Don’t Be a Slouch: The Importance of Nonverbal Communication
When I was in elementary school, the teacher asked one of my classmates a question. He shrugged. “I don’t understand that,” she told him. “You have to tell me in words what you mean.” Obviously, she was telling a fib. According to a number of studies, nonverbal communication makes up more than half of what we communicate to others. This means it’s very important to be aware of your body and what you may be communicating – often unintentionally. Following is a list of things you should be sure NOT to do when you appear before an audience.
- Don’t slouch. This can convey that you’re tired or that you don’t want to be standing there in front of an audience. Even before you start your presentation, you’ll communicate a negative image, and the audience will react – often with resentment. “If the speaker is slouched over,” the audience may think, “he doesn’t care. And if he doesn’t care, why should we?” Instead, stand up straight, not still like a steel rod, but comfortably. If you’re too rigid in your stance, you’ll communicate the message that you’re uptight.
- Don’t cross your arms. This indicates that you’re “closed” to the audience. This too is a negative gesture. It tells the listeners you don’t really want to talk to them; you’d rather be somewhere else. On the other hand, with your arms at your side you communicate a desire to address the audience. You’re telling them nonverbally, that you’re interested in your topic and in communicating with them.
- Don’t use unnatural gestures. Follow through with the entire body. It comes across as funny to an audience if you gesture with just your arm, for instance, without following through. And don’t make hand gestures down near your waist. Make them full and open. If you’re the type of person who normally uses a lot of gestures, go ahead and use them as often as you like in your presentation. On the other hand, don’t force gestures. If you don’t normally use gestures, don’t try to use them in a presentation. If you do, this invariably calls attention to itself. Although some experts on public speaking recommend planning where to use gestures and exactly what kind to use, I feel they should grow naturally out of what you want to see. Otherwise, the presentation becomes much too mechanical.
- Don’t pace from fright to left or back to front. Certainly, there are times when you want to change position, and that’s fine. But limit this to those times. For instance, you may want to move from one spot to another when you finish one point in your talk and begin another. This tells the audience: “Okay, we’re finished with that part. Let’s concentrate on something new.”
- Don’t fuss around with anything while you’re in the middle of a presentation. This can include many different things – smoothing the hair behind the ears repeatedly, playing with a pen or even clicking it, pushing your glasses repeatedly back farther on your nose, shuffling your notes, playing with a button. All these things indicate nervousness, and soon the audience is going to start paying attention to how many times you shuffle the notes, rather than to the presentation itself.
- Don’t lose eye contact with the audience. You’re talking to them, not at them. Now can be one of the times you move from one place to another. Look the audience members in one section in the eye and then move on to another section. If you don’t maintain eye contact, it can signal that you’re ashamed of the speech, that you’re saying something dishonest, or that you’re fearful.
- Don’t worry about what to do with your hands. This is a very common problem. In everyday life we almost never think about where our hands are placed or how they appear to others. But as soon as we’re in front of a lot of people, our hands often become the center of attention. What I recommend – though it may seem a little unnatural at first—is to let them hang at your sides, except when you’re using a prop, changing from one note card to another, or maybe pointing out something you particularly want the audience to see on a slide. Don’t hang onto the lectern. This also conveys nervousness or the feeling that you want to be anyplace but in front of an audience. Also, don’t hook your thumbs in your belt or stuff them in your pocket. This may be okay for comedy routines, but not for a serious speech.
- Don’t turn away from the audience. Face them. Yes, in everyday life we often talk to friends and family when we’re not facing them. But the situation in a presentation is entirely different. The audience wants to know that you do have a message for them – not for the side wall or the ceiling lights. Besides, if you show you’re in profile, it may be difficult for them to catch what you’re saying.
- Don’t rock back and forth; this can be very annoying, and is going to take the attention away from what you’re saying. Plant your feet firmly. Don’t lift one or the other unless there’s a good reason – such as moving from one spot to another. Along the same lines, don’t rock backward and forward. This conveys the same sort of message as rocking back and forth.
- Don’t move and speak too quickly. Doing so is generally a result of nervousness. It’s telling the audience I want to end this speech as quickly as I can and get out of here. Rather take your time; it’s much easier to go too fast than too slow.
In summary, try to be as natural as you can. Usually, the more practice you have in appearing before audiences, the more confident you feel. Just be sure to avoid nervous habits, to appear open and ready to present something useful to the audience. Then you shouldn’t have problems.