Article Category: Delivery Techniques

Body Movement Tips for Public Speakers

Body movement is an aspect of public speaking that often gets ignored. Unfortunately, this leads to two extreme behaviors that are equally bad:

  • A speaker who stands rigidly on a single spot for their entire presentation, or
  • A speaker who moves constantly in dizzying motion

True effectiveness lies in between these two extremes, with purposeful body movement that complements the speaker’s message, and adds authenticity to the overall delivery.

In this article, we reveal 7 benefits of body movement for speakers, review a series of negative body movements, and share 18 practical tips for purposeful movement that enhances your overall presentation.

What this article is NOT about

Upper-body movements are critical to a speaker’s effectiveness, whether it be hand gestures, facial expressions, or subtle movements of your head as you gaze around. However, for this article, we’re going to focus on lower-body movements where you use your legs and feet to move around the room.

Also, we’re not focusing on speaking situations where you are mandated to stay in one spot, usually at a lectern. While you can (and probably should) pivot your body in these situations, your freedom to move is curtailed. A few examples of such situations are:

  • Highly formal occasions (e.g. commencement speech)
  • Press conferences
  • Speaking in a place of worship
  • Political speeches, particularly when being recorded on video
  • Any other situations when you are constrained by a fixed microphone

Benefits of Body Movement while Presenting

Purposeful body movement complements your message, and adds authenticity to your overall delivery.

In the vast majority of speaking situations, your movement isn’t constrained. Take advantage of this, and move your body! There are many benefits to doing so, including:

  1. Support your message.
    When in harmony with your words, full-body movement can accentuate and augment your message.
  2. Increase authenticity.
    If you are passionate about your message and comfortable when presenting it, then movement is natural. So, if you remain rigidly planted too long in one spot, your audience may doubt your passion and authenticity.
  3. Enable balanced audience connection.
    As you move from the center of the speaking area to the left or to the right, full-body movement brings you closer to different audience members. By reducing the separation distance, you will increase your ability to connect with your audience in a balanced way.
  4. Own the stage.
    As a presenter, you are afforded the opportunity to use the whole speaking area in any way that enhances your presentation. Rather than imposing an arbitrary restriction on yourself to stand in a single spot, you can symbolically “own the stage” by using more of it.
  5. Attract audience attention.
    Body movement is the largest physical gesture that you can make (i.e. it’s “bigger” than gestures with your hands, face, or eyes). For this reason, any full-body movement tends to immediately attract attention from your audience.
  6. Dissipate nervous energy.
    If you are stationary for too long, then your body will gravitate toward distracting oscillating movements (see below for examples) as a means of expending nervous energy. Purposeful body movement will dissipate this energy in a non-distracting way.
  7. Avoid muscle stagnation.
    If you lock your knees and plant your feet for long periods of time, your muscles can tighten up. Occasional body movements avoid this and keep your blood pumping. By caring for your physical needs, you are able to deliver your best speech possible!

Body Movements to Avoid when Speaking

When in harmony with your words, full-body movement can accentuate and augment your message.

Before we discuss positive movements you can incorporate into your presentation, let’s go over a series of detrimental movements that you should avoid.

  1. Pacing back and forth. (Oscillation #1)
    A few years ago, I attended a technical conference where one of the keynote speakers was an industry expert “idol” of mine. Imagine my dismay when he spent virtually the entire hour pacing between two points like a ping-pong ball. The constant oscillating movement was terribly distracting. His effectiveness was further diminished because his eyes were constantly directed at one wall or the other instead of toward his audience.
  2. Swaying or rocking front to back. (Oscillation #2)
    We all have our presenting demons, and this motion — shifting weight repetitively front to back — is occasionally one of mine. This oscillation, which all parents master when rocking an infant to sleep, can induce drowsiness in your audience in extreme cases. Eek!
  3. Yo-yo-ing between screen and laptop. (Oscillation #3)
    Imagine a presenter running back and forth between the screen (to present visuals) and a laptop (to advance the slides). Now imagine this pattern repeating forty times over an hour! Not only is it tiring for the speaker, but it is distracting for the audience. To project a more professional, composed manner, I encourage all speakers to invest in a presentation remote. I love everything about the Kensington Wireless Presenter, but any similar device will prevent yo-yo-ing. Get one with the features you like and use it.
  4. Tripping over anything or falling off stage.
    Do a visual check of the floor area when you arrive at the venue, and make sure you stay within safe boundaries. In addition to potential injury, a mistake like this can destroy the mood. (If it happens to you, try to quickly laugh it off, and re-engage.)
  5. Any movement that could result in injury.
    I once attended a speech competition where one of the speakers attempted to perform a ballet pirouette while sharing a story about her youth. I don’t know if the stage was slippery, or if her shoes gave out, but the pirouette ended with her crashing down onto her knees. It wasn’t the impact she was aiming for. (She was visibly in pain, but I applaud her for continuing on.)
  6. Any movement that leads to an awkward or revealing position.
    Maybe it’s a twist leading to a wardrobe malfunction. Maybe it’s a bend that gives the audience an unwanted viewpoint. Maybe it’s something else. Accidents can’t always be avoided, but try to anticipate negative consequences.
  7. Any full-body movement that distracts while you deliver key lines.
    While you deliver your core points (including your opening and your conclusion), avoid moving around. At these times, take a strong stance, look straight at your audience, and reinforce your words with hand gestures or other upper body movements.

18 Tips to Inject Movement into Your Presentation

If you are passionate about your message and comfortable when presenting it, then movement is natural.

Now that we’ve discussed the negative movements to avoid, let’s focus our attention on strategies to incorporate more purposeful movement into your presentation. Each of the following tips achieves one or more of the benefits mentioned earlier.

  1. Move as you transition from one point to the next.
    Transition phrases are widely acknowledged as perfect opportunities to change your body’s position. If you adopt this strategy, it might lead to this common success pattern:

    • Stand firm and deliver introduction
    • Move your body as you transition to first point
    • Stand firm and deliver first point
    • Move your body as you transition to second point
    • Stand firm and deliver second point
    • Move your body as you transition to conclusion
    • Stand firm and deliver conclusion
  2. Step forward when delivering key points.
    Some speakers step forward (or lean forward) when delivering their most important lines. If done smoothly, this signals to your audience that you are about to say something of great importance. (Think about how you “lean in” to share a secret in a private conversation.) Be careful not to overdo this; it can detract from your presentation if you mechanically rock back-and-forth every paragraph.
  3. Aim for left-right balance.
    Depending on the room setup and the nature of your presentation, you may be forced to adopt asymmetric positions. For example, if presenting slides on a screen that is centered relative to the audience, it is natural for you to stand to the left or right of the screen. However, if you take up a single position (e.g. the left side) for the entire presentation, audience members on the “far side” of the room can feel disconnected. This dilemma is solved by adding variety throughout your speech: sometimes stand on the left, and sometimes stand on the right.
  4. Position yourself in front of the screen (#1)
    Another way to counteract the asymmetry dilemma when presenting with slides is to take up a position right in front of the screen. Normally, this is crazy, because you don’t want to block sight lines and frustrate your audience. However, it can be effective if used sparingly. For example, you can use your arms as pointers to refer directly to key data points or parts of a diagram.
  5. Position yourself in front of the screen (#2)
    When in PowerPoint’s “Slide Show” mode, the “b” key will blank the screen. Use this to take the visuals away when you don’t need them. This allows you to stand front and center (in front of the screen) where your audience’s attention will be focussed on you (rather than the “old” slide behind you). Several presentation remotes have a button that triggers this mode as well. If you aren’t using software that provides this feature, just plan for it by inserting an all-black slide at certain positions in your slide deck.
  6. Walk to a flip chart or a whiteboard.
    Another way to incorporate movement and left-right balance is to strategically map out different areas of the speaking area for different activities. For example, I often present in a wide training room that has a whiteboard on the right side. If I know I’ll be using the whiteboard periodically, I might take up a position on the left or center for “non-whiteboard” segments.
  7. Walk into audience area during a group exercise.
    When delivering training courses, I like to walk around the tables and chairs while an individual or group exercise is being performed. This allows me to check on the progress being made, and it invites more questions than I would otherwise receive if I remained up at the front of the room the whole time. It seems like participants feel more comfortable asking for help if I enter the “audience space”.
  8. Fetch a prop.
    Depending on what your speech prop is and how cumbersome it is to handle, you might choose to “conceal” it at the side of the room or away from the speaking area. Then, when you need it, you can walk to retrieve it. If done well, this can heighten the suspense and build-up to “revealing” the prop.
  9. Distribute a handout.
    Think about when to distribute your handout. If you decide to distribute it in the middle of your presentation, this is an obvious opportunity for body movement. Beware of overkill here. In a large room, it isn’t necessary or advisable for you to individually hand out copies to each person. Just pass a few stacks to people at a few corners, and let the handouts propagate.
  10. Incorporate a demonstration.
    Many types of demonstrations require full-body movement, and this tends to raise the energy level of your presentation.
  11. Act out a story scene.
    One of the most natural opportunities for incorporating movement which enhances your delivery is to immerse yourself in a story and add complementary actions to your words. Possibilities are endless. For example, these lines could be augmented with full-body movements.

    • “…and then I stormed into the room…”
    • “…she was strutting around without a care in the world…”
    • “…scared and confused, I retreated into the shadows…”
  12. Pivot your body to indicate conversation.
    Some stories require dialogue, and this dialogue can be confusing and ineffective with lots of “and then he said” commentary. One way to solve this is to pivot your body inward with each person’s words, pivoting left for “person 1” and right for “person 2”. For example:

    • [Pivot your body left] “You stole the cookie from the cookie jar!”
    • [Pivot your body right] “Who me? Couldn’t be!”
    • [Pivot left again] “Then who?”
    • [Pivot right again] “It was Daddy!”
  13. Stray a little from the lectern.
    Suppose you need to stay close to a lectern because you rely heavily on written notes, or you need to be within arms reach of a laptop for a software demonstration. In these situations, most speakers will “give up” and abandon full-body movements entirely. Although you are constrained, you can still make use of the area immediately around the lectern. For example, you can adopt positions centered on the lectern, one arm to the left of the lectern, or one arm to the right of the lectern. While this is not as optimal as being free of the lectern entirely, it is much better than the rigid alternative.
  14. Walk toward audience members during Q&A.
    Whether formal or informal, a question and answer session is a perfect opportunity for body movement, especially in larger rooms. As each question is asked, you can walk towards the person asking the question. This is both an act of respect (i.e. you are devoting your whole attention to them), and also a way to ensure that you hear them accurately.
  15. Sit for a while.
    Sitting? Wasn’t this article about full-body movement? How does sitting qualify? Consider that sitting for a portion of your presentation (and getting back up again) can achieve several of the benefits claimed above: increase authenticity, attract audience attention, dissipate nervous energy, and avoid muscle stagnation.
    Sitting won’t always be an option, because the room and available furniture may not support it. But, if you have a raised platform or a tall stool which allows you to maintain high visibility, and if sitting is an appropriate match for your presentation style and tone, then try it.
  16. Seek meaningful feedback.
    Find people in your audience that you can trust, and ask them for meaningful feedback on your body movement (or lack thereof). Did your movement support your message? Was your movement natural and authentic? Did you have any awkward and distracting movements? To gain the most valuable feedback, ask them before your presentation to watch your body movement with a critical eye.
  17. Record yourself on video.
    To complement feedback from others, set yourself up to do a self-critique. Record yourself, and play it back. Ask yourself all of the same questions, and brainstorm alternative choices you could have made.
  18. Learn from others.
    The best way to master body movement as a speaker is to consciously observe and study other speakers.

    • What do they do well? How can you incorporate those movements?
    • What do they do which is distracting? How can you avoid those pitfalls?
    • How do different speakers handle a diversity of settings and audiences? How can you prepare for similar situations?

Your Turn: What’s Your Opinion?

Do you have a personal crutch when it comes to full-body movements? What additional tips have you learned to help you move with purpose? Can you share a story about a speaker with exceptionally good or exceptionally bad speech movement? Please share in the article comments.

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