Improve Your Public Speaking Skills, Part Three: Bodily Expression

Your physical activity is another important factor to consider in making a speech. It can reinforce what you say, and it can help to make your message effective. Ignored and uncontrolled, however, it can detract greatly from even the most carefully prepared talk. Whether you are giving a report in class or presenting a proposal at a club meeting, you should be aware of your posture, facial expression, and gestures, and the impression these make on your audience.

Physical Poise

When it is your turn to speak, stand where you are for a moment, take several deep breaths, and straighten your shoulders. Then walk firmly but unhurriedly to the place designated for you. Do not stride pompously, drag your feet lazily—or tiptoe gingerly as if you dreaded the sound of your own footsteps.

When you are ready to speak, you should still be breathing evenly and deeply, so that you may begin talking on a full column of air. Nervousness, at this point, may tempt you to grin or to murmur comments to bystanders. Don’t yield to these temptations. Those present are observing you. An unfavorable impression at the start will be hard to overcome.

Posture. Stand erect but not stiff. Place your feet from six to twelve inches apart (depending upon your height) so that you can shift your weight easily forward and back, and from left to right. Stand comfortably; let your arms hang naturally at your sides. Keep away from chairs, desks, and walls so that you will not be tempted to lean against them.

Directness. If you have prepared your topic thoroughly, you will be animated and eager to speak. Your audience will have sensed your enthusiasm as you walked briskly to a central position, paused to recall your initial sentence, and looked calmly at those present.

Your speech should be relaxed and direct. Dramatic outbursts and fiery emotional displays are effective only when used sparingly. Cultivate, instead, a command of understatement, of the casual quality that allows a great actor like Alec Guinness to seem not to be acting at all.

Facial Expression

Your face mirrors your thoughts. It can communicate complicated meanings and a variety of emotions. Although you can certainly practice various facial expressions and accustom yourself to switching easily from a smile to a disapproving frown, your facial expressions should be sincere and natural. If you plan to look sad at the beginning of the third sentence or to scowl with anger at the end of the second paragraph, your audience will sense your affectation. Your face will reveal only those feelings that stem from conviction. Be convinced yourself and you will convince your listeners.

Eye movements. The way you use your eyes while speaking is a very important part of holding your audience’s attention. Remember that your aim is to communicate, to include the audience in your speech. Look directly at your audience, and try to speak to each as an individual. In the beginning it may help you to select someone in the front row and talk directly to him or her. Then, as you grow in self-assurance, transfer your glance to sides, corners, back, and center of the room. Focus your eyes occasionally on some boy or girl whose lack of attention is apt to disturb you. Your earnest attention will compel this person to listen.

Your gaze, like your manner, can be relaxed and casual. It might wander about the room, even focusing occasionally out the window. Its main object, however, should be the listeners. Not only will eye-contact hold their attention, but by watching them, you will learn things you should know. A smile, a frown, a turn of the head will tell you what sort of response you are getting, and enable you to shift your tone or emphasis as necessary.

Gesture

If you know Frenchmen or Italians, or have had the chance to see foreign movies, you may have noticed the expressiveness with which many Europeans talk. It is exhilarating to watch their expansive gestures and the varied arm and head movements with which they punctuate their conversation.

Gesture is a natural human action. It gives you the chance to attract the eye of your audience as well as its ear. Perhaps the secret of effective gesturing is not being excessively aware of it. The gesture you perform spontaneously when you are concentrating on what you are saying is usually the best one for that moment.

This does not mean that you shouldn’t think about gesturing and decide which gestures are best in certain situations. It means that as you become less restrained and self-conscious, and more concerned with what you are saying, you will naturally increase your physical activity; and your audience will react with you. A wide sweep of your arm as you mention, “the world over”; a pounding of your fist into your palm as you say, “this situation must be corrected immediately”; a vigorous nodding of your head as you affirm, “I know that this problem as a solution—all of these gestures will help bring your speech to life and give it an immediacy that will arouse your audience.

Be careful, however, not to use gestures artificially or too often. As hamlet warned the players, “…do not saw the air too much with your hand.” Avoid, as well, other movements that will distract your audience. Don’t fidget with buttons or lapels, fold and unfold your arms repeatedly, mop your brow, or sway back and forth like a pendulum.

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