Actions Speak Louder Than Words: The Body Language Guide
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If we apply the age-old adage of ‘actions speaks louder than words’ to a more general, Public Speaking & Communications scenario, we will quickly realize how true it rings. Why is it that a Professor who smiles in class seems to make a lot more sense than one that doesn’t? Why is it that the entire world has gone gaga over Shahrukh Khan’s iconic ‘arms wide open’ pose? Why is it that when a speaker on a stage looks directly at us in the audience, do we automatically stay engaged with the content?
All of the above happens because our Body Language, much before we have actually spoken, sends subliminal signals to the onlooker, to the listener, to the viewer. We might have the most vital information to share, the most well-researched speech to deliver, the most insightful opinion to propagate; if we do not accompany this with a healthy, positive body-language that ‘communicates’ a friendly, open, two-way dialogue; we will fail to make an impact. We will simply not be effective, or memorable.
Today, Students ranging from middle school through to college, and young adults who form a large part of the job-aspirants pool, are faced with numerous situations in which they need to present themselves in the best possible manner, in public. It could be a Speech at school, an Inter-College Debate, a Job Interview; students and millennials are constantly in various scenarios where they are engaging with others. In order to establish a genuine connection, convince, impress and stand-out, it is vital that they project a positive body language.
Arguably the most underrated facet of a positive body language, also often misconstrued as being unprofessional; a smile is absolutely essential when interacting in a public environment. Not only does it positively predispose the person with whom the interaction is taking place, but it also humanizes the speaker. Always remember to smile. Not smiling can come across as arrogant and/or sullen, neither does any favours!
While standing or sitting, it is essential to maintain a firm yet relaxed stance and posture. Being too casual, which leads to slouching and hunching, sends a signal that you are not serious, not invested, and not interested. Stand straight, and sit upright. Some people, us Indians especially, while interacting with people we consider senior or authority figures, tend to develop an unconscious ‘bend’, arching our backs and folding our hands behind us. To us, this may be an automatic, reflex action, out of courtesy. However, it comes across as subservience. It is to be avoided. My point is, be normal in your posture.
Hands & Gestures
A lot of us, especially when delivering speeches, tend to freeze up like robots behind the podium on stage. We hardly move. We don’t use our hands. The audience, in this case, will always perceive us as boring and/or nervous. The thing to remember is that a speech should not seem like a one-way communication. It should not seem like a lecture or a sermon. Just as we would naturally and instinctively use hand gestures while talking to friends in a regular conversation, it helps to do the same in a public speaking scenario too. It has multiple benefits. First, it helps us pace our speech in a more relaxed, natural manner, without even realizing it. Second, it helps us make and demonstrate our point better. Third, it makes the speech seem conversational, which, contrary to popular belief, is a good thing.
The only two actions we must avoid are to cross our arms and cover our torso area because that seems as if we are ‘closed off’ and not open for dialogue. And second, to not point in an instructional manner that comes off as patronizing. Aside from these two actions, One should wholeheartedly encourage using hand gestures, freely.
Eye Line Division
If we are in conversation with a single or a couple of people, like in an interview or at a networking event, we must make it a point to maintain eye-contact with the people we are in conversation with. It is a sign of confidence, involvement, and engagement. Not making eye contact has the danger of being perceived as a lack of confidence.
In a larger public address situation, where one is addressing an audience from the stage, it is equally important to give the impression that one is looking directly at every individual of the listening audience. This can be achieved by a simple eye-line-division technique where you mentally divide the audience into three quadrants – stage left, stage centre, and stage right. And through your speech, intermittently change the direction of your gaze to each quadrant. By looking in one general direction, it creates the illusion that everyone in that quadrant is being directly addressed. The audience feels involved, individually addressed and therefore stays more engaged.
When we are on stage delivering a speech or putting forth an argument during a debate, we tend to confine ourselves physically to one part or portion of the stage, mostly behind the podium. Consider this for a moment. Why is it that drivers tend to fall asleep most often during highway driving, and not during in-city driving? It is because most highways tend to be poker-straight roads that induce boredom, and eventually, sleep. When we confine ourselves to one spot on stage, to our audience, we become that poker-straight, boring, sleep-inducing highway!
If we walk about on stage, front to back, left to right, we give the audience a chance to break the monotony of looking at us for an extended period of time, fixed at one place. We inadvertently make the audience travel with us on stage. This subconsciously keeps an audience engaged, and involved.
Once again, there might be people who feel that leaving the podium is unprofessional, or that it dilutes the sanctity and seriousness of the event; I’d think not. What is the point of making that all-important presentation when half the audience is drifting off?
So the thing about positive body language is that we need to strike a balance between seeming too casual, and too formal. And the only way of perhaps succinctly encapsulating it is for our body language to communicate a ‘conversational’ vibe. Make your actions support your content, not work against it.