How to use your body and voice in public speaking
Public speaking is a performance art. You’re on stage, in front of an audience, and it’s your job to claim and retain your audience’s attention. Your body and voice are your most important tools to do that. Now, you might think that the key message of this article is going to be to move more, speak louder, and make big gestures. But no, it’s not. In fact, whispering can be incredibly effective in attracting your audience’s attention. The bottom line is to use your body and voice to change things up when needed.
| ATTRACTING YOUR AUDIENCE'S ATTENTION
Our brains are wired to notice things that change. For example, as soon as someone’s voice volume changes, we automatically start paying closer attention. So whether a speaker goes from speaker softly to a bit louder, or from kind of loud to more softly—it will attract the audience’s attention. And that’s what public speaking is all about: playing with your audience’s attention.
But as always, balance is key. If you’re constantly changing things up in your voice volume, pace, gestures, and movement, you come across as being all over the place, and your audience will find it hard to focus on what you’re saying. So try to find a balance between changing things up and allowing your audience to focus.
| HOW TO USE YOUR BODY AND VOICE AS A TOOL
I’ve come up with a few things that you can pay attention to when you’re in front of an audience. These things will help you to start consciously using your body and voice as a tool in your public speaking and retain your audience’s attention throughout your talk.
#1: ADJUST YOUR VOICE VOLUME AND PACE
Vary your voice’s volume and pace according to what your story needs. Teach yourself to add variation in your voice’s volume and pace. For example, when you approach an important point in your talk, slow down your pace while increasing or decreasing your voice’s volume to attract your audience’s attention.
#2: MAKE EYE CONTACT
Have you ever noticed that when a speaker looks at a clock on the wall, the whole audience looks at the clock? Your audience will pay attention to what you’re paying attention to. When your gaze constantly shifts to your computer screen or Powerpoint slides, you’ll lose your audience’s attention. So where to look at instead? Your audience! Making and maintaining eye contact with your audience is one of the most powerful ways to retain people’s attention. It works like a magnet. If someone looks you into your eyes, you automatically pay attention to that person.
Top tip: If you feel uncomfortable with looking people directly into their eyes when you’re speaking, look at the space between their eye brows instead. Unless you’re standing right in front of them, they won’t notice the difference and therefore still feel like you’re looking into their eyes.
#3: USE SILENCE
Guess what will change things up when you’re talking the whole time? Right. Silence. Using silence is indispensable when you want to make an impact on your audience. Because not only does it help to change things up, it also allows your audience to take a breath and let your words sink in for a moment. You can even use the silence to make eye contact with some of your audience members.
Top tip: If you find it hard to use silences every now and then, bring a bottle of water to your talk and take a sip every now and then. Your audience will enjoy the brief silence, and you won’t feel awkward from standing still and not saying anything. Plus, your dry throat will welcome the hydration!
#4: USE THE STAGE
Again, it’s about balance here. You can probably imagine that you’ll lose your audience’s attention when you stay in one place the whole time. But on the other end of the scale, it’s incredibly distracting if someone keeps pacing back and forth on the stage. So change your position on stage every now and then, but also take enough time to stand still when you’re explaining something. You can even walk towards some of your audience members every now and then—that subtle act will immediately turn their attention to you and what you’re saying.
#5: NEVER TURN YOUR BACK TO YOUR AUDIENCE
This is one of the first things you learn in acting class. As soon as your audience loses sight of your face, you lose the connection that you’ve been building with them. So even when you want to point at something on a slide, make sure your audience can still see the front of your body and at least the side of your face.
#6: STOP FIDGETING
Fidgeting is usually a sign that you’re nervous. The best way to stop fidgeting, therefore, is to work on getting a grip on your nerves. Because if there’s too much going on with your body movements, your audience will be so distracted that they won’t be able to focus on what you’re saying. We’re often not even aware of how much we’re fidgeting when we’re speaking. The best way to find out if you’re fidgeting is to either ask someone who’s seen you speak before or videotape yourself as you’re presenting.
Top tip: Don’t know where to leave your hands when you present? Consider holding a presentation pointer or pen when you talk, whichever makes more sense.
#7: CONSIDER TAKING ACTING CLASSES
No, seriously. Acting played a huge role in my own speaking skills development. It allowed me to start feeling comfortable with an audience watching me during a time when I was terrified of being visible. It wasn’t as scary to play a role in front of an audience, because I didn’t have to be myself. Acting in front of a live audience is the best public speaking practice you can get—apart from the real thing, of course. It’s like learning to feel comfortable with being surrounded by water in a shallow pool before you jump into the deep pool and learn how to swim.
| LOOKING FOR INSPIRATION?
If you’re looking for some inspiration for using your body and voice, take a look at this sales workshop presentation by Chris Westfall. This is an excellent example of someone who is in control of his body and voice and consciously uses that to retain the audience’s attention and convey his story.