One of the great enigmas of public speaking: It’s not what you say. It’s how you say it.

Yes, you want your content to be well organized and understandable and interesting, but… The truth is, the most important and interesting subject matter in the world will be worthless if the delivery is dead. The key is to be dynamic, to project an energy and conviction behind what you’re saying.

Two elements impact your dynamism: vocal qualities and nonverbal qualities. The speaker who can put energy and variety into these elements is a speaker audiences want to listen to. Here are a few tips for more powerful delivery:

Vocal qualities are 38% of the impression we form on people. There is probably nothing that will tune an audience out faster than a speaker whose voice is flat and expressionless. An expressive voice is the antidote to the deadly dull monotone. The key is “vocal variety.” Vary your volume-a stage whisper can be as attention-getting as a shout. Change your pacing, speeding up to show extra enthusiasm, slowing down and pausing for more thought-provoking points. Use inflection by emphasizing certain words and phrases. (Here’s a fun exercise: how many ways can you change the meaning of this sentence simply by changing your inflection? “I didn’t ask her to clean the kitchen.”) And avoid nonword fillers as much as possible (“uh,” “um,” “you know”), as they make you sound tentative and unsure. 

Nonverbal qualities represent 55% of the impact we have on others, regardless of what we’re saying. You simply can’t underestimate the power of your body language. As a presenter, be aware of:

  • Your posture. A balanced stance sends a signal of poise. It looks nonchalant or apathetic if you lean on one leg, so plant your weight evenly on both feet. Resist the temptation to let the lectern support you. Its only purpose is to hold your notes, not you.
  • Movement. Don’t stay planted behind a lectern. Use the whole stage or the front of the room for your presentation. Just don’t pace. Take purposeful steps, then stop and talk from that spot for awhile. Move from the laptop back to the screen to discuss your visual.  Purposeful movement translates into dynamism.
  • Gestures. Gestures are to your body what inflection is to your voice. They give meaning and emphasis. This isn’t to say you want to flail your arms about like a windmill. But purposeful gestures look natural and give you dynamism. Think about what gestures would naturally accompany these words: “There are three reasons…” “This is important to me…” “This can’t happen without your help…” It’s impossible to look committed and enthusiastic about what you’re saying if you don’t underscore it with gestures.
  • Your hands. What do you do with your hands when you’re not gesturing? They’re called “home bases.” Avoid: hands on your hips, arms crossed, hands in your pockets, and the infamous “fig leaf,” where your hands are clasped in front of you. All of these are either “tight” or “closed,” not the presence you want in front of an audience.

Better choices are those that are more “open.” One option involves keeping your elbows bent at a right angle and placing your hands loosely together in front of your solar plexus. I don’t think it matters what you do with your hands/fingers as long as they’re relaxed, not tense: no knuckle cracking, hand wringing, finger pulling, or ring twisting. Another popular option is the “one-arm-up” position. This is where you keep one arm bent at that right angle, with the hand loosely closed, and the other arm is either dropped at your side or placed in your pocket. These positions combine both energy and relaxation, the ideal image you want to project.

An exciting topic will not save a boring speaker, but a dynamic speaker can make any subject riveting.


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