People make a decision about you in four seconds.
They will decide whether you are a waste of their time, whether you are a threat, or whether you are important.
That all sounds harsh, doesn’t it?
But it is a primal reaction to protect ourselves. And these decisions are based on three factors - body language, voice, and what you say.
And the most important ones are body language and voice.
“Content is the least important factor,” Susan Bookbinder, one of our expert presentation skills trainers and current working journalist tutors, told members of The Media Team Academy during her exclusive body language masterclass.
“But when it comes to presentations and media interviews, people might stay up until 4am preparing the content they, or a senior leader, will deliver.”
There is a quote from Maya Angelou that neatly sums this up.
She said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Let’s assume you know what you are going to say and are well prepared, and focus instead on how you will say it. What can you do with your body and voice to ensure you make the most of every second?
There’s no better place to start than eyeline.
Wherever you are speaking and whoever you are speaking to, eye contact establishes a connection and shows your audience they are important.
“In any situation, you must look at your audience,” Susan said.
“How many times have you been at a networking event where the person you are talking to, who wants to do business with you, is looking around at the rest of the room?
“Why should you do business with them if they can’t even look at you? How can you trust them?”
So, how can you get the eyeline right?
Let’s start by looking at online meetings or remote media interviews
Susan said: “The pandemic changed how we communicate, and many meetings and interviews continue to happen remotely. And I don’t see that changing, especially with the focus on sustainability – we don’t all need to be in the same room.
“When you are presenting online, you have to make sure you are looking at the lens. A good tip 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.”
If you are presenting face-to-face, look at the audience.
But how do you make eye contact with more than one person?
A good way to present to a physical audience is to draw a W in your mind across the audience. Then work your way through that W, making points and maintaining that eyeline with different sections so everyone feels included.
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.
Let’s stick with in-person presentations.
Presenting to a room remains the format people fear the most.
It is a concern delegates often discuss at the start of our presentation skills training courses.
But there are steps you can take to ensure you appear confident and composed.
“You have to make a decision whether you are presenting on a stage to 10 people in a room or at Wembley Stadium,” Susan said.
“Are you going to be one of those people who rushes around the stage to different parts of the audience? Or are you going to present from a podium?
If you are going to move about the stage, do it with purpose, not a little dance where you go from one foot to the other.
“If you are not one of those people who wants to rush about the stage, you can still move from the waist upwards.
“You need to put your energy into your gesture and the projection of your voice.
“Plant your feet shoulder-width apart, or at 10 minutes to one, and don’t move from the waist downwards. Otherwise, you’ll do an annoying little dance as you talk.
“Try to vary your gestures in the same way you should vary your pace of delivery.
“We see a lot of people with one hand in their pocket and the other arm sort of swirling around like they are making soup – that’s quite monotonous and doesn’t add anything.
“Use both hands to gesture and vary it, making little buds, flowers and branches with your movements – it will add emphasis and energy to the messages you have worked hard on.”
This brings us neatly on to our hands.
What do you do with your hands when you are presenting? Delegates often ask this question during our presentation skills training courses.
According to Susan, there are four ‘illegal’ hand positions when presenting.
The Penguin – Sometimes people are wrongly told not to gesture when they present. If you are someone who gestures a lot naturally, this leads to some weird body movements, with your hands flapping around at your side like a penguin.
The Barrier – This is where your arms are folded in front of your chest, and it looks defensive.
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 one is the worst of all. 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.
Susan said: “Instead of doing any of these, lightly clasp your hands together in front of you – there is a natural pressure point between your thumb and your index finger that 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. And because it is a pressure point, it will help you suppress your nerves.”
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Dealing with nerves (and managing your inner chimp)
Presentations, media interviews and vital meetings can all be daunting, and nerves tend to kick in.
What can you do to calm them so they don’t impact your performance?
“If you are not nervous in these situations, then you are not human,” Susan said.
“I’ve been a broadcaster and journalist for nearly 40 years. Even after all that time, I get that inner chimp that says ‘you’re rubbish’ when I’m about to start a presentation.
“It happens to all of us. And you can fly, fight or freeze.
“To deal with this, I say three words to myself that I would like people to feel when I leave the room – kind, compassionate and competent.
“Taking deep breaths is also crucial – it can slow your heartbeat. Breathe in for six seconds and breath out like you are blowing out a candle.”
Also, remember that you are the expert.
“People have come to listen to you,” Susan said.
“They want it to work. People don’t go to a presentation thinking ‘I hope this person falls over’. They come because they want to learn.
“So, behave like the expert and leader in that room. “
What about body language when you are sitting down?
Many presentations involve sitting on a stage. And people tend to be sat for meetings.
It can be easy to get your posture wrong in these situations.
Make sure you have your feet flat on the ground. And position yourself as far back in the chair as you can.
Susan said: “You need to sit with your bum in the back of the chair – BBC. That will help you get the right posture.
“From this position, draw yourself up to your full height, keeping your shoulders relaxed. Then lean forward, placing your forearms on the table in front of you, with arms separated.
“You will appear authoritative and full of integrity – and you haven’t said a word yet.”
That works well with a stationary chair, but many presenters find themselves sitting on a swivel one.
“Presenters are quite often confronted with these on a stage, and they can be a nightmare,” Susan said.
“The natural thing to do is swivel. But that is distracting and annoying for your audience.
“Instead, plant your feet on the floor firmly and put your energy into your gesture and the projection of your voice.”
During this exclusive masterclass for members of The Media Team Academy, Susan also offered body language advice for co presenting webinars and live streams, and for media interviews. And she answered a series of body language questions from the audience.
If you want to be part of masterclasses like this with our current working journalist tutors, and ones with the expert personal development and leadership coaches from The BCF Group, you need to be a member of The Media Team Academy.
The next cohort of the learning and development programme starts in October. Speak to your account manager today about joining.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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