Mastering Body Language for Effective Presentations

You've got a big presentation coming up.

You must prepare properly.

Many of us will spend hours agonising over what to say and pay much less attention to how we say it.

But your body language is a powerful tool that is vital for capturing your audience's attention and for public speaking success.

So, how can you improve your presentation body language?


What do we mean by body language?

Body language can be quite a broad term.

So, before we look more closely at the role of body language in presentation skills, let's break down what it means:

During our presentation skills training courses, we focus body language on:

  • Being able to maintain eye contact
  • Facial expressions
  • The use of hand gestures
  • Good posture
  • Voice

Why is effective body language important for presentations?

You've probably heard before that 90 per cent of communication is nonverbal.

It originates from research from Albert Mehrabian.

His study concluded that communication is 55 per cent non-verbal, 38 per cent vocal, and 7 per cent words only.

There is much debate and many words written about those findings and the validity of the 90 per cent nonverbal communication figure.

But what can't be disputed is that how presenters use body language has a massive impact on how they are received.


How can you improve your body language for maximum impact?

So, we understand the importance of body language.

But how can you develop more positive body language for your next presentation? How can you iron out the bad body language habits you have developed?

Let's explore those five components of effective body language we identified earlier:


Eye contact

A blog on the importance of body language has to start with eye contact.

Wherever you are speaking and whoever you are speaking to, eye contact establishes a personal connection and rapport and shows your audience they are important.

It also projects confidence and authority.

During a presentation, you need to ensure you make eye contact with all the audience members. That sounds tricky if you are talking to a big crowd.

Something we recommend during our presentation training courses is to draw a W in your mind across the audience. Then work through that W, making points and maintaining that eyeline with different sections so everyone feels included.


Divide and conquer

Another option is to divide the audience into three sections. When you move that eye contact from one person to another, choose someone in a different section, again ensuring everyone feels included.

If you are presenting online, you must make sure you are looking at the lens. A good body language tip here is to get post-it notes with the points you want to make and stick them on either side of the camera.

That will help you concentrate your gaze on the camera rather than constantly looking away or down at your notes.


Hand gestures

What should you do with your hands during our presentation?

This came up during a Media Team Academy body language masterclass, and Susan Bookbinder, one of our expert tutors, told the audience there are four "illegal" hand positions during a presentation:

  • The Penguin – People are sometimes wrongly told not to gesture when they present. If you are someone who gestures a lot naturally, this leads to weird body movements, with your hands flapping around at your side like a penguin.
  • The Barrier – avoid crossing your arms in front of your chest, as it looks defensive and off-putting.
  • The King Charles – this is where your arms are held together behind your back, and you tend to go up and down on your toes.
  • The Footballer – this is where you clasp your arms together by your waist in front of you and then swivel from side to side.

Another one to avoid is rubbing your arm in a soothing way when you are saying, "Everything is going to be ok" – it suggests the opposite.

But hand gestures have a pivotal role to play. Research from Science of People found the least popular TED Talkers used an average of 272 hand gestures during the 18-minute talk. Whereas the most popular TED Talkers used an average of 465 hand gestures.

So, what should you do?

Instead of doing any of these "illegal" hand gestures, lightly clasp your hands together in front of you – there is a natural pressure point between your thumb and your index finger you can press down on with your other thumb and then lightly clasp the rest of that hand around your other one.

That is a good starting point, and you can gesture from there.

The key with hand gestures is they should have a purpose - to make your message clearer. Use gestures to explain your important points.

The sweet spot is where these hand gestures seem natural. If the audience thinks they are rehearsed and robotic, your gestures will become a distraction.

Try to use both hands for gestures. Speakers often keep one hand in a pocket and have one arm swirling around, which is monotonous and adds little to the presentation.


Facial expression

Facial expressions are another vital part of body language in presentations and can enhance the words you say.

Imagine sitting through a presentation delivered by someone with a blank face. No facial expressions. Sounds as dull as listening to someone read aloud all the text on their PowerPoint slides.

Our faces have 43 muscles and can make more than 10,000 facial expressions.

And a presentation audience can learn a lot from how we use them.

A simple smile creates the impression you are happy to be there and makes you seem approachable. Smiling is also infectious and can help build a bridge with the audience.

Raising your eyebrows can show interest and curiosity when answering questions from the audience. Nodding suggests you agree with what they say.

A face with little animation and facial expressions can suggest boredom and indifference, and mean you are unlikely to command attention.


Presentation posture

Who remembers parents or teachers telling them to stand up straight?

While it was annoying at the time, posture offers nonverbal cues about how we feel.

Slouching - often at the top of the list of examples of poor posture - suggests disinterest.

You may have seen photos of politicians adopting a 'power pose', where they stand with a wide stance for presentations. Should you stand the same way?

We think good posture is more subtle than that.

Standing presentations

If you are standing for your presentation, it is all about standing tall. Plant your feet shoulder-width apart and imagine they are on a clock, and your toes point at 5 minutes to 1.

It maximises your floor coverage and makes you look as if you’re standing on solid ground - even if you’re behind a lectern. It will also convey confidence.

Then draw yourself up to your full height and try to keep your shoulders nice and relaxed.

If you feel confident, move around the stage and encompass the whole audience. But always stand still with your feet planted when you make a crucial point.

One of our most important body language tips is to make sure you have a practice run. Deliver your presentation in front of a tall mirror, so you can see if you stand straight, and use your arms and hands to emphasise particular points.  Make a video recording. Or present to a familiar audience of friends and family who will give you honest feedback.

Sitting down?

There are many times when we present sat on our bottoms. 

Boardroom meetings, team meetings and even some conferences or panel events call for speakers to be seated.

How should you adapt your body language?

The key is to not become too relaxed in this slightly less daunting format – body language remains crucial if you want to show authority and capture the audience's attention.

Ensure you have your feet flat on the ground. And position yourself as far back in the chair as you can. 

Remember BBC - an acronym we use during our presentation skills training. It stands for Bum in Back of Chair.

From this position, draw yourself up to your full height, and again, keep your shoulders relaxed. Then lean forward, placing your forearms on the table in front of you, with arms separated. You will appear authoritative.

Swivel chairs can be perilous - if you start swivelling, you will distract your audience. So, plant your feet firmly on the floor.


You might think posture rules here are the same as those for delivering a presentation sitting down.

But there are some different aspects to consider.

Maintaining eye contact by looking at the lens is crucial. Poor eye contact and wandering eyes can make it look like you feel uncomfortable, and your audience will wonder what else you are looking at.

Also consider whether you would be better standing. You have to work harder online to get your message across, so sitting down hunched over a laptop may not be the best solution.

Why not put the laptop on a shelf so it is at eye level with you when you are standing? That would give much more energy to your performance.



There is often some debate about whether voice is part of body language.

Even if you don't think it is, the two things go hand in hand.

A monotonous voice will make it difficult for the audience to listen to your words.

We need vocal variety. Vary your tone and pace to add colour. Add pauses and speak slowly for emphasis, and bring the energy to keep your audience engaged.

Even subtle changes can help ensure people are paying attention.

Your volume and tone should be driven by your content. There are different points when you will want to sound inspiring, times when you want to sound more like a friend, and places where you will want to challenge your audience. Your voice needs to change to reflect the goals of your message.

Practice by reading a children's book aloud and varying tone, emphasis, and pitch.

And warm up your voice before you step forward to give your presentation.

There are various techniques you can use, including humming, chanting and lip trills. 


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What else do you need to know about body language in presentations?

Avoid distracting body language habits

No matter how good your facial expressions are or how well you maintain eye contact, some habits and mannerisms can distract and annoy your audience.

Fiddling with jewellery, playing with pens (or coins in your pocket), adjusting clothing, clearing your throat and stroking hair and beards can all suggest nervousness and take focus away from what you say.

Because they are habits, they can be hard to break. But being aware you have them is a good starting point.


Don't overprepare

Public speaking is daunting for many.

And we can fall into the trap of overpreparing.

It can be a delicate balancing act because preparation is vital for a great presentation.

But if you stay up until 4am working on your content and visual aids - or stay awake trying to memorise what you intend to say - you will be exhausted when the time comes to present.

And because you are tired and have overthought it, the presenting part falls down. Instead, the presentation is delivered in a monotone way with none of the body language needed to command attention.


Read the audience's body language

It's not just your body language you need to consider when presenting.

Look at your audience. Their body language offers nonverbal cues about their true feelings.

Their posture, facial expressions and eye contact show you if they feel bored, disinterested and confused. Of if you have convinced them of the key points you want to get across.


Dress appropriately

Are the clothes you wear part of body language?

Well, like voice, it is a bit of a grey area.

But if you are comfortable in your clothing, you are more likely to feel confident - and appear confident to your audience.

We're not going to give you a list of things not to wear. Or lecture you about having well-groomed hair.

Instead, we suggest you opt for those 'go-to' options in your wardrobe that make you feel good. A presentation is not the right time to find out if that new outfit looks as good as you thought in the fitting room. Or whether it is as comfortable as you imagined. 

And, while you want to look professional, don’t make yourself uncomfortable and unable to move freely. Choose clothes that don’t feel restrictive. 


Need more help with your presentation body language?

Body language can make all the difference to the outcome of a presentation.

If you need more advice on how to better use body language before you next take centre stage - or want to develop other presentation skills - speak to one of our account managers.

They will design a course that helps you make the best use of your talents, iron out the areas for improvement and ensure you communicate with clarity and confidence.


Media First are leading media and communication skills training specialists with more than 35 years of experience.

We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications and leadership coaches, and media trainers. 

Discover more about our presentation skills training.

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