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5 Ways Your Body Language Is Hurting Your Event Presentations

Jacqueline Farrington—a former TEDx speaking coach and the author of The Non-Obvious Guide to Better Presentations—shares her top tips for both live and virtual event speakers.

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Photo: New Africa/Shutterstock.com

Picture this: You're onstage and you suddenly forget what to do with your hands. If you've ever given a presentation or speech of any type, let's be honest: You've probably been there. We all know that body language can be a powerful tool when done correctly—but it can also contradict your words, leaving your audience confused or distracted.

"To communicate with congruency," explains Jacqueline Farrington, communication and presentations coach and former TEDx Seattle senior speaking coach, "you need your body to be on its best behavior. Body language is a powerful indicator of emotion, intent, and meaning."

Jacqueline Farrington, who has done communications coaching for companies like Amazon and Microsoft, spent several years as TEDx Seattle’s senior speaking coach, where she sourced, vetted, and prepared speakers for annual sold-out audiences of 3,000.Jacqueline Farrington, who has done communications coaching for companies like Amazon and Microsoft, spent several years as TEDx Seattle’s senior speaking coach, where she sourced, vetted, and prepared speakers for annual sold-out audiences of 3,000.Photo: Courtesy of Farrington PartnersFarrington is a classically trained actress who taught at Yale's School of Drama for 14 years before launching her own communications consulting business, Farrington Partners. She's also the author of the book The Non-Obvious Guide to Better Presentations: How to Present Like a Pro (Virtually or in Person), which came out in March 2023 and provides actionable and practical concepts, tips, and tools borrowed from communications science, the performing arts, and neuroscience to improve speeches or presentations.

"I really spend my time at the intersection of change communications and leadership—because you can’t be a good leader without strong communications. And you can never deliver change without good communication," said Farrington in a recent conversation with BizBash, where we discussed her new book, along with some of her findings on how body language can help—or hurt—speakers' presentations. Read on to learn some of the biggest mistakes she told us she keeps an eye out for...

1. A lack of congruency between your words and your movements
What's the No. 1 mistake speakers make with their body language? A lack of congruency, says Farrington. “When we speak, there are two conversations going on at any given moment: Conversation No. 1 is the words, and conversation No. 2 is how we deliver the words—what we do with our body language," she notes. "And when those are out of sync, the audience will pay attention to the body language every single time over the message.”

Take the example of a teammate saying, "I'm really excited about this project"—but when they're saying it, they're leaning back in their chair and looking away. Would you have trouble believing them? “It’s important for communicators to align the words, the music, and the dance. The words are what we speak, the music is what our voice is doing, and the dance is our body language," she explains. "When those are out of sync, it leads to a lack of trust, a perceived lack of credibility, or at the very least confusion—which is something you never want.”

Farrington's book was released in March 2023; it includes tips for how to use eye contact, gestures, posture, spatial relationships, and facial expressions to connect with your audience during presentations, meetings, or speeches.Farrington's book was released in March 2023; it includes tips for how to use eye contact, gestures, posture, spatial relationships, and facial expressions to connect with your audience during presentations, meetings, or speeches.Photo: Courtesy of Farrington Partners2. Aimless, purposeless movement
Speakers at live events often fall into the trap of roaming around the stage with no real reason, Farrington tells us, stressing that moving with purpose and destination is key. That might be, “I’m on the right side of the stage, and I make eye contact with the audience on the left side of the stage—so now I move over there to connect more with them," she says. Another idea? As you’re transitioning to a new thought, a new story, or even a new emotional tone, move to another part of the stage. “So I’m literally signaling with my body that we’re moving on to something new," she says.

And don’t forget to accentuate movement with moments of stillness, Farrington adds. “If I’m moving around the stage a lot, then I'll find a moment where I come to complete stillness, where I stand still for several moments and really land something on that audience. That contrast with what I was just doing will wake the audience up.” 

One of Farrington's go-to tips? Imagine the stage as a clock, with noon as center stage. “As you’re rehearsing your talk, think about, 'OK, in this section I’m at 10 o’clock, and now in this section, I move to 2 o’clock,'" she says. "That can really help create that more purposeful, clear destination movement.”

3. For virtual presentations, not showing enough of your body on the screen
In virtual communications, Farrington notes, we're actually missing about 75% of the cues that our brains rely on to determine if a speaker is credible and trustworthy. “There have been numerous studies that have found we actually can pick up on someone’s shift in heart rate," she says. "These are all cues that the brain relies on to fundamentally determine if someone is trustworthy—and in the virtual world, when so many of those cues are gone, the brain is still searching for them. … That’s part of the reason why virtual communications are so exhausting. So the more cues we can intentionally bring into that communication, the easier we make it on our audience.”

To help, Farrington advises sitting about two feet from the camera. “Speakers often just become this huge head, so you miss any other signals from the body," she notes. For more formal virtual presentation, she suggests standing so viewers can see even more of your body. "Think about chest up, if not waist up, being in the camera frame," she says.

4. Gestures without intention
Farrington believes there's no right or wrong in terms of how often to gesture—but again, being intentional is the key here. Think, "How do my gestures represent the idea that I’m communicating? ... It’s better to have just a few well-timed, well-placed gestures than to have a ton of meaningless gestures," she says. 

You'll often see speakers doing the same gesture over and over and it starts to distract from their message, Farrington adds, because it’s not connected to any meaning or intention. Think about: “Is it an image that I want my audience to see as they’re listening to me? An emotion I want them to feel? An action I want to evoke? Think about how to represent that in a subtle, nuanced way with your hands," she says. (One tip? Look to the American Sign Language dictionary for inspiration. "Think about some of the keywords in your speech, and check how ASL might express that," she suggests.)

Another resource Farrington leans on is the 1984 book Our Masters' Voices by Max Atkinson. "He did a study of thousands of film clips of people who are considered charismatic, influential speakers, like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, JFK, Martin Luther King, even Hitler and Mussolini. One of the things he found is that all these speakers used gestures judiciously but effectively," she says. 

For any gesture, it's important to match it to the breadth of the space, Farrington adds. In person, speakers should avoid gesturing from the elbow down, which closes you in by holding your upper arms too close to your torso. Instead, think about gesturing from the shoulders down. For virtual, meanwhile, focus on gesturing within the frame—which might feel smaller and more closed in than you might do onstage where you're trying to fill more space. 

5. A lack of practice
“Know your strengths and weaknesses. Record yourself, and if you’re focusing on body language, turn off the sound and just watch yourself," Farrington advises, noting that in her book, there’s a voice and body language audit that talks you through how to determine what’s really working for you and what you need to change. 

And when all else fails, ask others for feedback! Ask trusted colleagues or friends for input on how you used your body language and what messages came across. "Sometimes our body language will leak or telegraph how we’re really feeling in a situation, even if we’re trying to hide it," Farrington says, using the example of a person who says they’re not nervous but their leg is shaking under the table. “The great dancer and choreographer Martha Graham once said that the body never lies, and that’s really true. It takes practice to make sure your message aligns."

Get a copy of Farrington's book here.

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