Conquer Your Fear of Public Speaking With Better Body Language

Project 5 of the Competent Communication Manual


Toastmasters is one of the best ways to learn public speaking. In Toastmasters clubs worldwide, members follow a set program to improve their communication and leadership skills. The first public speaking guide you receive when you become a member of Toastmasters is the Competent Communication manual. The CC manual goes over various basic aspects of public speaking - such as vocal variety, visual aids, and speech organization. Project 5, Your Body Speaks, goes over one of the most essential aspects of public speaking - body language. This article contains some advice to help with this speech project - both for Toastmasters, and for public speaking in general.

Read Up On Reading Body Language

For "Your Body Speaks", the first step would be to look up resources on how to read body language. My personal favorite body language book is What Every Body is Saying by Joe Navarro, a former FBI investigator who is an expert on the subject. The book goes into great detail about the psychology behind body language, what certain gestures say, and how to interpret people’s gestures.

Your Toastmasters Competent Communication manual will also contain some good information on the Your Body Speaks project page - though it tends to be a bit broad and doesn’t go into a lot of detail. Another excellent book is The Art of Public Speaking by Dale Carnegie; while it’s not specifically about body language, it does contain a lot of great tips for that and other aspects of public speaking.

Keep Your Hands Where I Can See Them - Hand Gestures

Hand gestures are very important when it comes to your stage presence. People are hard wired to notice people’s hand movements, and in any presentation people will pay a lot of attention to your hands. In general, you want to avoid closed gestures, and keep your hands VISIBLE with a reasonable amount of movement. Body gestures that put a distance between you and your audience - such as crossed arms - are something you want to avoid. Gestures that imply an air of superiority over your audience - such as putting your arms behind your back in a “pensive” gesture - are also not recommended.

Putting your hands to your waist in an aggressive or authoritarian way - arms akimbo - is more threatening than authoritative for your audience.  Also be careful about pacifying behaviors - that is, things like touching your head nervously, holding and rubbing your hands together. These are clear signs of nervousness that will detract from your stage presence and message you want to present.

Depending on the style of your Toastmasters presentation - whether it’s a humorous, serious, or informative speech - the style of hand gestures and movement are obviously going to vary. Toastmasters members tend to think that you always have to use exaggerated movements, but this isn’t the case. For my project, I gave a humorous speech where I talked about my work teaching children in Asia, so exaggeration was definitely appropriate. However you can also impress with more subtle, understated gestures.

Conquer Your Fear - Movement and the Fight or Flight Response

Movement is one of the most important things to learn in Toastmasters. Standing completely still during the "Your Body Speaks" project makes you look nervous, no matter how good your body language is otherwise. Moving too much will have the same effect - I’ve seen Toastmasters speeches where speakers pace nervously back and forth across the stage. The reason is simple - both make it look like you’re in fight or flight mode. As an instinctive reaction to danger, people tend to first freeze, then run away, then fight (if necessary). An excess of stillness or movement is going to make your audience think you’re incredibly scared.

So don’t be afraid to walk around the stage a little, so long as you’re not going overboard. An excellent and easy tip to implement is this -walk to a different part of the stage as you transition to a new point. This serves as a visual exclamation mark of sorts, and helps to hold your audience’s attention.

Involve Your Audience with Eye Contact

Eye contact is a simple thing to talk about, but in practice it can be one of the hardest things  for a new Toastmasters member. Like with hand gestures and movement, people often tend towards extremes when looking at the audience. Some do not make eye contact at all. Some have a bad habit of practically staring at one side of the audience - making a large portion of your listeners feel unincluded. Like with a lot of things involved in giving presentations, eye contact requires a balancing act. Make sure you’re giving your whole audience attention, periodically changing your view in order to make everyone feel involved.


Body Language with Visual Aids
Giving a speech with a good Powerpoint Presentation can add a lot to your public speaking. (A later project in your Competent Communication manual is about visual aids). When you’re using visual aids, however, there are few things to keep in mind.

First off, make sure you are not looking at your Powerpoint too much. This is an easy habit for beginning Toastmasters to get into, but it creates a distance between you and your audience, and makes you look nervous. Secondly, make sure you’re not standing in front of the projection screen. It sounds like an easy thing, but I’ve seen too many speeches where the speaker is standing in front of the screen, thus blocking people’s view. It ends up looking very awkward.

Finally, when using visual aids, much of your movement across the stage is obviously restricted. So instead of movement, you’ll have to rely more on other aspects of body language, like hand gestures.

The Toastmasters Competent Communication Manual teaches you the basics of public speaking. While much of learning about giving presentations involves learning as you go, it can help to have some useful advice to guide you along. Using some of the tips outlined above, you can improve your body language significantly.


What Every BODY is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Speed-Reading People
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