In the 1970s, Albert Mehrabian, a communications scholar at UCLA, sparked a revolution in our understanding of presentation skills. His experiments showed that a listener’s emotional response to a speaker’s message had more to do with the speaker’s facial expression and tone of voice than the actual words the speaker used. He expressed it as an equation: “Total Liking = 7% Verbal Liking + 38% Vocal Liking + 55% Facial Liking.”
For the next 30-40 years, popularizers and consultants went crazy with Mehrabian’s findings, claiming they indicated that nonverbal communication carries more meaning than a speaker’s actual words. Anybody who has sat through a college lecture knows this is unlikely. Mehrabian was talking not about meaning but about feelings and attitudes. So don’t believe it when someone tells you that you say more with tone and body language than you do with words. Nevertheless, Mehrabian’s work makes it clear that your presentation skills need to incorporate tone and body language, because getting those things wrong can sabotage your message by causing a negative emotional response. In other words, your presentation is always more than what you say.
As a presenter, you have a responsibility to your message. You must use your presentation skills to present it both clearly and effectively. That means you should exercise care in your body language. You need to appear both natural and enthusiastic. The elements of a presenter’s body language are facial expression, balance, foot placement, and gestures.
- Facial expression should be engaging and friendly. The best way to achieve those qualities is to smile. A smile animates your face and makes you more interesting. It also makes an audience like you more and helps you to connect with them. So look audience members in the face and smile.
- Balance means distributing your weight equally between your feet. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands at your sides (except when you’re gesturing). No matter what your message is, this posture reinforces it by conveying directness and authenticity. Good posture projects energy; poor posture projects apathy or uncertainty. When you’re upright and balanced, you look like you’re ready for anything. Upright does not mean stiff.
- Foot placement means staying in place without shifting, pacing, or tapping, all of which convey the impression of nervousness. To emphasize a thought, you can walk straight ahead, closer to the audience, but when you do, stop, deliver the thought, then return to a more neutral position.
- Gestures are from the shoulder so they involve the entire arm. They are away from the body and always performed with an open palm. Make them with one arm at a time, because when you gesture with both arms, your hands tend to follow each other, which looks like a dance movement. And use your gestures to illustrate what you are saying.
Don’t just plan on using this body language when you make your presentation. Rehearse these behaviors beforehand. Rehearsing helps you develop the muscle memory that eventually makes these behaviors feel natural. In our Executive Presentation Skills® program, we make extensive use of video so participants can view their own body language and see it improve as they learn these behaviors.