Archive for the ‘Visual’ Category

One of earliest pieces of public speaking advice I received was to stay away from podiums (lecterns) whenever possible.  I was warned that podiums have a way of causing even the most mobile speakers to become stationary.  Lost is that dynamic quality that comes with moving about the stage or floor space while speaking.

I have certainly found this to be true in my own career.  As soon as I step behind even something as unobtrusive as a music stand, I tend to stand still.  I might rationalize that I have to stay with my notes, but it’s really the anchoring effect of the stand that is holding me.

Moving away from a podium, when there is room to do so, takes a conscious effort.  Without such an effort, the podium’s gravitational pull is likely to hold you in one place.  Countering this may take some advanced planning and practice, including reminder notations on your notes.

Of course there are times when the meeting you are speaking at is set up in such a way that you are restricted to the podium.  But even in those situations, some movement is possible, particularly if you have a clip-on microphone.  You can pivot to one side or the other.  You can also step back and then move forward.

The important thing is to recognize the immobilizing nature of a podium and don’t unconsciously succumb to it.

There was a time when public speaking orthodoxy was that you let your arms hang loosely at your sides whenever you are not gesturing.  The idea was to keep your hands apart so that you did not unconsciously start wringing them or tightly clutching them together.

It’s rare to see a speaker adhere to this orthodoxy anymore because it feels awkward.  To counteract the awkwardness, I long ago started advising people to “cheat” by lightly touching the fingertips of one hand to a conveniently located piece of furniture, like a table.  This fingertip technique creates a feeling of being grounded and secure—and, it still keeps the hands apart.

Although the fingertip technique works well, I recently observed a few speakers using the traditional arms-hanging-loosely approach.  It looked good.  If they were feeling awkward, it didn’t show.  They appeared confident and poised.

It would not be a bad idea for a speaker to practice the traditional approach enough to have it as an option.  Conveniently-located furniture cannot always be counted on and letting the hands get together can lead to nervous or defensive body language.

The next time you are at a meeting watch what people do when they are speaking while seated at a table.

You will notice that most of them unconsciously play with an object.

They may spin their pen on the table or straighten a paper clip.  If they brought coffee to the meeting and the Styrofoam cup is now empty, they may start breaking it into pieces.

Rubber bands get wrapped around hands.  Ball point pens get clicked over and over.  Caps get taken off markers and put back on, repeatedly.  The possibilities are endless.

It’s not a big deal except that it can become distracting and, possibly, send a message of nervousness.

If you think this describes you, consider eliminating the temptations before it is your turn to speak.  Put the pen in your pocket and push the empty cup away.

Then, when you speak, combine occasional hand gestures with comfortably folded hands.

I just finished working with a group of individuals who present to a wide range of audience sizes from 4 to 700.  However, most of their work is with small groups.

What I observed with their eye contact was predictable.  When speaking, they gave most of their attention to the people seated close to them.  Only occasionally, if at all, did they glance at the audience members seated farther away. 

This is a common phenomenon.  A speaker habituated to small groups will concentrate on the first row or two of a big audience and, relatively speaking, ignore everyone else.  Without realizing it, they are sizing the audience to fit their normal experience.

I say “without realizing it” because it is an unconscious thing.  Everyone in the group I just worked with was unaware they were only looking at a few people until I gave them that feedback and they observed the video recording of their presentation.

If your typical audience is small you will have to make a conscious effort to extend your eye contact to the back rows when you speak to a large group.  It won’t happen automatically.

This question comes up regularly in public speaking workshops.

Traditionally, the answer is “No.”  Some speakers will distract the audience by playing with change in their pockets.  Others will stop gesturing and become less dynamic.  Still others will risk coming across too laid back and casual for the occasion.

For these reasons and others, a no-hands-in-pockets rule is generally a good idea.

I say “generally” because this rule, like many speaking rules, can be broken for good reasons.

If, for example, you want to deliberately affect a casual demeanor, putting one hand in your pocket for short periods of time is effective.  I’ll do this sometimes when I am facilitating a discussion as part of a presentation.  I want everyone to feel comfortable and participate, so I make a point of acting relaxed and comfortable myself.

Just remember when you break this “rule” that it’s best to limit yourself to one hand in a pocket and then only for short periods.  Gesture with the other hand and then get back to two-handed gesturing in short order.

Given the choice to sit or stand, most presenters would prefer to speak while seated.

Although they may be able to hold on to a podium when standing, they feel even more secure and grounded when seated.  Sitting is less formal and reduces the feeling of being singled out, put on stage and scrutinized.

Staying seated is a legitimate way to maintain composure and, in some cases, it’s more appropriate than standing (e.g., small-group meetings).  It also encourages discussion by creating a less formal atmosphere and positioning the presenter as one of the group instead of the speaker.  

With all that said, however, standing should remain your default setting.  In other words, you are going to stand when presenting unless there are good reasons to sit.  You may be more comfortable sitting, but that is not, by itself, a good enough reason.

Over the years, I’ve witnessed any number of presenters stay seated after being introduced even though the occasion was relatively formal, there were more than a few people in the audience and, worst of all, the meeting leader had already set the precedent of standing to speak.  I knew they were letting their own need to feel comfortable trump all other considerations.  Not good.

If you ever catch yourself asking “Do I have to stand?” or announcing “I’m going to stay seated if that’s alright with everyone,” you likely should have already been standing up and walking to the front of the room.  Your instinct is telling you to stand and you’re going against it.

Most speakers have just a few hand gestures that they repeat over and over.  It would be good if they developed more variety.

In my book Presentation Skills 201 I recommend simple pantomiming as a way to easily and naturally generate different gestures.  For example, you can pretend to be pushing something while talking about pushing a contract through committee.  Or, you can move your hands farther and farther apart while talking about lengthening a project’s timetable.

I was pleased to see in Allan and Barbara Pease’s book The Definitive Book of Body Language that research has actually shown that such hand gesturing increases message recall.  Geoffrey Beattie and Nina McLoughlin of the University of Manchester tested how well audiences remember information based on whether or not the presenter augmented the message with gestures.  Gesturing was shown to increase recall by up to one-third after ten minutes.

So, simple pantomiming doesn’t just create a richer variety of hand gestures.  It also helps people remember what the speaker said.

When presenting slides, on which side of the screen should the speaker stand?  Sometimes the podium is set up on the left.  Sometimes it’s positioned on the right.   The same holds true for where the laptop wiring is run. 

The “right” answer is determined by the language being used.  For a language that is read left to right—such as English—the presenter should stand to the audience’s left.  That is where the audience members will automatically look when they have finished reading what is on the screen.  The reverse is true for a language that is read right to left.

In other words, it is about the natural movement of people’s eyes.  It is best for a speaker to be positioned where eye contact with the audience members can most easily be re-gained after they have viewed a slide. 

This guideline does not have to be religiously followed, particularly if the room arrangement makes it difficult.  But, if either side of the screen is available, go to the side where the language begins.


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