Body language communicates a lot -- here's how to make sure it says what you want to say ...
The first time I gave a presentation in high school, I wasn’t sure what to do with my hands. Years of theater had taught me that hand movement and placement were significant, but it was always easy for me to decide how a certain character would move, stand, and talk. It was a lot harder to figure out how I should move, stand, and talk — especially when I was doing it for a grade.
I settled on keeping my hands clasped behind me, believing it would help me stand up straight and resist the urge to fidget. I was pleased with my solution and with my presentation — until the teacher gave me a B- and asked me afterward why I had been shifting my weight so oddly.
“What?” I asked her, baffled. I had never gotten less than an A, and the grade confused me as much as the question. I had made a point of standing with my weight on both legs to avoid my teenage habit of shifting my weight to one side and jutting a hip out … but apparently my clever hacks to keep my hands and hips still hadn’t eliminated my fidgeting at all. It had just redirected itself, and I had spent the entire presentation rocking back and forth from my heels to the balls of my toes, “like a little girl who had been naughty and was afraid she was going to be caught,” according to my teacher.
Trainer and dance instructor Karla Belthchenko is so aware of the power of body language that she founded a program to teach professionals how to harness that power, and recently shared some wisdom with Furthermore on how to use body language effectively:
Fidgeting is a nasty habit. The next time you pause during a meeting to gather your thoughts or let your last point sink in, hold your body still as well, Beltchenko says. That means no busybody movements like tucking your hair behind your ear, wringing your hands, or shifting on your feet. Standing regally still gives you more control over the conversation and helps you emphasize your message, she explains. Instead of looking at quiet moments as awkward silences, look at them as chances to grasp your audience’s attention … Instead of leaving your limbs to their own devices, practice controlled hand and arm motions, which research shows can give your words more weight. “It should feel like a well-choreographed dance,” Beltchenko says.
I didn’t have the benefit of Google in high school, but I did have that theater training to draw from. When I went back over my presentation, I realized that my misdirected fidgeting resulted from uncertainty about my conclusions and anxiety that someone might find the holes in my argument.
So the next time I was preparing a presentation, I spent tons of time doing research to ensure that I would be confident in my conclusions. Then I practiced — not just saying the words, as I had the previous presentation, but actually presenting it. I practiced in front of the mirror, in front of my parents, in front of my sister, even in front of my grandparents on Sunday after church. I tweaked my gestures and timing and worked in pauses that coincided with stillness to let certain points sink in.
And y’all, I killed it. I mean I got an A and everything, but I also crushed that presentation, so much that word got out and older students began asking me for help with their own presentations (which was a super awesome ego boost). But the most important lesson I learned from that B- is one that I still carry with me, everywhere from job interviews to parent-teacher meetings: body language is powerful. Use it wisely.