Business

3 non-verbal tricks to level up your public speaking

"Fake it till you make it" applies

Nick Westergaard (Courtesy photo)
Nick Westergaard (Courtesy photo)

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. How often have you heard that classic turn of the phrase?

When it comes to public speaking and presentation, “how you say it” introduces several factors such as vocal tone and body language that can have a significant impact on your message.

How significant? UCLA Psychologist Albert Mehrabian conducted several studies of non-verbal communication culminating in what’s known as the Seven Percent-38 Percent-55 Percent Rule.

Mehrabian found that seven percent of a message is conveyed through words, 38 percent through vocal elements and 55 percent through non-verbal elements. I’m all for tossing out a tired expression, but when it comes to your presentation, the best chance you have for moving the needle is amplifying how you say it.

Instead of doubling your prep time by adding non-verbal communication research, there are three simple tricks that can lead you down the right path.

To start, we need the help of another axiom: Fake it till you make it. Science actually backs this up, too. Harvard Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy says, “Our bodies change our minds and our minds can change our behavior, and our behavior can change our outcomes.”

To change the outcome of your next talk, try implementing these non-verbal tricks.

Stand Up Straight

In addition to teaching communication, I occasionally consult with political candidates on their message strategy and communication including debate and forum preparation. During the last cycle, a candidate I was working with took a few moments before the beginning of a forum to properly adjust the boardroom chairs used for the forum. She then made a point of sitting up straight for the next 90 minutes.

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“You did great,” I said afterward. “While others were lower and slouched you sat tall and prepared.”

She’d been nervous but her posture told a different story.

A study from the European Journal of Social Psychology found that when job applicants stood up straight instead of slouching, they rated themselves more favorably. They felt more confident by simply standing up straight.

Before your next presentation, take a moment and consider your posture — your feet should be shoulder-width apart. As my choir teacher used to say, imagine a string at the very top of your head slowly pulling your posture straight. Speaking of my choir teacher ...

Eyebrows Up

My high school choir teacher Mike Cooper somehow turned me from a back-row bass into a winning vocal soloist. I can’t read music but I can communicate.

In teaching me how to communicate the lyrics, Coop frequently chimed, “Eyebrows up!” as I sang. He did this for a simple reason. It lightens your vocal tone and makes you sound brighter and more connected with what you’re saying.

As a teacher of communication, I frequently remind my own students to raise their eyebrows to enliven their communication. (It can help you in writing difficult emails that require a positive tone as well).

Eyebrows up also keeps your brow unfurrowed. This is especially useful if, like me, you have an intense listening face.

Raising your eyebrows keeps your facial expression open and your vocal tone light and conversational.

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Arms Out, Palms Up

What do I do with my hands?! This is one of the most common concerns I hear from speakers and presenters.

So what’s the quick fix? For starters, forget the standard “hand pacifiers” such as hands in your pockets (yikes!), hands behind your back (the “in-cuffs” look) and, the worst of all of the bad options, hands clasped in front of you (“the fig leaf”).

Jokes aside, I call these hand pacifiers because that’s what they do — they lock up your hands.

This is a high crime in non-verbal communication as your hands are powerful tools, helping you reinforce key ideas and engage your audience. So what should you do? Find a comfortable, neutral position where you can use your hands as needed.

With your hands at your sides, bring your forearms up so they’re resting at waist level. From here, spread your arms slightly as though you were about to hug someone. Finally, turn your hands so your palms are facing up.

According to the Center for Body Language, this tried-and-true position communicates openness and honesty. You also can do a lot of things from here — make your hands into fists, gesture at something, flip your palms down, bring your hands together and more.

Again, this is a comfortable, neutral position that keeps your hands available to help accent your speech.

Stand up straight, eyebrows up, arms out, and palms up.

Will robotically performing these gestures fix your next presentation? Of course not. But they will start your mind and body down a path that will help you become a more confident and engaging speaker.

l Nick Westergaard is founder of Brand Driven Digital; nick@westergaard.com; @NickWestergaard

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