Body movement tips for public speakers

A few years ago, I attended a technical conference where one of the keynote speakers was an industry expert “idol” of mine. Imagine my dismay when he spent virtually the entire hour pacing between two points like a ping-pong ball. The constant oscillating movement was terribly distracting. His effectiveness was further diminished because his eyes were constantly directed at one wall or the other instead of toward his audience.

Imagine a presenter running back and forth between the screen (to present visuals) and a laptop (to advance the slides). Now imagine this pattern repeating forty times over an hour! Not only is it tiring for the speaker, but it is distracting for the audience. To project a more professional, composed manner, I encourage all speakers to invest in a presentation remote.

I love everything about the Kensington Wireless Presenter, but any similar device will prevent yo-yo-ing. Get one with the features you like and use it.

I once attended a speech competition where one of the speakers attempted to perform a ballet pirouette while sharing a story about her youth. I don’t know if the stage was slippery, or if her shoes gave out, but the pirouette ended with her crashing down onto her knees. It wasn’t the impact she was aiming for. (She was visibly in pain, but I applaud her for continuing on.)

Some speakers step forward (or lean forward) when delivering their most important lines. If done smoothly, this signals to your audience that you are about to say something of great importance. (Think about how you “lean in” to share a secret in a private conversation.) Be careful not to overdo this; it can detract from your presentation if you mechanically rock back-and-forth every paragraph.

Depending on the room setup and the nature of your presentation, you may be forced to adopt asymmetric positions. For example, if presenting slides on a screen that is centered relative to the audience, it is natural for you to stand to the left or right of the screen. However, if you take up a single position (e.g. the left side) for the entire presentation, audience members on the “far side” of the room can feel disconnected. This dilemma is solved by adding variety throughout your speech: sometimes stand on the left, and sometimes stand on the right.

Another way to counteract the asymmetry dilemma when presenting with slides is to take up a position right in front of the screen. Normally, this is crazy, because you don’t want to block sight lines and frustrate your audience. However, it can be effective if used sparingly. For example, you can use your arms as pointers to refer directly to key data points or parts of a diagram.

When in PowerPoint’s “Slide Show” mode, the “b” key will blank the screen. Use this to take the visuals away when you don’t need them. This allows you to stand front and center (in front of the screen) where your audience’s attention will be focussed on you (rather than the “old” slide behind you). Several presentation remotes have a button that triggers this mode as well. If you aren’t using software that provides this feature, just plan for it by inserting an all-black slide at certain positions in your slide deck.

Another way to incorporate movement and left-right balance is to strategically map out different areas of the speaking area for different activities. For example, I often present in a wide training room that has a whiteboard on the right side. If I know I’ll be using the whiteboard periodically, I might take up a position on the left or center for “non-whiteboard” segments.

When delivering training courses, I like to walk around the tables and chairs while an individual or group exercise is being performed. This allows me to check on the progress being made, and it invites more questions than I would otherwise receive if I remained up at the front of the room the whole time. It seems like participants feel more comfortable asking for help if I enter the “audience space”.

Think about when to distribute your handout. If you decide to distribute it in the middle of your presentation, this is an obvious opportunity for body movement. Beware of overkill here. In a large room, it isn’t necessary or advisable for you to individually hand out copies to each person. Just pass a few stacks to people at a few corners, and let the handouts propagate.

Suppose you need to stay close to a lectern because you rely heavily on written notes, or you need to be within arms reach of a laptop for a software demonstration. In these situations, most speakers will “give up” and abandon full-body movements entirely. Although you are constrained, you can still make use of the area immediately around the lectern. For example, you can adopt positions centered on the lectern, one arm to the left of the lectern, or one arm to the right of the lectern. While this is not as optimal as being free of the lectern entirely, it is much better than the rigid alternative.

Whether formal or informal, a question and answer session is a perfect opportunity for body movement, especially in larger rooms. As each question is asked, you can walk towards the person asking the question. This is both an act of respect (i.e. you are devoting your whole attention to them), and also a way to ensure that you hear them accurately.

Find people in your audience that you can trust, and ask them for meaningful feedback on your body movement (or lack thereof). Did your movement support your message? Was your movement natural and authentic? Did you have any awkward and distracting movements? To gain the most valuable feedback, ask them before your presentation to watch your body movement with a critical eye.