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You Don’t Say!
Steve Clements & Claudia Coplon

What to say?  What to say? Most of us about to make a speech, presentation, or address in a group meeting spend hours refining the words we will use and the thoughts we plan to express.  We generate notes, write and rewrite our lines, and, if you’re like Dick Clark preparing for his “TV Bloopers,” even plan our adlibs.  Then we practice aloud time and again.  Well and good.  But how often do we practice the non-verbal cues that can make or break the delivery of our message?

To be effective, to capture your audience, you must accompany your verbal text with appropriate movement, posture, and gestures that maximize your message.  Why, with the right positioning, even mediocre words can be substantially enhanced just by what “you don’t say!”

How do you avoid body language that can betray your words, or an unconscious habit here or a nervous tic there can detract from anyone’s eloquence?  Assuming that you are already able to deliver a flawless speech, let’s review some of the non-verbal tactics you should have in your arsenal.

Caught Behind A Lectern?

Use it!  A lectern offers numerous opportunities for body movement that enhances your presentation and establishes authority.  First, stand tall at the lectern – even if you’re not.  Now, take a small step backwards.  This little bit of distance will you keep from leaning over or on the lectern, a position that works only after you have established a familiarity with your audience.

Next, look at your arms.  Are they folded across your chest, dangling at your sides, or even crossed behind you in the military “at ease” position?  Use the lectern as a starting point for your hands.  Poise them on the surface, free to make an appropriate gesture for emphasis.  Now you are ready to make a broad sweep of the arm to indicate expansiveness, extend a palm out to stop a thought process, beckon with raised hands to invite group consensus, and other movements that send their message.

When you begin speaking, move your body towards your audience.  Think of the lectern as a home base, not a prison.  Step to the left to appeal to that side of the room; later move to the right to encompass that portion of audience.  Your goal is to embrace the entire group, no matter how large, with your words and your non-verbal cues.  And, as you make a point, take a pace or two back to demonstrate the power your words had on you.

Talking from notes?  Avoid index cards.  These seemingly inconspicuous bits of paper can be more damaging than helpful.  How often have you seen a speaker bending down to read a point on a card?  Or been distracted he shuffles to the next card before finishing a salient point?  I often find myself assessing the pile remaining, totally distracted as I wait for the flip of the next card.  Rather than using cards, print your key words in large font on one standard sheet of paper.  Then a jog of the memory is just a glance away.

As you talk, use pauses.  Many people fear that, by taking a pause, they will lose the audience in that moment.  In reality, a dramatic pause gives the audience a chance to digest, reflect, and accept the points that you are making as well as lends weight to your last comment.  So pause, smile if appropriate, take a drink of water, or just scan across the audience.  This non-verbal action will provide positive effect.

No matter what size your audience, eyeball the room regularly.  Meet everyone’s eyes at least once if possible.  If you notice someone appears to be glazing over, draw him back into the “conversation” by maintaining eye contact for a period of time.  Pose a rhetorical question and look for a nod that signals he is re-engaged.

By the way, these techniques also work without the lectern.  Think of a Jay Leno who stands in the middle of a stage and turns left then right, stepping back now and again after he delivers a bit of information or joke.  You can do the same.  With or without the lectern, assume a confident stance, gesture with your arms and hands, use pauses, and move around in your “home base” area.

A Few Other Basics

As far as the basics, have someone tape your next presentation or ask a trusted contemporary to help evaluate your non-verbal – and often unconscious — cues.  Stroking a comforting lock of hair when you’re talking or finger combing across your scalp signals to your audience that you are frustrated, nervous – or both!  Moving your fingers over your mouth or cheek when making a point blocks out any volume your voice might carry.  And, for those of you who reach for an object with which to play, gesture or flail into the air, be aware this conveys discomfort and makes your audience edgy.

Having said that, if you have a particular mannerism or gesture that is part of your personality, you can use it as an effective non-verbal cue.  Think of Johnny Carson’s tug to adjust his tie for transition, Bob Dole’s use of a pen jab to demonstrate authority (and cover an incapacitated hand), or JFK’s downward thrust of his index finger to emphasize an important point.  Gestures like these, which often buy the speaker a comfort level, become characteristic and invite audience familiarity.

Lastly, take a look at your packaging.  Remember, your are selling your believability, your opinion, your call for action!  Therefore, your look and attire make a strong statement about the importance you place in your message and your respect for the group you are addressing.  Unless it is a physical education meeting, leave the shorts and sneakers at home.  Dress appropriately for the venue.  (But don’t overdress.  This can put others in an uncomfortable position.)

Bottom line, the next time you’re preparing for a speech, presentation, or group meeting, remember: what you don’t say speaks just as loudly as what you do say!    

Excerpts of this article appeared in the Metro Atlanta Chamber membership newsletter.

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