What You Say When You Don’t Say a Thing: The Power of Body Language

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Go to YouTube, and pick a video of someone giving a speech. Watch it without any volume. You won’t catch the specifics of what she’s talking about, but can you tell how she feels? Is this a somber event or a celebration? Is the speaker nervous or confident? Does she seem like a capable leader?

You probably had definitive answers for each of those questions. So how is it that you could glean so much about the speaker and the event without hearing a word that was spoken?

That’s the power of body language.

Body language includes the posture, gestures, facial expressions, and movements that contribute to a speaker’s presence, doing more than the words themselves to indicate how the speaker feels—and how the audience should feel—about the message.

Body Language Enables Emotional Contagion

Have you ever referred to somebody’s excitement (or bad mood) as “contagious?” It may be a figure of speech, but it’s not inaccurate.

“Emotional contagion” refers to the idea that we can “catch” the feelings and moods of the people around us, and we do it primarily through body language. If somebody’s leaning toward you a bit while telling a story, using big hand gestures and happy facial expressions, you’re likely to pick up on her excitement and start to feel just a little giddy, yourself. If the authority figures in an emergency situation are projecting calm confidence, you’ll feel more at ease; but if they’re wringing their hands and pacing the floor, you’re likely to be just as nervous as they are.

And as a speaker in a professional situation, you have the same power to influence your audience’s emotions by the way you carry yourself, the way you gesture, and the way you move on stage.

4 Ways to Ensure Your Body Language Is Getting the Right Message Across

There are countless things to think about in terms of presence in front of an audience, but we’ve highlighted some of the most important for you here.

1.   Use Natural, Organic Gestures

If you’ve ever seen a speaker or actor gesticulate wildly, you know how distracting it can be. And if you’ve ever seen someone stand with his hands at their sides for an entire presentation, you know that’s not good, either. Focus on using your hands in a way that feels natural and purposeful, emphasizing key points or helping the audience follow along with your message. Quantified’s friend and occasional research partner, Science of People’s Vanessa Van Edwards, recommends imagining a box in front of you—not unlike the strike zone in front of home plate—and keeping your gestures within that box to avoid making them too dramatic.

2.   Make Eye Contact

Well-meaning people often tell nervous speakers to look just over the audience’s head. This doesn’t work. Your audience will know that you’re not connecting with them and, in return, they’ll disengage. Instead, make direct eye contact, focusing on individual audience members in each part of the room. But don’t get yourself locked in a staredown, either! Quantified’s research shows that the sweet spot for holding eye contact with any one audience member is about three seconds.

3.   Stand Up Straight

Have you ever watched somebody hunch over the podium or slouch around the stage during a talk? You probably thought he looked nervous, or as though he’d rather be anywhere else but talking to you, and chances are you don’t remember much of what he said. When you’re addressing a crowd, be sure you’re standing up straight in a relaxed but engaged posture. You can even lean toward the audience just a bit to create a sense of closeness and intimacy between you and the people you’re talking to.

4.   Practice

It’s a strange phenomenon, when we get into an uncomfortable situation—whether we’re on stage in front of hundreds of people or in a one-on-one conversation with somebody who makes us nervous—and we suddenly forget how our hands work or how to plant our feet. But just like with every skill, practice makes better.  The only way to really understand and internalize the postures, expressions, and gestures that feel natural in our bodies is to practice. The rule of thumb is one hour of practice for every minute of performance, but at the very least it’s important for speakers to get at least three full runs in before it’s time to take the mic. That gives them the opportunity to work out the kinks and get a sense for how body language and content can work together to wow the audience.