Body Language in Public speaking - everything you need to know

Category Archives: Body Language

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Why you shouldn’t be rehearsing in front of a mirror

It’s common advice given to a lot of speakers: practice in front of a mirror. So they can see how they ‘perform’ and improve their body language. It’s a very logical way of thinking. In fact, it’s in the advice of many books and courses. Intended to make you look at yourself in real time and make instant adjustments. But is this the right way of thinking?

I believe it is a completely wrong approach. It can even lead to the exact opposite of what you want to accomplish.

Why do people use a mirror?

“But wait, what are you saying? Are you saying that the advice others are giving is false?” Well, as with many things, my answer will be: that depends. It depends on how you ‘read’ the advice.

Let’s look at some of the reasoning behind the tip that you should practice in front of a mirror.

“It helps you see what you look like”

This is true, of course, you can see yourself. As I point out below though, it’s not your real self. But the essence of the advice here is good: seeing yourself will make that you can improve yourself. The question is if that has to be a mirror… But I’ll get back to that.

“It helps with practicing eye contact”

Some say that a mirror will help you look at your audience instead of at your notes. Where I agree that you shouldn’t look at your notes, I doubt that the mirror will have that effect. Eye contact is important. So you have to train yourself to look at different people.

I think this advice comes from the understanding that you need to practice without notes. But there are many better ways of doing that.

Why is practicing in front of the mirror wrong?

So why do I advice against it? There are several reasons you shouldn’t do this.

1. It’s not real!

A frog rehearsing in front of a mirror

Even though you see yourself in the mirror, and the reflection is real, this is not reality. Practicing in front of the mirror doesn’t reflect what happens in real life. Because for one, in real life, you don’t see yourself. If you want to practice, you want to get as close as possible to the actual speaking experience. When you see a reflection of yourself, you will act on it right away. Change the way you look. But that is how you look in the mirror, not on stage.

You will not even see how you act on stage because you are focusing on your reflection. What you see is not what you get. This might also mean that you change things that don’t need changing!

2. It’s a habit you need to change, not a moment

When you look in the mirror, and you see something wrong, you will change it. But then the change has happened and you don’t think about it anymore. Where in fact, it’s a habit. So you need to address it over and over. Looking in the mirror fools you into thinking you ‘fixed’ your body language.

3. The mirror will make you focus on gesture, not story

When you practice in front of the mirror, you are focusing on how your movement and gestures. You will see every movement that goes wrong. You will see every little thing. Your focus will be on your smallest facial expressions and gestures. This is distracting. Which then leads to too much emphasis on those little things and you will lose the focus on your story.

You want to focus on your story, not your gestures.

4. Your mirror image might make you nervous

Looking at yourself in the mirror when practicing might actually make you nervous. When you look at yourself, you emphasize what goes wrong. You are much more aware of what goes wrong. Therefore increasing the likely hood of it actually going wrong.

If you see things going wrong you will start thinking about these things more and more. And that will make you nervous.

What to do?

Is it always wrong to practice in front of the mirror? I would say yes in most cases. But, like with everything, there are exceptions. If you practice early enough, it will most likely not make you nervous. And you can do that, but only to practice certain gestures. To see if certain gestures work or not. Otherwise, I would advise against it.

But if it’s something that works for you, do it!

There are two other things you can do that will give you a much better insight into how you are presenting yourself:

Practice in front of an audience.

Find colleagues or other people to see you talk. They can give you feedback as well. Remember to ask them for specific feedback on your body language and not on your story.

Record yourself

Grab a video camera (or your phone) and record yourself. Position the camera so that it has a broad view of how you move (which show your full body). Watch the recording, write down the two or three biggest things you want to change, and do another practice run.

Just be careful rehearsing in front of the mirror. It might not have the outcome you were hoping for!


Use your Facial Expressions to make your audience feel emotions

When you are communicating, whether it is in a talk or a conversation, facial expressions are important. If someone pulls a face when drinking orange juice, you can see how sour the orange juice is. And you will almost be able to taste the sourness. That is, if the expression fits the taste.

Emotions are transferred through the facial expressions. You can see disgust, see sourness, see anger or see happiness. In fact: as an audience, you will feel the emotion.

This means that as a speaker, you can play with people’s emotions, using your face. It’s therefor important to pay attention to your facial expressions.

When you’re talking about something that is exciting, make sure your face is exciting! Smile when you are happy! When you’re talking about something sad… pull up a sad face… And of course, When you are talking about something angry, be angry!

Your audience will experience the emotion you are expressing.

There are exercises you can do to train showing emotions. I’ve added a few in the document attached to this article.

Try to test out the different emotions that you have in your presentation. And see how people respond. You will be surprised by the impact of your face.


How to stop saying “Uhm” in your talk

How often do you say the word “uhm” or “um” when you talk? Probably a lot. Because many people do. These words are called “filler words”. But how can you fix this?

When you use filler words, you are thinking out loud. And that’s where the solution to stop saying “uhm” lies.

Bas van den Beld explains

Full transcript:

Hey how you doing? “Uhhmm”, I want to talk to you about something that “uhhm”. Is something that “uhm” annoys “uh” a lot of people. When “uhh” you are on stage and “uhh” keep saying “uhhh” like I just did.

Now I know I exaggerate a little bit and I know that I even do that sometimes on stage. That I still say “uhm”.

That’s a moment where you’re thinking about “what did I want to say again?” You’re trying to grab your thoughts together. And because you don’t want people to think that you’ve lost whatever you’re talking about, because you’re not (lost).

That’s why you say “Uhhm”. Because you don’t want that awkward silence. To be honest, the awkward silence, isn’t bad at all. Every time you think you want to say “uh”, just pause. Don’t say anything.

It will sound less weird than you actually think. Because in your head it might sound like a long silence, where actually, for the audience, it’s a silence they kind of appreciate. Because if you take a short break, they can understand what you just said. So don’t worry about the “Uhms” too much. Just say nothing.


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Where to sit in a panel discussion

Almost every conference has them: panel discussions. In these sessions, they often bring more speakers on stage to discuss a topic. When they invite you to be part of one of these panels, you are in luck! The organisers see you as an expert!

In the early days, I never thought about where to sit in a panel discussion. I often chose a ‘safe’ spot, usually at the end of the row. That might not have been a smart choice in retrospect. Through experience and learning about psychology, I learned other places are better.

Which places you ask? That depends. On you. On the other members of the panel. And on what the panel is for.

What is your goal?

The first thing you want to ask yourself is: what is your goal for the panel? What do you want to get out of it? Are you looking for leads? Or are you trying to show your knowledge?

How do you want to be seen?

The second question you need to ask yourself is how you want to be seen? Do you want the be seen as the most knowledgeable member? The influencer? Or would you rather they see you as the humble person?

Who are the other panel discussion members?

You want to know who the other members in the panel are. You want to know who is most vocal. You want to know who is popular. And you want to know how well they know the moderator.

Where to sit

Depending on the answers on these questions, you determine where to sit:

The most vocal one: close to the moderator

Do you want to answer a lot of questions? Be the most vocal at the Q&A? In that case, you want to sit closest to the moderator. After all, the moderator is the one asking the questions. When she or he does that, the moderator will look at the panel. If you are the first one in sight, you will get more chance to talk.

Read more about how to be a good moderator

The most influential one: in the middle

When you want to be seen as the most influential person on the panel, you want to choose the middle seat. This has to do with psychology. People subconsciously feel the person in the middle is the most influential one. And it’s true. Just think about all the movies you’ve seen in the past. The popular girl in that high school movie always walks in the middle. The leader of the band? Front center. And the most important players in a football team always play in the middle as well.

Friend of the popular one: next to the vocal one!

And finally, do you feel you want to piggy-bag on the popularity of other panel discussion members? Do you feel somewhat insecure, but want to look good anyway?

In that case, go sit next to the most vocal member of the panel. People will see you when that person is talking. They will feel you are connected to that person. And chances are that the first one they will turn to after that vocal person, is you.

It’s about perception

In the end, it’s about what you want to ‘show’ about yourself on the panel discussion. It’s what people will think of you. By sitting in the right spot, you can steer that in the direction you want.

Take your pick: where do you sit?


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The power of a smile in presentations

Never underestimate the power of a smile in a presentation. It can do wonders for how your audience feels.

Did you know for example that smiling makes people more comfortable with you as a speaker? Your facial expressions are extremely important. The way you look says a lot about how you feel and about your message. At the same time, you don’t want to be smiling through a very serious story. Your facial expressions should be in line with the story.

Bas van den Beld explains.

Full transcript:

There’s a smile! When you smile you appear to be more likable. More competent. That’s what you want, right? Because you want to persuade people.

You will also see that your audience will start smiling with you. They will mimic you. Research at the university showed that it’s very difficult to frown if you look at someone who smiles.

Smiling is contagious. A smile affects things and it lives around us. And when you and your audience are both smiling, you will both feel good. Resulting in a better and more persuasive talk.


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The why of the TED Circle

Have you ever wondered why speakers at the TED Conferences are standing in a circle? It’s about more than just the design. It’s helpful as well. And we can learn from it!

Find below the transcript of the video:

When I started speaking at conferences, I didn’t feel comfortable standing behind a desk. Some events have a desk on stage. I felt off I couldn’t really no-show what I had to show and I couldn’t really be myself.

Other people do like to desk because it makes them feel more secure. Everybody feels comfortable in a different way, in different settings. What’s important though, is that you don’t take it to extremes.

When I did get on stage that gave me more space, for example, I started moving around because it felt right. One day I showed a recording of one of my talks, which was on YouTube, to my dad. My dad emailed me back when he had seen the video on YouTube.

He said: “well I love the way you talk, but maybe you should walk around a little bit less. It’s not like you’re performing in a tennis match tennis match.”

I looked at the video again and I saw my dad was right. I was pacing too much. Moving from left to right and back. Trying to be in touch with everyone in the audience. But because I move so much, it was distracting. From that point on I started moving less. But I still moved around and I still do.

When I learned about the TED circle, I understood what I needed to do properly. The TED circle you see when speakers are speaking at the TED conference. What you will see is that there often is on stage a circle. A red circle which is also part of the logo of TED. But one thing that I never realized up until that point, is that that it also has a functional purpose. Which is that people are not allowed out of that circle. The speaker has to stay within the circle.

From that point on, I created virtual circles on stage. How can I move around but within a specific circle, not outside. When it’s a really big stage, I might create one or two or three circles. On different places on the stage. But I won’t move around too much. And the TED circle is one of the reasons of that.

And trust me…it works!


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