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Controlling Your Nerves and Using Body Language

In the previous articles in this series, we looked at a variety of tips to help you with your speech making and presentation skills. But while a good subject, strong opening and lots of preparation and organisation are all essential, delivering with confidence (even if you don’t feel it) and using good body language are also crucial in conveying your message effectively.


Everyone - even the most experienced presenter - will feel a twitch or tremble of nerves before taking the stage, but the real trick is learning to control it so that it doesn’t negatively affect your performance.


Fear of public speaking can be due to the sense of the unknown, risk of failure, worries of looking like a fool amongst other things. Whatever the reason, the effect is the same - the fight or flight mechanism kicks in - we tense up, produce more adrenaline, and sometimes just want to run out of the room. It’s innate, when we feel threatened or in danger, this response tries to get us to safety.


You may experience symptoms such as:


  • Butterflies in the stomach

  • Increased heart rate

  • Feeling light-headed

  • Feeling dizzy


Relaxation techniques


By relaxing your mind prior to your speech, you can take control of the nerves and reduce the fear you’re feeling. Here are some techniques you can try:


  • Physical – deep breathing, jumping up and down, exercises to tighten and loosen your mouth/jaw muscles.

  • Visualisation – close your eyes and mentally visualise yourself going onstage and performing the speech to a rapturous audience, vividly imagining each action.


It’s natural to feel anxious, however well practiced and prepared you are, and a little adrenaline will help you to speak energetically – but by using some of these methods, you’ll be able to speak and walk confidently so that your audience won’t even realise you’re feeling nervous.


Using body language to polish your performance


If you’re unsure what to do with your hands - or even your face - while giving a speech, here are some hints and tips on using body language to help you present more effectively. Couple these with the relaxation techniques above, and you’ll be presenting like a pro in no time!


Body language is a great tool for adding emphasis and clarity to your spoken words, convincing the audience of your sincerity, passion, and commitment, and releasing nervous energy.


There are three categories of body language: the face, the hands, and the whole body. Let’s look at each in turn...


The face


Obviously an important one, as the face communicates more clearly than any other part of the body, and facial expression is often the key to the meaning behind a message. Match expressions with your words, meaning don’t offer a huge smile if you’re talking about something sad or traumatic – and remember that the audience will watch your face for social clues about sincerity, your attitude toward the message, and the level of conviction you’re bringing to the speech.


Also remember to maintain eye contact, working your eyes across the room to different people, as this projects an air of confidence and sincerity.


The hands


Gestures can reinforce verbal messages, convey a specific thought or emotion and are mostly made with the hands and arms. Use strong, purposeful, and complementary gestures to strengthen your message and add interest to your presentation, avoiding distracting nervous mannerisms, such as fiddling with jewellery or a pen.


The three types of gestures you can use during your speech are:


  • Conventional gestures – symbols for words, such as a raised hand for “stop” or two raised fingers for the number two.

  • Descriptive gestures – used to describe ideas, such as holding the hands apart to show length or moving the hands and arms to indicate shape.

  • Emotional gestures – to suggest feelings e.g. shaking a clenched fist to show anger or determination, or shrugging the shoulders to show indifference.


The body


Your stance, posture, and movement all tell the audience whether or not you’re confident, alert and in command of the situation.


A relaxed, balanced speaking stance provides a solid starting point from which to gesture or move in any direction. Here you can also use the stage to anchor your message and create pictures in the audience's mind, referring back or forward to that point of reference using gestures.


I hope you’ve found these expert tips on public speaking and presentations of value, but if you have any questions or need any further assistance, please contact us at Hello@StrictlySpeakingHarrogate.org.uk and we’d be delighted to help.


Phil Heath


Treasurer and Found Member of Strictly Speaking Harrogate Toastmasters


About Phil


Phil Heath – DTM As a trainer/consultant in International Standards, Phil visited many countries in the last few years. Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, every time he left the country there was a riot, a bombing, or an invasion! Phil joined Toastmasters in 2003 and has the honour of being a twice Distinguished Toastmaster. Before Phil became a professional speaker he was a trainer and sales consultant for many companies. As philthefunnel he now coaches organisations and individuals in the art of presentations with a focus on confident communication.


Phil Heath – Creating Confidence with Communication www.philheath.com

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