Presentation GesturesWhether you are brand new to speaking or you have been presenting for years, you will want to look confident when you stand up to speak. This can be a challenge though if you are really nervous. We are always afraid that the nervousness that we feel will be obvious to the audience. So, how do you look poised and confident in front of a group, even if you don't actually feel confident yet?

Move When You Need to Move

The best rule of thumb for gestures and movement while public speaking is simple—move when you need to.

When I first began speaking, I was always concerned with trivial things such as what should I do with my hands? Should I scan the audience with my eyes, or look over everyone’s head? How do I keep from fidgeting?

Because I focused on those trivial things, my message was lost in a lot of minutia. I was more focused on myself and less focused on the message that I was trying to deliver. Consequently, I distracted myself, I lost my place and made myself more nervous, which caused me to fidget, avoid eye contact with my audience, and worry more about my hands. It was a reinforcing downward spiral.

However, once I began doing the few things we’ve covered on this website and in our podcasts, my gestures and movement improved automatically. In stead of focusing on NOT looking nervous, I began to focus on increasing my enthusiasm about my topic. Instead of focusing on listing off a bunch of bullet points, I began to focus on delivering my content using compelling stories. (It is almost impossible to tell a story without using great gestures.) Instead of focusing on how I looked, I focused on what the audience wanted to know about my topic. With each of these alterations, my focus shifted off of myself and onto my message. Many of the nervous habits went away automatically without me having to do anything at all.

However, there are a few things that we can consciously do to make ourselves appear more poised in front of a group. Keep in mind that as you become more confident in front of a group and more self-assured when you speak, many of these things will happen automatically. So don’t spend a lot of time thinking about these things in the beginning. As you become more and more confident, if you find that some of these things are still distracting you, then focus on improving one area at a time.

Set Up Your Room for Success

One of the biggest mistakes that I see presenters and meeting organizers make is to setup the room for failure. About 90%+ of all office meeting rooms are equipped in a way that forces the speaker to limit his/her gestures and movement. Since we limit the size of our presentation classes to about 10 or fewer people, we are often delivering these classes in a boardroom. In fact, last week, I taught a class in Chicago where the room was only about 20 ft by 30 ft in size. The boardroom table took up about 70% of the room and was placed right in the center. The drop-down screen was in the middle of one of the 20 ft walls, and the screen was about six foot wide. Mathematically, if I wanted to use that screen, I would have had to pick one side of the room or the other to present from (since the screen was in the middle of the room). So I would have had to present from an area that was about 6 ft X 4 ft in size. Kind of hard to move a lot if you are in a refrigerator box sized space.

So, just placed a whiteboard off to the corner of the room and projected my slideshow onto it. The whiteboard only took up about three-square-feet of space. As a result, I was able to use the remaining 70-square-feet of space to present.

Many audio-visual people have learned from past mistakes. Often, now, when you go to a conference, you will see a stage or speaker area in the middle of the room. In addition, you will often see dual screens, one on each side of the front of the room. This works much better for the speaker. Setting up the room properly will allow you to move more effectively!

The Five Best Ways to Improve Your Movement and Gestures When you Present

  1. Create a Good First Impression Before Your Even Say Anything.

  2. Realize that the first impression that your audience has of you often is created before you take the stage. The way you carry yourself, your posture, and your conversations with audience members can all have a part in creating your first impression. So, as you walk to the front of the room, make sure your chin is up, make eye contact with a few friendly faces, smile, and have some enthusiasm in your step. An easy way to harness enthusiasm is to just walk about a stride or so faster than your normal pace.

    This one simple thing can have a profound effect. What is your automatic impression if the speaker slowly walks to the front with little or no enthusiasm? Chances are you will begin to think that this meeting is going to be dull. Even before the speaker opens his or her mouth.

  3. Stand with Poise, Shoulders Back, Weight Evenly Distributed.

  4. Once you take the stage, make sure to distribute your weight evenly on both feet. The reason is that if your weight is centered on one foot, eventually, you will tire. You will then want to shift to the other foot. Before long, you will constantly be shifting from one foot to the other. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it might eventually become a distraction to your audience. Anything that distracts from your message can have a negative impact on your performance.

    In addition, you want to use your posture to show the audience that you are confident, poise, and in control of the room. You can do this simply by standing with your shoulders slightly back. Make eye contact with friendly faces in the audience. This will help the audience members feel that you are speaking to them directly instead of lecturing to them. It will also help you build confidence, because these people will give you subtle positive reinforcement like nods and smiles.

    If your shoulders are slumped over and your back is arched, you'll look like your on your way to the gallows. You'll look defeated. Use you presence to take control of the room, and your audience will pay attention to your words more closely.

  5. Drop Your Hands to Your Side, and You Will Use them More.

  6. If you’ve ever wondered, “What do I do with my hands?” don’t worry. That is a natural question that almost everyone has when they begin to present. The answer is to drop your hands to your side when you are not using them. It will feel unnatural at first, but you’ll find the results quite rewarding.

    If you clasp your hands in front of you, then when you need to use them, you have to first let go, and then use them. And your subconscious mind would rather just keep them clasped. Therefore, we miss opportunities to make natural gestures. If you were in the military, you are probably more likely to rest your hands behind you. This can be negative for the same reason, but can be doubly distracting because people in the audience after a while will begin to wonder, “What is the speaker doing behind his/her back?” You’ll find that when you drop your hands to your side, you will be much more natural at using them to dramatize your speech when you need to.

    People will often argue with me when I make this suggestion to them, because they hear me saying, "Keep your hands by your side." That is absolutely NOT what I'm suggesting that you do. I'm suggesting that you start with you hands by your side, because now, when you make a gesture, it will be powerful. If you have your hands clasped in front of you, if you do make a gesture, the gesture will be very weak. Try a quick exercise. Clasps your hands in front of you (somewhere between your navel and your chest). Now, break the clasp and move your right hand up and to the right. How far did your hand move? If you are like most people, only about six inches. Now, drop your hands to your sides. Move your right hand to the exact same spot it was a few seconds ago. How far did it move this time? If you are like most people, about two and a half feet. That additional movement is perceived by your audience as energy and enthusiasm.

  7. Avoid Repetitive Gestures.

  8. Move around as much as you need to when it is appropriate. But always remember to avoid repetitive patterns. Anything you do too much can be a distraction. I had a professor in college that always paced back and forth in the same manner throughout the entire lecture -- every day. He also had a habit of carrying ChapStick in his pocket and pulling it out sometime during each class and applying it on his lips.

    It became an inside joke among the students. We used to joke about how one day the stage was going to collapse in that two foot wide strip that he wore out each day. We also had a daily pool betting on what minute of the lecture the ChapStick would appear.

    It was kind of humorous, but it didn't help us remember the content of his lectures.

  9. Move Bigger.

  10. There is very little difference between movements and gesture that you would do when you speak to someone in a one-on-one situation and the gestures you might use in front of a group. The only major exception to this rule is that as your audience gets bigger, so should your gestures. You may have to exaggerate your gestures if you are speaking to a coliseum, but in most cases, do what comes naturally.