Power through Posture, Expressions, and Gestures
Episode #4 of the course Conquer fear of public speaking by Dr. Paul Harrison
Welcome to Lesson 4!
Today, we’ll talk about posture. We can use an obvious image here and think of posture as the “backbone” of good presentation technique, a foundation against which all our other skills rest, such as correct breathing and vocal delivery.
How Does Posture Help Us Overcome Nerves?
The first impression of a person is evaluated in just seven seconds(!), so we’ve often been judged before we even open our mouths to speak. For the presenter, this makes posture crucial, as it’s the basis of our body language.
Despite some controversy regarding the hormonal effectiveness of power posing, good posture involves taking up more space and projects an air of confidence others notice, both consciously and subconsciously. This creates a positive feedback loop: People respond to us more positively, and we in turn feel better about our performance. It also allows more space for oxygen, which strengthens our parasympathetic nervous system.
Do you slouch? Most of us do, to some extent. Take a moment to observe your natural posture without altering it. We’re not judging ourselves for now, just evaluating what needs attention.
The fight-or-flight response is highly relevant to any discussion of posture. As a defensive mechanism, we compress ourselves and shrink into our bodies. This contraction robs our performance of energy and enthusiasm, is uncomfortable to watch, and discourages flow and air flow.
To counter this, we build space into our bodies from the ground up. Stand if you can or sit attentively if you can’t.
Notice the balance of your feet. We all tend to favor one foot and even one cheek of our behinds when sitting. Try to spread your weight over both. Try anchoring your feet in on your heels and the toes, particularly the big toe and little toe. This “tripod effect” grounds us and grants stability. I like to call these “anchor points,” as they encourage you to feel connected to the ground and settled in.
Move up the body by relaxing the legs and letting the kneecaps unclench and float. Feel the mobility but try not to sway. Now relax the hips and let the torso naturally stretch and open. A natural, comfortable curve in the back is encouraged by opening the shoulders and gently unrolling the top of the spine from between the shoulder blades to the point between your ears where the spine ends. Stiff and sore necks from tension often come from an imbalance of the spine and carrying 15 lbs. (6.8 kg) of skull and brain incorrectly. You should feel the weight drop off your shoulders as the spine takes the load. Just experiment until you can hardly feel the weight of your skull on your shoulders.
Now take a deep breath in. You should notice that it feels like there’s much more space for that air to go now. Staying upright and open facilitates many of the breathing and vocal techniques we’ll be employing in upcoming lessons, and is a vital step in looking and feeling confident and authoritative.
Expressions and Gestures
Further, consider your expressions. Downcast eyes and speaking into your chest are not going to set your audience on fire, so use this safe space to practice the expressions you want to use during your speech. Don’t hold back—go all out!
An important thing, if contextually appropriate, is to smile. Smiling also engages nerves from the parasympathetic nervous system, which is a plus, and makes us feel more at ease. If it isn’t appropriate to smile (if you’re presenting serious financial news, for example), make your expression match your message and keep your head up and face in view. Avoid expressions that could be misconstrued as arrogance or smugness, like smirking or empty smiles (an empty smile is a “mouth only” smile that doesn’t engage the eyes). It’s a dead giveaway to shrewd audiences, so make sure the expressions at the top and bottom of your face both match!
Next, look at your gestures. What are your hands and arms doing? Non-verbal communication is hugely important to presentation skills and our perceived charisma, so check out Vanessa Van Edwards for some great tips (also available through Highbrow). Use controlled gestures to emphasize important points, and be sure to message match. Don’t just pointlessly flail, however, as this can be distracting. Prepare a gesture plan, just like you would a breathing plan, for your talk.
Next lesson: We’ll dive into vocal techniques and practice warming up the voice for powerful delivery!
Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences by Nancy Duarte
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