The message you deliver in your presentation is what your audience will take home with them: It contains the key points and information that you want them to know and be able to use. Effective verbal communication, including your tone of voice and how you say things, gets your point across. This is the part that we tend to spend the most time preparing. Yet it only constitutes roughly 7 percent of your total communication during the presentation.
The other 93 percent is something we don’t often think about and don’t put nearly enough time into. Even more important than what you say and how you say it is what else you’re doing while you say it. This is your nonverbal communication – the body language cues that you display and your audience picks up on, often subconsciously but sometimes even consciously. The way that you look at others, move your body, and react with expressions tells people a lot: whether you’re telling the truth, listening well, or care about the feelings and opinions of others. Working on improving your nonverbal communication will make what you say that much more effective and can build trust and confidence in your audience.
The Eyes Have It
Eye contact is a matter of balance. Too little, and others will get suspicious: it makes it appear as if you’re hiding something. Too much, and it starts to get scary: prolonged periods of eye contact communicate intimidation and threat. So how long should you look into others’ eyes? The right dosage falls somewhere between four and five seconds, allowing just enough time to seem friendly without coming across as confrontational.
Especially when speaking in front of an audience, posture and stance communicate authority and confidence. Standing upright with a straight (but not stiff) back and with your feet about shoulder width apart give the impression that you (literally) can’t be pushed over. Avoid crossing your arms or putting your hands on your hips too much. Instead, use your hands more naturally in gestures when speaking.
Go the Distance (And Stay There)
Personal space is often a matter of personal preference, or it can be set to a cultural standard (Americans and Japanese tend to stand further apart than people from Europe and South American countries). So diverse are comfort levels with being up-close that an entire area of study has been dedicated to it. Proxemics looks at four main types of personal space – intimate, social, personal, and public distances. Experts have identified the best distances for each – the safe zone for personal space. For public distance, used when speaking to an audience, the ideal distance is about 12 to 15 feet (3.7 to 4.5 m). For personal distance, which applies to most conversations, the average best distance is around 1.5 to 3.5 feet (.45 cm – 1.2 m).
Use Your Head
Sitting too still while interacting with others can make you seem cold, plastic, and disinterested. The other person(s) won’t be able to tell whether you’re listening to them or just sitting there waiting until you can leave. So use your head and respond like a human. Nodding your head and making brief sounds of interest (“Mm-hmm”) lets the other person know you’re listening. It doesn’t mean you agree with them or are saying yes to their proposals. On that note, don’t nod when they’re asking a question and your answer is no – it’s a common miscommunication that can happen when nodding is consciously implemented.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Just as important as being conscious of your own nonverbal communication is being aware of what others are “saying” in their nonverbal cues. Among the numerous ways people can communicate nonverbally – from eye contact to hand gestures to body posture – are clues about what they are thinking and feeling. Just like listening tells you how to respond verbally, these clues give you information about how to respond with your expressions. By paying attention to others, you can improve your own nonverbal communication.
Practice What You Don’t Say
A good presenter spends time in front of the mirror or a mock audience practicing what they’ll say and refining it until it’s ready for show time. Give equal time to preparing what you don’t say by practicing your nonverbal communication. Work it in front of the mirror solo, or ask for feedback from friends or family about how your body language is coming across. Instruct them to specifically pay attention to your movements, which will allow them to give better feedback. Good nonverbal communication can’t be faked – somehow, people know when it’s not natural. The good news is it can be improved with intentional practice.