• akosgerold

How to improve your body language in a presentation? Think visually.

What is the essence of body language in a presentation?

To illustrate with your body what your mouth says.


The most important reason is that this a way to build trust with your audience.

To illustrate how this works, let us reflect briefly on how law inforcement officers spot lies. They watch what a suspect's body says and compare it to what their mouth says. If there is a mismatch or if there are signs of discomfort, then they start digging to establish if the suspect lied. They do this by asking more questions about what the suspect said when the body language contradicted the verbal message or indicated discomfort.

Even though we are not law inforcement officers and we don’t sit in presentations focusing on picking up on mismatches between what the speaker says and shows with their body, we all subconsciously feel that something seems to be off. We just feel that we are not confortable deciding in their favour.

And building trust is not just about the speaker’s verbal and nonverbal message being synched, but it is also affected by the amount of nonverbal signalling that supports what is being said.

Science of People analysed the body language of hundreds of people giving TED Talks. The least popular TED Talkers made 272 hand gestures on average in a roughly 18-minute talk while the most popular ones averaged 465 (71% more!!). The top gesticulators, like Simon Sinek, made more than 600 hand gestures.

So you should illustrate your meaning with hand gestures and also do it as much as possible in a presentation.

The second reason why you wish to say the same with your body as with your mouth and why you should do it as frequently as possible is to increase the memorability of your message.

We remember things in images and mental videos. Therefore, if a presenter paints mental images in our minds with what they say, we are likely to remember their message longer.

To do this, when you are developing your presentation, try to think visually, i.e. try to spot any visual metaphors in the content you are developing.

Here is an example of how you can do it. Last year, I developed a presentation for the CEO of Castelo Forte, a chain of home centres, similar to Home Depo, in the Distrito Federal state in Brazil. The presentation was to be delivered at an international conference in the construction material field.

A Castelo Forte home centre in DF, Brazil
Castelo Forte

While we were developing the presentation, the CEO told us about the cutthroat competition in their market. He also told us that they had two types of competitors. The small construction material stores who operated on the verge of legality and thus avoided certain expenses which Castelo Forte had. And the large multinational chains who had an advantage over Castelo Forte because they could lower purchase prices thanks to the huge volumes they purchased in. Castelo Forte was in the middle because they were larger than the small shops and smaller than the multinationals.

The visual image of a pair of scissors came to my mind. The two types of competitors were the two blades of the scissors and Castelo Forte was in the centre, being cut by the two blades.

This image was also very easy to turn visual using body language. I suggested that he should say that the competition in his region was like a pair of scissors. When saying this, he clenched one hand into a fist and extended the index and middle fingers into a horizontal V shape, which is the typical scissors hand gesture.

Then, he went on to describe one type of competitor and while doing so, he pointed with the index finger of the other hand at one of the blades/fingers in the hand-simulated scissors.

Simulating scissors with one hand and pointing at one of the blades/fingers with the other hand
Simulating scissors with one hand and pointing at one of the blades/fingers with the other hand 1

When he switched to talking about the other type of competitor, he pointed with the index finger of the other hand at the other blade/finger in the hand-simulated scissors.

Simulating scissors with one hand and pointing at one of the blades/fingers with the other hand
Simulating scissors with one hand and pointing at one of the blades/fingers with the other hand 2

Once he finished describing the two types of competitors, he would say, “…and we are in the middle…” while putting the index finger he used for pointing between the two blades and simulatet cutting motions to show that the competitors are making their lives difficult.

Luckily, Castelo Forte is doing excellently even in such tough conditions, which is why he was invited and he went on to tell his audience in the rest of the talk what helped them do so exceptionally well.

The competition is cutting away at CF.
The competition is cutting away at CF.

This is how he could turn the visual simile into a stronger and more memorable mental picture.

Why did he need to point with the index finger of the other hand at one and then the other blade/finger in the scissors?

Because by doing so he directed the audience’s attention to the scissor and guided them through the visual simile and focused their attention on it.

An additional detail I taught him was to break eye-contact with the audience while showing the scissors and explaining the visual simile and to keep looking at his own hands. This was important because two of the ways a speaker can direct their audience’s attention to something are eye-contact and their hands/ fingers. If he had kept eye-contact with the audience and not looked at his own hands during the visual simile, at least some of the audience members would have felt compelled to keep looking at him, rather than at his hands. But the best way to embed a visual image in the audince's minds was to have them listen to the story while watching the gestures telling the same story.

Such deep understanding of how to use body language makes the delivery of your presentations brain-friendly, that is rooted in how the brain receives, processes and remembers information.

If you wish to learn about how to use slides in a brain-friendly way, which is another poorly understood and misused aspect of presentations that is hurting speakers without them being aware of it, come to my Brain-Friendly Slides workshop at the Munich Creative Business Week on 11th March.

Happy presenting!

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