You’re a best friend.  A proud mom or dad.  A favorite uncle or sister or cousin.  Perhaps you’re a community volunteer.  And you’ve been asked to speak at an upcoming special event.

You’re honored to be asked, and excited about the opportunity to address a receptive audience.  And a little nervous.  And worried.  After all, you’re no Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg, able to choose the perfect 272 words to deliver magnificently in only three minutes!  You just don’t want to make a fool of yourself at your daughter’s wedding, your grandfather’s ninetieth birthday party, or the fund-raiser you’ve devoted so many hours to chairing.

Getting the message drafted and on paper (or screen) is one thing, but there’s so much advice, so many rules out there about what to do with yourself while you’re delivering that message, you’re terrified about everything else you’re supposed to remember…like pacing, looking up from your notes, talking with your hands.  All that body language stuff.

There’s a hyper-awareness about body language in our lives and across the media these days.  Politicians’ body language is scrutinized, parents are warned what their actions as opposed to their words may convey to their offspring, and managers and colleagues are coached on how their non-verbal messaging is affecting their careers.  And with good reason.  According to Professor Albert Mehrabian, a recognized expert on body language, words convey only 7% of our meaning, vocal expression 38%, and body language an astounding 55% of what our audience will remember and believe.  Just by leaning to one side, you may be inadvertently conveying that you’d like to get the heck out of Dodge!  Rocking?  Insecure. Pacing?  Can’t wait to escape the torture of the speech you’re giving!

So do you really have to worry about hand gestures, pitch, tone and volume of your voice, eye contact, body position?  Well, yes.  You should. But here’s the thing.  If you plan your body language along with your words, and you’re well prepared enough that you’re confident, you shouldn’t have to think about it at all when your big moment arrives!

How do you get there?  Here’s my best advice, distilled into tips manageable for less experienced, more reluctant speakers.

  • Aim to be yourself….but a bit bigger. Imagine yourself exchanging conversation with a group of close friends.  Because you are comfortable, you will be gesturing with your hands, speaking perhaps a little more loudly than normal, looking from one pair of eyes to another to confirm approval, acceptance or understanding.  Do exactly that when you’re speaking!
  • Alan and Barbara Pease, co-authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, have found that members of an audience are more likely to accept your ideas if they are nodding and/or smiling. If you are nodding and smiling at them, they’re very likely to nod and smile back, signaling their acceptance of you and of your words.
  • Look into someone’s eyes. There is all kinds of conflicting advice to be found about how long you should visually engage with different audience members.  Concentrating on your delivery is your priority, but do mentally divide the audience into segments, and then find a different person in each segment to engage with your eyes at intervals throughout the speech.  Engage long enough that you feel them locked on you, but not so long that you’re staring and making them uncomfortable.
  • Stand like a Superhero. Amy Cuddy, a behavioral scientist at Harvard, has conducted studies showing that privately standing like a superhero before going into a stressful situation can actually stimulate hormonal changes in your body chemistry that cause you to be more confident and in-command. She recommends doing this for two minutes in an elevator, in a bathroom stall, at your desk, behind close doors, before stressful “evaluative” situations—like public speaking! Check out her terrific (and moving) TED talk on body language here.
  • Incorporate natural gestures. Keep your body open and your hands “unlocked” (not clasped, in your pockets, crossed in front or behind your back) so that your hands and arms are free to do their thing. The larger the audience, the larger the gesture should be, and the smaller the group, the more subtle you can afford to be, making use of facial expressions, for example, that a bigger crowd couldn’t see.
  • Slow down! Most people speak more quickly than normal when they are nervous; it is likely that you may not even realize you are doing this. Make a very conscious effort to speak more slowly than usual as you make your presentation (particularly when it comes to your key points), saving quick speech for when you want to add excitement or drama.
  • Ditch the lectern! I know this sounds radical, because reluctant speakers tend to rely on the presence of a lectern to shield them from the big, bad, threatening audience out there. But according to Brad Phillips, a media training professional, “speakers who hide behind lecterns separate themselves from their audiences and obscure parts of their body language that would otherwise help their audiences connect with them more easily.” (More excellent advice can be found from Mr. Phillips on his website, I also like his suggestion that you place your notes on a small stool or table positioned next to you instead, or, if the lectern is already position, you try swinging the microphone to the outside of it so that you are standing beside, rather than behind it.

The body language tips I’ve listed above are simple to incorporate for even a first-time speaker, particularly if you think about them in advance as you are rehearsing your speech.  Nail these, and you are well on your way to an energetic, confident demeanor that will engage your audience and predispose them to give you their attention.

And……postscript…..I just caught a one-on-one television interview of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commenting on his recent official visit to Washington, and the warm welcome he has received from the Obamas and the American people.  He was standing feet apart, in Superhero pose, with his hands loosely nested in front of him so that he could gesture appropriately.  Need I say it?  He was a star, and the content wasn’t nearly as important as the non-verbal messaging!