Some people may go into a presentation like they’re going into battle.

I was one of those people. But after years of public-speaking experience, dozens of experiments, and hundreds of talks, I can finally say I’ve conquered my presentation fears. And now I want to teach my tactics to you!

Vanessa Van Edwards Research Lab

Can You Read Body Language? (Quiz)

How good are your body language skills? Take our free body language quiz to find out!

Here is my ultimate guide on what body language to use to give the most captivating presentations. In this guide, you will learn:

  • the first thing you should always do when giving an online presentation
  • the best way to turn your audience into your friend
  • how to use space to captivate your audience
  • why Nixon won the heart of voters through the radio, but not on TV (hint: it was his appearance)
  • how to use a podium to your advantage
  • … and more!

I have been fortunate enough to speak to hundreds of companies, from Google to Intel to Frito-Lay. I’ve also been lucky enough to speak on stages at SxSW, at MIT, and the World Domination summit.

But all of those successes were hard earned. And I started out knowing nothing…

↑ Table of Contents ↑

My Presentation Fail

OK, I have a really embarrassing story to admit.

Back in fifth grade, I wasn’t just bad at giving presentations. I was a train wreck: my legs shook, my palms sweated, and I had this really bad condition where my face would just dye itself red from embarrassment.

Young Vanessa trying to hide from her awkwardness holding flowers in front of her eyes
Me trying to hide from my awkwardness.

Fast forward to the most important presentation of the year: I spent an entire month preparing (and even working after school!) for this fleshed-out speech on Columbus’s journey to America. It was full of amazing, captivating content… but unfortunately lacking in delivery.

On the big day, I couldn’t help but feel the sea of stares burning deep into me.

My face reddened like a beet, and I did the only thing my logical brain told me to do… I made a run for it. I literally stopped 5 minutes into my presentation, ran out the door, and hid in the nearest bathroom stall.

That day scarred me forever. I remember wiping tears from my face, wondering how the heck I’d ever get through any presentation again.

Fast forward to today…

  • I have talked on stage at well over 100 different events.
  • I regularly give training sessions at big corporations like Amazon and Microsoft.
  • I even have my very own TED Ttalk!

So yeah, I can say now with a sigh of relief I have (somewhat) conquered my stage fright. Here are my best body language tips I’ve learned from my years of struggle. My aim for you in this article is to give you a boost of confidence the next time you’re giving a presentation!

They might sound small, but they matter.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Signal “Friend!”

So what’s one of the best ways to signal, “Hey, I’m your friend”? Is it:

  1. show your palms
  2. give an eyebrow flash
  3. smile
  4. all of the above
Click to Reveal Answer

The answer is d) all of the above!

Here’s why these nonverbal cues are so powerful while presenting:

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Open Palms

Right when I start a presentation, I like to immediately show my palms. This is absolutely essential to do in video calls since it’s even harder to build rapport than with in-person presentations.

Here’s me, where I show my palms in my TED Talk:

Showing your palms is a great way to signal to others that you have no weapons in your hands. This works because our primitive brains kick into overdrive, worrying that someone may brandish a hidden weapon.

You can even try it! The next time you’re in a conversation, bury your palms deep in your pockets or keep them behind your back. You may notice the other person seems a little unsettled or nervous.

A great way to show your palms during a presentation is to open with a personal story. Personal stories are full of truth and honesty, so you might find your hand gestures naturally opening up (you may not even have to consciously think about opening your palms!).

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Give the Eyebrow Flash

The eyebrow flash.

It’s a commonly used gesture in greetings, especially when two people recognize each other. In essence, a quick up-down of the eyebrows shows someone that you’re happy to see them.

Research even shows that it’s used by monkeys and apes, meaning this is likely an inborn gesture.

So here’s the golden rule for presentations: always eyebrow flash when you walk onto stage. Just a quick, up-down of recognition. Couple it with a genuine smile (coming next!), and you’ve got a killer combo that shows you’re trustworthy and friendly.

But be careful of overdoing it—move your eyebrows up -and -down too many times and you’re inviting a different kind of attention!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Use a Genuine Smile

Did you know a real smile includes what is known as the “Duchenne marker,” or wrinkles around the corners of the eyes? Without this key indicator, a person might be faking their smile.

Check out more mouth cues, including licking lips, lip biting, and pursed lips here: 39 Mouth Body Language Gestures

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Take Up Space

When we’re nervous on stage, we often go into “deer in the headlights” mode.

We bring our arms in close, keep our feet in the smallest space possible, and bring our shoulders in like a turtle. To give effective presentations, you’ve got to learn how to master your space.

Don’t forget there is space around you! Widen your stance, walk around, use big gestures, and power pose.

  • Widen Your Stance. Ask a body language expert what’s the most important body part to pay attention to and chances are, they’ll say the feet. People know what kind of face they’re making. Or what their hands are doing. But they rarely pay attention to their feet during presentations. Avoid standing with your feet awkwardly close. Make sure your feet are at least shoulder-width apart and don’t be afraid to go even wider.
  • Walk the Stage. Don’t plant yourself in the room if there’s room available to move around. People pay attention to what’s in motion, so keep moving during your speech to grab attention. One clever way to remember movement is to move with your points—if you have 3 main points, when you switch from one point to another, move to the other side of the room to signal a shift.
  • Use Your Arms. Generally, you don’t want huge gestures all the time. But there’s also no need to keep your arms to yourself—use those puppies for emphasis! When you are exaggerating a point, showing a large measurement or data, or talking about something grand, spread your arms and take up space.
  • Power Pose. Do you know the power of posing? In a TED Talk, Amy Cuddy explains that power posing can actually increase our confidence. Do this before a presentation to boost your confidence, or do it during a presentation to command attention and feel powerful.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Get Close

Other than taking up space, another body language presentation trick you can use is to minimize space between you and the audience.

Bridging the distance between you and the audience is a powerful cue to use sparingly.

In the 1992 debate between Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Clinton is asked a question from the audience.

But rather than answering it immediately, he stands up and tries to get as close to the speaker as possible. This little difference allowed the crowd to resonate with Clinton more than Bush, who stood answering questions at a distance.

It was a small change, but it made a world of impact.

Save this for points that really matter to you. When you want your audience to lean in and listen up, move close.

I also do this during question and answer sessions.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Point

Generally speaking, pointing is considered rude… except when you’re presenting with a big screen or projector. If you don’t have a laser pointer or long stick, pointing HELPS the audience by directing their eye gaze at what they should be paying attention to.

Make sure to point at the screen if you think your audience needs a bit more engagement, or during really lengthy and explanatory parts of your slides with text, so they can visualize better.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Raise Your Hand

Remember those times in class when the teacher asked us to raise our hands? Teachers do it for a reason: it increases audience engagement! Whenever you ask a question to the audience, try to spin it in a way to get the audience to participate:

  • Instead of asking your audience, “Did you think the Christmas event was amazing?” try asking, “Raise your hand if you think the Christmas event was amazing.”
  • You can even spin a statement into a question. If you are stating an exciting fact like “McDonald’s once made bubblegum-flavored broccoli” (totally true, btw!), you can ask your audience, “Which product did McDonald’s once come out with?” and ask for a show of hands for each potential answer.

Since raising our hands is still likely a learned body language that is ingrained in our brains, utilizing this body language cue is a no-brainer to keep the audience hooked.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Read Between the Eyes

Here’s a quick way to boost your perceived intelligence during a presentation: increase your eye contact! Make sure to sweep across the room as you make eye contact with others. Maintaining eye contact is great if you want to build rapport with others. It’s even been found to increase feelings of love and affection!

And forget about the “imagine your audience naked” advice that somehow got popular.… Instead, imagine your audience members are your closest friends.

Imagine your audience are your closest friends. They are there to root for you!

Even if it’s one close friend, imagine you are talking to them. You’ll naturally make more eye contact, your body language will open up, and you’ll be more authentic and honest. No wonder the eyes are the window to the soul.

Side Note: Don’t forget those in the back! Always make contact with every single person in the room, if you can. If it’s a bigger audience, you might want to mentally section-off the crowd in blocks to make sure you make eye contact with most of the crowd.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Laugh It Off

Humor is one of the best ways to turn a dull presentation into a lively one. Who doesn’t love to laugh?

Chances are, you’re not laughing enough.

Research shows that adults only laugh an average of 15 times a day, while preschoolers laugh 400 times1!

It’s not only about feeling good, either. Laughing is actually more about building relationships than reacting to jokes.

That’s why laughter is 30 times more likely to occur in social situations than by yourself!

Laugh more if you want to become more likable.

Verbal back channels, cadence, mumbling, and stuttering—learn more body language tips to give you a boost in your people skills arsenal!

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Forward Lean

Sure, everybody knows not to be a slouch: chest up, shoulders back, and head raised.

But did you know adding a slight forward lean to your presentation can increase engagement? Just imagine the last time you were super hooked in a conversation.

Chances are, you were leaning slightly forward:

Body leaning is our body’s natural way of saying, “Wow, this is interesting!” If you see it in your audience? That’s great! And if you do it yourself? You are sub communicating that you’re interested in both the audience AND what you’re saying.

Add a slight forward lean to increase audience engagement.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Use Hand Gestures

Here’s the deal: Research shows that using hand gestures increases the value of your message by a whopping 60%!

And we confirmed it using science.

In our human behavior research lab, we analyzed thousands of hours of TED Talks and found one striking pattern: the most viral TED Talkers spoke with their words AND their hands.

Want to dive into our research and see which hand gestures to use to WOW a crowd? Click below to find out: 60 Hand Gestures You Should Be Using And Their Meaning

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Uncross

Here’s a self-test you can try out right now: cross your arms.

Which arm appears on top?

Science says that 7 out of 10 people cross their left arm over their right one1.

Crossing arms over your torso is not only a way of defending your most vital organs, but also a form of “self-hug.”

People normally cross arms when they feel defeated or defensive. In presentations, you might find yourself manifesting the arm cross in subtler ways—reaching across the body to fiddle with a watch, adjusting a shirt cuff link, or even adjusting a tie knot.

To counter crossed arms, always default to having your arms relaxed and to the sides when you’re not gesturing. Having your arms to your sides is the most natural position and one that shows you’re confident enough to be relaxed.

Want more cues to arm yourself? Head on over to our guide: Crossed Arms and 17 More Cues to Know

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Don’t Hide

Have you ever been in a presentation where the person giving the speech stands behind the podium the whole time? Podiums are a huge presentation faux pas and effectively block presenters from the audience.

If there’s a podium in the room with you, a personal tip I try to use is to never use the podium for more than a quarter of my presentation. Not only do podiums plant you in place, they also block off half your body.

Here’s a hilarious example of giving a presentation behind a big table… notice how nobody knows what could be going on down there!

Podiums and tables are great as a bounce-back point (if you need to check your notes, change slides, take a sip of water, etc.), but shouldn’t be a nest you coop up in all day.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Keep Cool as a Cucumber

It was September 26, 1960. The entire nation was tuned in to see the first- ever televised presidential debate, featuring John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Except there was one glaring problem for the Republicans.

The millions of Americans who tuned in could see Nixon sweating under the hot studio lights, while Kennedy remained as cool as a cucumber. Nixon also displayed other signs of anxiety, like lip licking and fast blinking.

So who won the presidential debate?

It turns out, most people who listened to the debate on the radio voted for Nixon, due to his deep, rich voice.

But those who saw it on the big screen? Hands down, the majority of them sided with Kennedy. During a presentation, people will be able to read a lot from your face. Are you a nervous lip biter? Do you sweat when you’re under pressure? Do you blink too much—or not enough?

Try these tips to master your facial expressions:

  • Record Yourself. One of the ways I became much better at public speaking than I was before is that I constantly do YouTube videos. In my early days, I always looked away from the camera and bit my upper lip, until I rewatched my videos and corrected the problems. If you have any glaring issues, video will find it.
  • Take a Deep Breath. It’s totally OK to pause and take a deep breath. Make sure to constantly breathe deeply. It’s super easy to get nervous and start shallow breathing. I find a session of quick meditation actually helps me to calm my nerves.

And remember, it can’t be all that bad. Have a look at Colin Robertson’s hilarious TED Talk, where things seem to go awry.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Hide Your Notes

I generally don’t recommend having notes with you if you can help it. Using notes is great to keep you on -pace, but relying on them could be a crutch.

Physically holding them in your hands could take up valuable palm space for gesturing and can make your movements more awkward. You can also forget to make eye contact at critical moments.

I recommend keeping your notes to a bare minimum (i.e., don’t write your college thesis on them) and leaving them at the podium or by your side. Refer to them as needed, but you should be at a place where you only need to look at a few key words to remember what you’re going to say next.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Stay Still

Many presenters already know they should move and take up space. But sometimes it can be easy to over-do it. One powerful, advanced body language trick is to actually keep still and silent during the important parts of your presentation.

Steve Jobs was a master at movement. Watch as he moves to emphasize his points, but during the very important points, he tends to stay still and command attention:

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Color Psychology

What colors you wear can drastically affect the perception of you on camera. Just take a look at these 2 different outfits, but with their colors switched:

Vanessa in black dress vs Vanessa in pink dress

See how different I look?

One image portrays power, confidence, and authority. The other is perfect for spring picnics and tea time.

OK, those images are a bit on the extreme side. But for normal colors, choose your color to match the mood you want to give off:

  • Blue gives off feelings of stability, tranquility, and trust.
  • Red primes emotions of intensity, aggression, and passion.
  • Yellow indicates emotions of happiness, vibrance, and youth.

Check out this article: Color Psychology: What Colors Should You Wear and Why

↑ Table of Contents ↑

News Reporter vs. Preacher

One way to speak is like a monotone news reporter:

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got an enthusiastic preacher:

In most presentations, you want to be somewhere in the middle (leaning toward enthusiastic).

Vocal variety is a huge body language cue that you can easily change to spice up your presentations. If you’re not naturally vocally gifted like Freddie Mercury, no worries! Try a vocal warm-up.

One of my favorite vocal warm-ups I do almost every time before a video or presentation is to simply hum:

  • Do one long “hmmmmmmmmm,” and try to hold it for as long as you can.
  • Now, loosen up your lips and mouth. Hum again, but now more relaxed. Try to keep your jaw and cheeks nice and loose as well.
  • Inflect! Go up and down with your hum. Alternate between descending and ascending hums.

Do this five times and be amazed at how magical your newly – prepped voice is.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Have Fun!

Remember, your goal as a captivating presenter isn’t just to relay information. You’ve also got a second job as an entertainer. Remember to engage the audience and have fun on stage! Your audience will appreciate it, and you’ll feel more free, too.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Presentation Body Language Mini-FAQ:

How much of a presentation depends on your body language?

You may have heard that communication is 93% nonverbal, and only 7% verbal. These percentages are actually false. We may not know the exact percentage, but nonverbal communication plays a huge role in presentations (with the right body language, you can turn any old, boring content into the most exciting presentation ever!).

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Why is body language important in presentation?

Open, confident body language allows you to clearly express your message during a presentation, without disengaging your audience. Great body language during presentations builds your credibility, draws the audience’s attention to your points, and helps you connect with your listeners and build rapport.

↑ Table of Contents ↑

Bonus: Give Captivating Presentations

You might not realize it, but you are presenting ALL the time. Whether it’s:

… we are constantly presenting. So I want to help you achieve your presentation goals. Whether you’re looking to find the best openers and closers, use visuals in your presentations, tell amazing stories, or even present online, I’ve got you covered: Master Your Presentations With Powerful Presentation Skills

Are there any other presentation body language tips you have? Or can you relate to my embarrassing story? Leave a comment below!

1 Pease, A. (2017). The definitive book of body language: How to read others’ attitudes by their gestures. London: Orion.

Side Note: As much as possible we tried to use academic research or expert opinion for this master body language guide. Occasionally, when we could not find research we include anecdotes that are helpful. As more research comes out on nonverbal behavior we will be sure to add it!

About Vanessa Van Edwards

Vanessa Van Edwards is a national best selling author & founder at Science of People. Her groundbreaking book, Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People has been translated into more than 16 languages. As a recovering awkward person, Vanessa helps millions find their inner charisma. She regularly leads innovative corporate workshops and helps thousands of individual professionals in her online program People School. Vanessa works with entrepreneurs, growing businesses, and trillion dollar companies; and has been featured on CNN, BBC, CBS, Fast Company, Inc., Entrepreneur Magazine, USA Today, the Today Show and many more.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related

Read More in Body Language