The popularity of shows like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, or even Toddlers and Tiaras demonstrates an unfortunate reality: most of us really enjoy judging other people. Individuals presenting their talents on televised shows are quite obviously being judged under a microscope, but the same can be said about any of us as we go about communicating with each other, whether it’s in an initial meeting, face to face conversation, a group conference, a business presentation or a speech. We all need to be acutely aware of how closely we are all being watched, and take a look at what you can do to avoid getting “voted off” by your listening audience.
First, make sure you stand tall. Body language expresses an enormous amount of subtle emotion and information. Always stand up straight, feet shoulder width apart and your hands ready to gesture. Avoid swaying back and forth. It undermines the confidence you are looking to project. Leaning slightly toward the audience mimics the attention you are certainly striving to evoke. Avoid being locked onto the podium. Lean on it only once in a while for effect.
Second, know the importance of eye contact. Commit to making eye contact with as many individuals as possible. Don’t just pick out one friendly face. Cover the entire room. Spend more time looking at the audience than looking at your notes. Remember that eye contact is most effective at the end of a thought.
The next thing to consider is your hands. Many people are unaware of how incredibly distracting their hands can be. Try to avoid rattling coins in your pocket or fiddling with ties, sleeves or jewelry. Playing with pens, markers or pointers and constantly adjusting your glasses are red flags, too. Most of these activities can be chalked up to simple nervousness. However, there are some common hand gestures that send additional mixed signals. Standing with your hands on your hips gives off a sense of defiance. Standing with your hands behind you gives the appearance of being apologetic. Burying your hands in your pockets or standing in the fig leaf position makes you seem overly protective. Rubbing the hands together is the subtle sign of a manipulator. Pulling on your hair or rubbing the back of your neck can give off the perception of being doubtful, annoyed or distracted.
On the positive side, gestures should communicate confidence and authority. Be bold. Be creative. Follow your impulse. Explore the subtle and not so subtle meanings of the words you are saying. It falls under the umbrella of good preparation to think about your gestures ahead of time; but don’t memorize them. Be aware of not letting your gestures fall into a pattern. Keep your audience guessing. It keeps them watching. Remember to maintain a gesture until the impulse for your next gesture arises. Releasing a gesture too quickly can make it seem like you are stabbing or grabbing at ideas. An even flow of gestures is ideal for communicating poise and good continuity of thought. Always make sure that the size of your gestures fits the space.
Finally, strive to create an active stage picture. Divide the stage into nine squares. The power position is front and center. Move into different squares as you speak. It makes you more interesting for the audience to watch. Your steps should be measured and definitive. Plant both feet in a new square as you step into it. Avoid the continuous movement that nervous energy can cause. It can be perceived as lack of confidence, indecision or just plain wandering. Remember to return frequently to the power position.
Communicating should be a full body experience. Your body, hands, gestures, movement and eye contact should all support the clear delivery of your message. It may seem like a lot to consider and even more to remember in the heat of the moment – when everybody is watching and judging. Don’t lose sight of the fact that those contestants on American Idol and The Voice are being coached by professionals for many hours of every day. Professional coaches know what to look for and ultimately guide their students to that elusive “next level”. Consider working with a seasoned speech coach to give you the confidence to go out and be judged a truly great communicator!