If you’re like most people, you think about body language as follows. I’m pretty much in charge of my body. I direct it, from the control tower in my head. I tell it what to do. ‘Make coffee’ I say, and it goes through the motions. ‘Now drink it’ I say, and it obliges. Sure, there are activities like breathing that I let it handle on its own, but that’s mostly low-level stuff I don’t think much about. In short, I live in my body, my brain rules it, and that’s the deal.
It’s actually much more complicated than that. In certain realms, like the realm of emotion, and relationship, and personal safety, just to pick three, your body literally thinks faster than your conscious mind, and rules the roost accordingly.
In other words, the older, lower part of your brain, the one beneath the cerebral cortex, ‘thinks’ non-verbally. And it thinks faster than your conscious cerebral cortex. So many of those things that you do, like hugging your spouse when you see her at the end of a long day, you do because you’ve had an emotional/physical thought first, and a conscious ‘Nice to see you, honey’ thought only afterward. The body is in charge, in short, in some significant areas of human expression.
Why should public speakers care about this? Because what I’ve found Understanding Seduction in working with a thousand speakers over the years is that what your body does under adrenaline, your mind begins to think. So, for example (and this is important), if you’re one of those people who tends to freeze under stress, the kind of speaker that stands in one place, speaks in a monotone, and gestures minimally if at all, then gradually your conscious thought will become more and more restricted as well. You will experience the phenomenon I’ve seen again and again where the speaker becomes verbally limited, getting tied up in word knots and using the same few words over and over again. Or, you’ll miss an obvious answer to a question, or forget to give an important part of your speech.
The body rules. Especially under adrenaline. It’s just trying to keep you alive. So pay attention to it.
What can you do about this phenomenon? If you find yourself getting stuck in some way, climb out of the rut! Force yourself to move, to change the subject. Announce a short break, or walk to the back of the room, or ask the audience to stretch with you. Anything that’s not illegal, immoral, or fattening and that gets you doing something different. You’ll find that your conscious mind and your verbal facility will come to life once again when you do.
Then what? What else do public speakers need to worry about when they’re speechmaking and look down and notice they have a body?
The question I get asked most often about body language is, “What do I do with my hands?” My answer, when there’s a video screen handy, is to show a clip of Leo Buscaglia speaking. Leo was a wonderful public speaker on the subject of relationships and he gestured beautifully with his hands. In fact, his hands virtually told the whole story; you can just about get the speech from his gestures if you turn the sound off.
The point is not that everyone can learn to gesture like Leo, but that you’ve got a much wider range of expressive options that you perhaps realize. Many speakers hold their elbows close in to their sides protectively and wave their hands from the elbows on down. I call this the ‘Penguin Gesture’, and it’s not very expressive. It signals to the audience that you’re nervous, or feeling exposed, or shy.
Don’t get trapped by limiting your hands to a tiny retinue of gestures. Gesture from the shoulder, using the whole arm. Talk with your hands, to the extent that you can do it tactfully and appropriately for who you are.
And one more thing. Keep your gestures open. Don’t fold your hands in front of your chest, or crotch, or put them behind your back. All of these are defensive gestures and will not inspire trust with your audience. Keep your gestures open and reaching toward the audience.