November 06, 2019 Practice Points

Speaking Well: Your Body’s Fail-safe Checklist for Projecting Confidence

Seven steps to help you look comfortable and confident throughout your presentation, regardless of how you feel.

By Marsha Hunter

In speaking well, your goal is to look confident, comfortable, and credible as you stand to address an audience. The way you stand, move, breathe, gesture, and focus your gaze significantly affects how listeners perceive you. Audiences unconsciously scrutinize your behavior as they listen, and if your demeanor signals nervousness and discomfort, it will make them feel ill at ease, too. But if you act confident and enthusiastic, listeners will concentrate on your topic, not you. To achieve this initial goal—looking dynamically at ease and believable at all times, even when feeling nervous—requires a fail-safe technique for controlling your body.

By practicing over time, you will discover how to instruct your body to act in an appropriate and effective way. You can gain conscious control of your body and its adrenaline by making desired behaviors part of your performance ritual. You will then look comfortable and confident from the very beginning of every presentation, regardless of how you feel.

I’m a pilot from a family of pilots stretching back to the 1930s. While other occupations now have checklists, aviation was an early adopter of detailed, methodical checklists for every important task. Below is your body’s fail-safe checklist. It works.

1.      Channel Your Adrenaline

Welcome the excitement you feel as you sit at counsel table, approach a lectern to speak, or walk into a conference room to lead a meeting. Your adrenal glands are in action, dispensing the “flight, fight, or freeze” hormone. Embrace this extra energy and channel it toward the speaking task at hand. Smile or part your lips slightly to avoid the frown of concentration.

2.      Plant Your Feet

Before you speak, find your best, balanced stance with your feet about shoulder width apart. Maintain this stance for the first four to five minutes of speaking. If your feet move too soon, they will stay in motion and you will begin to pace. Wear shoes that are comfortable enough for you to stand still.

3.      Center Your Hips

Once your feet are planted, center your hips. This will prevent you from shifting your weight and swaying from side to side.

4.      Breathe Tactically

Take one, two, or even three large breaths. This triggers your instinct to continue breathing deeply. Tactical, purposeful breathing makes you feel better and calms you down while flooding your brain with the oxygen it needs to think clearly. Conscious breathing also allows you to take a moment to think of what to say next. Throughout your presentation, breathing will make you speak better, as you inhale and prepare to say your next words in well-spoken, short phrases, punctuated by the short silences of breath.

5.      Get Ready to Gesture

Bring your hands to waist height and find your “ready position.” Your fingertips might be touching lightly, or open hands resting gently, palms together, one on top of the other. Do not touch or cling to lecterns. Resist the urge to hold pens, notes, or wring your adrenaline-fueled hands.  

6.      Look Your Listeners in the Eye

Look at your audience. Stop for a moment to find eyeballs to speak to. Your job is to speak to people, and that means you must look them in the eyes. Do not look over their heads, or at their foreheads. Listeners crave real eye contact from a speaker, just as the speaker desires genuine attention from her listeners.

7.      Take a Breath, Open Your Hands, and Say Your First Sentence

Now you are prepared to speak the first words of your presentation. Take a breath and open your hands with your very first words. They will begin to flow with normal, instinctual gesture, which will help your audience understand your message.

Now you have set yourself up to tap your instincts to gesture, speak in phrases between breaths, and make your case or lead a meeting.

Enjoy the buzz of confident public speaking.

Marsha Hunter is a partner in Johnson and Hunter, Inc. 

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