How to give a successful talk; part 4; what you don’t say

From the moment you walk onto the stage, or switch on your camera, to give a presentation your audience is interacting with you.

They are already making judgements about what you will say, how confident you are and whether you are worth listening to. Although that sounds harsh, we all do it, all the time.

As humans we are very conscious of the unspoken messages that are revealed by our body language and we make emotional connections with others through our perceptions of them and our memories of other similar interactions.

Just as we control what we say and how we adapt our message to suit the audience, we are also in charge of how we look and move on stage.

Giving a successful talk is about good preparation. In this blog we take a look at how you can plan your appearance and body language to give a great talk, because this is just as important as writing a good speech, or designing some killer slides.

What to wear

There are not strict rules about how to dress, but you should think about the audience and how they might be dressed or what they might expect. You should wear what you are comfortable and confident in, this will help you to relax.

Having said that, the clothes you wear give a message – often one that reaches your audience before you even start talking. It is a good idea to match your outfit or style to the tone of your talk. Do you want to appear formal, conversational, interactive or entirely responsive?

Your clothes can give a message about how approachable you are, and how like the audience you want to appear. For example, if it is a talk at a black tie dinner, you should follow the dress code unless you want to appear ‘different’ to the others attending the event.

I can’t and won’t tell you what to wear, but there are some things that you should know when choosing an outfit for a presentation or media appearance:

  • If you will be on camera, you should avoid close stripes, patterns and heavily contrasting colours.
  • Avoid clothes with slogans and logos unless these reinforce your message – they can be distracting.
  • If you will be moving about when presenting be careful about wearing shoes with noisy soles, and consider if your hair might fall onto your face or if your clothing will interfere with your presentation.
  • You should avoid anything which might be misconstrued or deemed offensive. In 2014 Dr Matt Taylor, from the European Space Agency learnt this lesson the hard way, when he appeared on television during the Rosetta mission wearing a shirt that had images of semi-naked women on it.

How to stand or sit – using your posture to appear confident

Your confidence is easily seen in your posture.

Standing up straight with your hands raised above your waist, looking at the audience looks confident and self-assured even if you don’t feel it. The reverse is true, closed postures (crossed arms and legs), fidgeting and looking down signify uncertainty and nerves, so even if you feel nervous you can look more confident by tweaking your posture.

How to move

During presentations some people remain rooted to the spot, others will stride about the stage. Both can be effective, but it is a good idea to use movement to bring contrast and emphasis

If you remain behind the lectern, or are seated let your audience see movement in your hands and expression in your face. If you move, do it with purpose.

Moving towards the audience can be used to emphasise focus, think about it as zooming in on a point. While moving away from the audience can signify  opening up to the big picture or zooming out.

To compare ideas let them occupy different areas of the stage, and move there to talk about them. For instance you could stand on the right to talk about idea 1, and then switch to the left to introduce idea 2.

It is a good idea to try to match your body language to the things you say. Use your facial expressions and movements to look excited and engaged if you are talking about something of great interest. Stand still and use eye contact if your message is serious.

In summary

We can use our body language and unspoken elements including clothing, facial expressions and movements to reinforce our message. These things can help you to get your message across, and it can give you the appearance of confidence even if you are feeling a little nervous.

Keeping your body language in line with your spoken message becomes harder if you have to give the same talk many times. You may have heard this a lot, but remember, it is probably the first time your audience has seen this presentation, so use your body language to reinforce your words to give them the full experience.

As with all presentation skills, practicing is really important. Have a rehearsal, ask your colleagues to give you feedback, or just practice on your own. If you are brave enough, watching a video of yourself presenting is invaluable. Try watching with the sound off and observing how you look and move.

This is the fourth blog in a series by James Piercy, on how to give a great presentation – Part 1: prepare, Part 2: don’t dumb down, Part 3: delivery are all available on James’s profile page