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Capture an Audience's Attention: Points on Posture, Eye, Contact and More
By Marjorie Brody   Printer Friendly Version

The way we deliver our message to other people is made up of three components, what I call the three V's: Visual, Vocal, Verbal. Each carries a percentage of the listeners' perception of the total message. These overall percentages can vary based upon the speaker, the subject and the audience. However, the visual component usually carries the most weight with audience members -- a person's body language, posture, eye contact and facial expressions are the main areas in this equation. This follows the theory that first impressions count.


Have you ever watched a speaker sway or rock at the podium or in front of a room? It's very distracting and can detract from even the most interesting presentation.

How you appear to the audience will have an impact on their reaction to what you are going to tell them. Your posture and the way you conduct yourself on the platform is an important part of your presentation. Your objective is to be comfortable and controlled while you are presenting. You want the audience to see that you are relaxed and in control (no matter how you really feel!).

Stand up and spread your feet about 6 to 8 inches apart, parallel to each other with your toes pointed straight ahead to achieve a comfortable speaking position. Then, flex your knees and put your weight on the balls of your feet. Standing in this position will stop any swaying or rocking motion and will diminish any distracting heel movements.

Stand up straight and face the audience head-on. Keep your posture open with arms relaxed and hanging down at your sides. If your arms are crossed in front it may make you seem defensive. Hold your head up high with your chin up. Having your chin raised gives you the aura of being in control; chin down connotes acquiescence. Visual signals that make you appear not to be in control will detract from your presentation.

Reading from prepared notes or a script contributes to the problem of lowering your chin.
One way to eliminate this is to use 8 ½ x 11 inch paper. Write on only the top two-thirds of the page so your eye doesn't move down or you drop your chin, which also makes your voice go down.

If you must read word for word from a manuscript, use the scope technique -- slide your thumb and pointer finger down the page, scoping one section at a time. This will help you to find your place after you look up at the audience. It is critical that the manuscript is easy to read.

When you are seated, you want to look energized and confident. You don't want to lean or slouch or appear too comfortable or relaxed. Proper seated posture when you are presenting (or just want to look good at a meeting) is sitting straight up in your chair, spine straight, with your feet flat on the floor and hands open on the table.

You Can Use Gestures Effectively

Gestures, a form of body language, are also a part of your overall visual picture. They are visual reinforcements of the words and ideas you are trying to communicate to your audience. Gestures include hand, arm, and head movements and can enhance your presentation or detract from it. Have you ever had a conversation with someone who "talks with their hands?" It some cultures, it is an accepted and commonplace addition to spoken communication. In our culture, some hand gestures such as finger pointing and fist raising can be interpreted as hostile or threatening.

Another negative related to gesturing concerns the position of a speaker's hands and arms. When giving presentations, men frequently stand in the "at ease" position commonly used in the military. They cross their hands behind their backs, and they keep them there. Or they cross their hands low in front of them like a fig leaf on a statue. Both men and women frequently cross their arms over their chests thinking they appear relaxed and confident. To many in the audience, this stance makes the speaker look merely defensive. By facing audience members with your arms crossed you are closing yourself to them, and they will sense this. Since your objective is to communicate with openness and sincerity, you want to make open gestures to reinforce what you are saying.

Another gesture to avoid is putting your hands in your pockets. Some nervous presenters use this as a way of keeping their shaking hands out of sight, and often wind up jingling the change in their pocket or their keys, without realizing it. Some people can't get their hands back out again and wind up spilling out the contents of their pockets as they try to release their hands. To avoid embarrassment, it's wise to empty your pockets of change and keys before presenting.

Clasping your hands into a folded position as when praying is another gesture to eliminate. This gesture tightens you up and pulls in your energy instead of releasing it and allowing you to reach out to the audience. A weak twirling motion with your hands or wagging your fingers when making a point also indicates your unease to the audience.
Gestures also help you to emphasize important points during your presentation. They reinforce what you are saying with a visual message. The most effective gestures are spontaneous ones. They come from what you are thinking and feeling and they help the audience to relate to you and what you are telling them. It is much more effective to watch a speaker who uses movement than to listen to someone standing behind a lectern with hands clasped in front of him.

Have you ever watched an evangelist on television using wide, sweeping gestures while speaking? These gestures are effective because they include everyone, making viewers feel a part of things even though they are simply watching from their own home. As a presenter in a business setting, you will be using gestures sparingly, and only to emphasize points in your presentation.

But like the TV evangelist, when you gesture, use the upper quadrant of your body, and make your gestures up and out to the audience. Your movements should be broad and flowing, not fast and jerky. The most effective gestures are natural extensions of yourself.

Your gestures should be varied; don't use the same motion over and over again. Repetition can be distracting to audience members and you may find they are watching your gestures instead of listening to the presentation. Some gestures interfere with the audience's ability to pay attention, such as the threatening ones mentioned earlier (finger pointing and fist waving). Instead, use your palms and open them out to your audience. Move your arm and hand as a single unit gesturing up and out toward the audience. Use either one or two arms. Try a sweeping motion and relate the extent of your gestures to the size of your audience. Bigger audiences need bigger gestures. Don't forget that nodding the head, and smiling are effective ways to emphasize what you are saying. As a presenter who uses gestures effectively, you will be projecting confidence and competence and the response you get from your audience will let you know when you have succeeded.


If possible, it is advisable to practice your presentation in the room where you will be giving it. If not, simulate the environment in your home or office. This will enable you to check your equipment and get comfortable in the room and address another key area of the visual message: a speaker's movement.

If you're using a podium or lectern, make sure it is placed where you want it. If someone will be speaking before you, note where you want the lectern placed in case it is moved prior to your presentation. Remember that standing behind the lectern for any length of time separates you from audience members when your objective is to bring yourself closer to them. If you are nervous and need to refer to your notes, walk behind it again when you feel the need. Speakers who spend their entire presentation behind the podium can be perceived as aloof.

Take at least two steps -- to avoid a one-step dance -- and then get back into position. Stay for awhile to avoid pacing. Use movements to establish contact with your audience. Getting physically closer to your audience increases its attention and interest. It also encourages response if you are asking questions. The accepted public distance zone is 12 to 25 feet. In smaller group situations, you can approach within a social distance of 4 to 12 feet primarily, and occasionally get as close as 18 inches to 4 feet.

Speakers of short stature sometimes cling to the lectern because of the riser placed behind it to make them tall enough to be seen. A better choice would be to walk forward and stand closer to the audience. It will help to establish a good rapport with them.

If you are forced to stand behind the lectern because that is where the microphone is located, consider requesting the use of a wireless microphone or buy your own. If you haven't used a wireless microphone before familiarize yourself with it well in advance of your presentation so you are not fumbling and can turn it off and on with ease. Remember to turn it off as you leave the platform so that any private remarks you may make are not overheard by the audience. I'll never forget the female speaker whose message was lost and credibility damaged after she left her lavaliere microphone (still "live") on her blouse while she visited the bathroom.

The Eyes Have It

Whether they read from prepared notes or do impromptu speeches, effective speakers make eye contact with audience members.

Don't be afraid to make eye contact with audience members, their reactions to you will help your performance as a presenter. If you sense boredom, you may have to pick up the pace; if you sense enthusiasm, it can help to pump you up. When you make eye contact, you are relating to your audience, which will help get your message across.

In order to make proper eye contact, think of the audience as sitting in a "Z" formation. Start with a familiar or friendly face. Look at that person for three to five seconds, or to complete a thought, and then move on in a "Z" around the room. Break your "Z" by starting from the middle or the back of the room to vary your eye contact. If you make eye contact with someone who quickly turns away, try not to look directly into that person's eyes again. In some cultures, direct eye contact is inappropriate, and some people just feel uncomfortable being looked at. You may also nod occasionally, and you will probably get a nod back, at least if the person agrees with what you just said. If you get a head shake, you'll know who disagrees with you.

Facial Expressions

Speakers also know they need to be aware of facial expressions during presentations.

Once you become aware of the expressions you make, it will be easier for you to eliminate them. Put a mirror next to your desk at work for one week. Watch your face when you are talking on the telephone. Be aware of any artificial, unfriendly, or deadpan expressions you may be making. Do you squint, frown, make strange faces? Practice smiling and looking pleasant. That's how you want to look during your presentations.

It isn't easy to speak and smile at the same time, but it is important to smile during your presentation if congruent with your message. Some men find it more difficult to smile while presenting than women do, but practice helps here. Videotape your presentation or practice in front of a friend. Watch your expression and see if you have smiled enough and in appropriate places. If not, you can write reminder notes to yourself in the margin of your speech or just practice smiling beforehand. Women must be careful not to over smile. They may appear to be insipid.

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Before giving your next presentation, keep these words in mind and remember the visual signals you want to give the audience. When you master the visual mix of appropriate body language, proper movements, eye contact and more, you're well on your way to successful speaking.

Article copyright© Brody Communications Ltd. 1999

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