no-one else. At the end of a phrase or short sentence, talk to someone else in the audience. But always be talking to someone (for more tips like this see: 8 presentation tips to make your eye contact more powerful).

4. Move your feet

To enlarge your body language, move your feet. You could for example, move towards the person you’re talking to. The larger body movement will free up your body and will encourage you to make larger gestures. For more ideas on moving while you’re public speaking click here: 9 ways to use space in your presentation.

5. Vary your gestures

Once you’ve opened up your body language, check that you’re not making repetitive gestures. Either ask someone to give you feedback, or video yourself. In my early public speaking days, I watched back a video and saw that my most common gesture was moving my right arm from the elbow outwards – like I was constantly opening and closing a door. Once I was aware of it, I caught myself doing it and was able to change what I was doing.

Remove distracting and repetitive gestures but don’t try and choreograph what you’re saying with specific gestures. It will look forced and unnatural.


Follow these five steps and you’ll develop natural body language that will add energy, engagement and persuasive power to your presentations.


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What to do when you’re losing your audience

Tuesday, June 7th, 2011

Your audience’s attention will fade over time unless you take specific steps to keep them engaged. Here’s a graph showing the attention of university students during a 50 minute lecture – where the lecturer lost his audience (Reference: Hartley J and Davies I “Note taking: A critical review” Programmed Learning and Educational technology, 1978,15, 207-224).

Notice how at 40 minutes the attention seems to go up again (just a little!). I’m guessing that this is the point where the lecturer started his sentence with “In summary…”

And the students perked up their ears again and refocused to get the gist of the lecture. Here’s what happened – the lecturer stumbled upon the audience’s Attention Reset Button. Although our attention span is limited, we do have the ability to refocus on a task. When you push the Attention Reset Button you’re giving your audience that opportunity to refocus.

So that’s what you need to do when you’re losing your audience. Push your audience’s Attention Reset Button. Instead of fading to near zero, your audience’s attention will spring back.

How often should you push the Attention Reset Button

Plan to push the Attention Reset Button about every 10 minutes. This is a practical rule of thumb which seems to work for most audiences. For example, John Medina says in his book Brain Rules:

“I decided that every lecture I’d ever give would come in discrete modules. Since the 10 minute rule had been known for many years, I decided the modules would last only 10 minutes.”


But be aware that your audience’s attention span will vary according to many factors – warmth of the room, time of day, how much sleep they had the night before, how intrinsically interested they are in the topic. Be prepared to adjust to the needs of your audience. For instance in the morning you might plan for intervals of 15 minutes between each Attention Reset. During the potentially sleepy after-lunch slot you might decrease that to 5 minutes.

How to push the Attention Reset Button

1. Tell a story

We’re hardwired to listen to stories. They instantly engage us and require very little effort to stay focused. Even the sleepiest audience-member will perk up when you say “I’ll tell you about a time when this happened to me.”

2. Make them laugh

Nobody can not pay attention when the rest of the audience is laughing. We want to know what’s funny. The critical caveat is that your humor should be relevant to your presentation.

2. Make a transition

In the first graph I showed, the students’ attention rose near the end, and I’ve suggested that that was because the lecturer said “In summary…”

Now, I’m not suggesting that you should say “In summary…” when you’re not planning to summarize, but you can use transition statements as a signal to the audience that they should refocus. They may have got distracted for a couple of minutes and then found it hard to get back on track with what you’re saying. But if you make a transition statement such as:

“So that’s the problem we’re facing, now I’ll go onto my recommendation to address it.”

it gives them an opportunity to get back on board.

3. Break for Q&A

The traditional method of ending your presentation with Q&A is a waste of a great way of re-engaging your audience. A short Q&A session during your presentation is engaging because:

Build Q&A into your presentation, rather than leaving it till the end.

4. Change something…anything

We pay attention to change. You’re probably not aware of the air conditioning hum running in the background, but as soon as it stops you’ll notice it. Here’s what you can change in a presentation:

5. Get them to talk

Allowing people to process your ideas by asking them to talk to the person sitting next to them is an excellent way of re-engaging them. For example, you could ask them to share with their neighbour “What are three things you’ve learnt so far in my presentation”.

6. Get them to write

Asking people to reflect by writing is also useful. For example “Write down three things you’ll do differently as a result of my presentation”.

7. Take a microbreak

In a longer session (anything more than 50 minutes) take a 2-3 minute break for people to stretch their legs, use the restroom and refresh their drinks.

Warning: Be Conceptually Relevant

Don’t be one of those people who tries to spice up a deadly dull presentation with cartoons or funny images which are not conceptually relevant. It looks desperate and research by Richard Mayer (the guru of multimedia learning) shows that it harms the ability of the audience to take in your core message.

Use a variety of buttons

Don’t use the same technique every time – or your audience’s graph will look like this:

Instead use a variety of Attention Reset Buttons. If you’re using my Presentation Planner, here’s an example of how the planner might look with the Attention Reset Buttons highlighted:

What ways do you have of pushing your audience’s Attention Reset Button?


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The 5 Bad Habits of Experienced Speakers

Thursday, June 2nd, 2011

I’ve been through a long journey (25 years) of developing as a speaker. I started off shy, nervous and tentative. Now I’m a high energy, animated speaker and I love connecting, laughing, riffing with an audience. But along the way I’ve picked up some bad habits. Attending Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Retreat helped me identify some of these habits. So I’m starting off this list with my bad habits and then I’ll go onto list habits I’ve observed amongst other experienced speakers.

1. The Plastered-On Smile

At the Story Theater retreat, I discovered that I smile most of the time when I’m speaking. Start talking – smile, that was my pattern. This was a cringe-making discovery. I’ve observed other speakers with this habit and internally mocked them – without realising that I too, suffered from this problem.

For me the habit probably started from wanting to portray myself as warm and friendly to my audiences, but it had become so ubiquitous that I was smiling even when I was describing unpleasant events. I broke the habit by identifying the segments of my presentation when I shouldn’t smile, and then rehearsing those segments consciously keeping my face relaxed. Just before starting my presentation, I would remind myself again of the segments when I didn’t want to smile. Now that I’ve broken the habit, I just remind myself to ‘live my content’, to be in touch with the feelings behind what I’m saying and live those feelings in my speaking.

Doug has written more about this here: Beware the Phony Speaker’s Smile.

2. Relying on memory

As a beginner speaker, I scripted all my presentations word for word. As I became more comfortable and more experienced, I let go of the need for a script and trusted myself to say what needed to be said. I took on the concept that I was communicating ideas, not sentences. And that’s what I teach to most of my clients who are beginner and intermediate speakers.

Doug Stevenson advocates scripting your stories. Having eschewed a script for so long this took me a while to grasp. But here’s the paradox. At some point in your speaking career, you will reach a point where you can’t improve without going back to scripting again. That’s because you should be fine-tuning and replicating your best lines. You can’t do that consistently unless you write those lines down.

I’m lucky in that I work most of my time with my partner Tony and we listen to each other speaking and write down the great lines. They then go into our notes so that we can use them again. If you don’t have a partner to do this for you, record your speeches (it doesn’t have to be a camera, it could just be a sound recording) and then listen back noting your best lines. Now you can consistently replicate them.

3. Hamming it up

As you get more experienced and start to get in the swing of telling stories and acting them out, it gets tempting to ham it up. For example, in one of my presentations I act out the drama I have in my head about people being able to see that I’m nervous as I’m giving a presentation. The more I ham it up, the more people laugh. But there are other situations where hamming it up has no effect at all on the audience. The distinction between these two situations had eluded me. Doug Stevenson had the answer:

Humor is big, drama is small

When you want people to laugh exaggerate. But when you want to portray emotion, think Colin Firth – be subtle.

For more on Doug’s take on humor see: How to be Funnier.

4. Power corrupts

Speaking can be like a drug. Being at one with the audience, riding a wave of interaction and laughter, is a great feeling. You feel on top of the world, with this audience in the palm of your hand. You are all-powerful… and yes, power corrupts!

You start improvising, riffing, you get hyper! Most people in the audience appear to be having a great time. Problem is these manic offshoots don’t take the presentation anywhere.

Sure, play with your audience – but don’t forget the point of your presentation.

5. Throwing out random questions

And then there’s the opposite situation where you just can’t seem to make it with a particular audience. Your best lines are falling flat, you’re facing a sea of unresponsive faces.

Some speakers in this situation get desperate. They depart from their plan and start throwing out random, clichéd questions hoping for just a breadcrumb of interaction from someone… anyone in the audience.

Don’t let it happen to you. Audiences are different. Some will show their delight in the ride overtly. Others may be quieter in their appreciation.

Asking questions of the audience can  be an excellent interactive technique. But your questions should be carefully planned – in their placement, wording and implementation. For more on asking questions check out this post: The 10 steps to asking questions so you get an answer every time.

This is the second of my posts on what I learned from Doug Stevenson’s Story Theater Retreat. Check out the first post: How to Turn your Story into a Movie.

To dig deeper into Doug Stevenson’s insights into advanced speaking buy his book Story Theater Method, and the audio version – which you can get as CDs or downloadable MP3s (disclosure: these are affiliate links which means that I earn a 15% commission if you buy one of Doug’s books or other products). And to go deeper still attend one of his Story Theater Retreats.

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