The best rule of thumb for gestures and movement while public speaking is simple—move when you need to.
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 in the first few chapters—being enthusiastic about my topic, telling more stories, using the persuasive technique, the Incident-Action-Benefit (IAB) formula (See Developing a Persuasive Speech) -— 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 selfassured 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.
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.
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, it will tire, you will want to shift to the other foot, and before long, you will constantly be shifting from one foot to the other. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but it might eventually become a distraction to your audience, and anything that distracts from your message can have a negative impact on your performance.
If you’ve ever wondered, “What do I do with my hands?” don’t worry. That is a natural question that almost everyone has. 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.
What about eye contact? 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.
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.
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.