You’ve done the work, you’ve put in your time, you know your stuff — but before you open your mouth to give the presentation you’ve prepared so intently, you’ve been judged.
It’s human nature: Our brains are wired to take in all available information and draw instant conclusions. Which means that everything you do — how you walk into a room, carry yourself, and use gestures — makes an impression that has nothing to do with what you actually know.
So, how do you make sure your actions aren’t a liability — and that you send the right signals that show you know what you’re doing? In our work with hundreds of speakers and our research for Compelling People: The Hidden Qualities That Make Us Influential, we’ve seen that the key to earning the admiration of those around you is balancing strength and warmth.
Here are our seven tips for winning a room by sending the right signals with your nonverbal and verbal cues.
1. Make Yourself Big
The first key to success in a high-stakes situation is to boost your confidence. Try this: Make yourself as big as possible for a minute or two beforehand, with your arms raised high as though you just won the lottery. Take up space! You’re huge! Or, try the hands-on-hips superhero stance. It sounds silly — but it works. Your mind will listen to your body’s signal, resulting in a hormonal reaction that will increase your comfort level and decrease your fight-or-flight response to the stress.
2. Be Happy to Be There
The best way to project warmth is to feel grateful that you’re with the people around you. So, instead of being nervous when you walk into a room, remember that you want to be there. After all, no matter what you’re talking about or who you’re presenting to, it’s likely an honor that you’re being asked to speak.
Then, try to relax and smile. Forcing a smile, even if you don’t feel it, has the effect of upping your mood, which in turn makes the smile more natural. Before you know it you actually will be glad to be there. Then the smile will take care of itself.
3. Own the Space
Moving around a room with a sense of destination and purpose as you speak demonstrates confidence and ease. But, there’s a difference between using space comfortably and pacing like a caged animal. Try moving deliberately to a specific spot in the room, making a point or two to the people seated there, and then heading toward a new destination.
Practically, it’s helpful to know what kind of space you’ll be presenting in beforehand — if you’re at a podium or in a boardroom, free-range movement may not work. (When you have a choice between a fixed mic on a podium and a lapel mic, take the lapel mic and get away from the podium.) Either way, it’s more about commanding the room and knowing that the whole thing is your stage.
4. Watch Your Tilt
Lots of people go through life with their heads slightly tilted. This can be very warm if you’re listening attentively, flirting, or playing with a puppy, but it comes directly at the expense of strength when you’re trying to command a room.
In most cases, simply being aware of this is enough to self-correct. When you’re in front of a mirror, practice tilting your head and then bringing it back to center. Focus on remembering what it feels like in your muscles when you’re perfectly straight. When you mean business, this is where you want your head to be.
5. Have a Ball!
Yes, sure, have fun, but we mean an actual ball. Gesturing like you’re holding a ball helps you look natural and poised, providing a balance of warmth and strength.
Start by holding an imaginary volleyball with both hands between your waist and hips. Curl your fingers and hold it with your fingertips. Depending on the point you’re making, the ball can grow to a beach ball or shrink to a marble between your thumb and index finger. Practice this in front of a mirror to see how it looks, and then try it in everyday conversation. You will quickly find that it will feel natural — and have the added bonus of giving you something to do with your hands besides pick at your clothes.
6. Keep Your Hands in Hand
On that note, you probably already know that fidgeting detracts from your overall message, but certain gestures can really hurt warmth and trustworthiness — leaning away, crossing your arms, rubbing or grasping your hands together, and touching your neck, face, or stomach, for example. To varying degrees, these demonstrate anxiety, self-protection, and avoidance.
Practice makes perfect, so try recording yourself speaking. It can be uncomfortable to watch yourself, but there is no better way to identify bad habits and begin to break them. And once you’re on stage, keep your hands away from your body. If your neck itches while you’re in front of a room, don’t scratch it. Wear your hair so you won’t have to push it out of your eyes.
7. Trust Your Expertise
Finally, remember that you are the center of attention for a reason: You know something that other people don’t, and you have been asked to share it. Don’t undermine your credibility with qualifiers like “I think,” “I believe,” or “I feel” unless you are actually talking about thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.
If someone asks about a topic outside your subject area, it’s fine to acknowledge that and offer a quick caveat (a phrase that’s often useful is “I haven’t looked at that specifically, but what I do know is…”). But when you do know your stuff, don’t sell yourself short with language that suggests that you’re not quite sure about what you’re saying.
Finally, remember that speaking in public is a performance. It is not exactly athletic, but it takes energy. You are “on” the whole time you are at the front of the room, and your energy level will set the dynamic with the audience. Remember, you are giving a presentation — so give your energy to the audience, and they will repay you with their attention.
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