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Should Your Physical Size Dictate How You Address A Crowd?

Compelling body language isn't one-size-fits-all.

Should Your Physical Size Dictate How You Address A Crowd?

[Photo: George Marks/Stringer/Getty Images]

A few years ago, I was riding a hotel elevator with a few executives. I felt at ease—we were all about the same size. Then a group of NFL players came into the lobby, and I rode back up with two of them. They were giant—what a different feeling!

We all have different feelings about our physical stature. Unavoidably, some situations change how big or small we feel in relation to others and, subsequently, how we react when we do. This is something you need to be aware of as a speaker. You already know that your body language is crucial to your message, but you may not know how to adjust it according to your physical size. Here's how to use your stature in your favor, no matter how big or small you may be.

1. Movement

Firstly, adjust the way you move. If you're tall and slim, you may have an advantage; in general (and rightly or wrongly), Western cultures associate being tall and slim with elegance. But you can generate this perception simply by moving smoothly, no matter your size or shape.

If you are tall and slim but don't smooth out your movements, though, you may be perceived as gawky or fragile. So you have to keep yourself balanced and centered. Stand solidly and make sure you're distributing your weight evenly on both feet. If you have a tendency to sway, put one foot slightly ahead of the other. If you're a large person, you may also have an advantage because your size is commanding. If you move with purpose, your size can be reassuring and compelling. But here, too, you need to demonstrate that you're in control—not rigid, but intentional.

It's also important to manage your forward movement; getting too close to your audience can be intimidating. University of Chicago and University of Wisconsin researchers have found (not too surprisingly) that people feel inherently uneasy when objects or people are moving toward them. So if you're a large person, you may want to keep more space between you and your audience and move less rapidly.

If you're a small person, though, you can move more—not with constant pacing, but by using movement as punctuation. You can have any stride length that's comfortable for you, but it may be more effective for you to stop and start. Think of your audience as a camera. If you stand still, they'll zoom in. If you move, they'll zoom out. By continuously varying your audience's focus of attention, you can project a more dynamic presence.

2. Energy Level

The second thing you need to think about is your energy level. If you're tall and slim, you optimize your presence by staying somewhere toward the mid-range—you want to cruise at a comfortable 50 miles per hour. This way your energy level will match your perceived elegance and presence.

If you're larger, you may want to stay a little below midrange—say, 40 miles per hour. You want to be on a controlled cruise to demonstrate a feeling of ease and mastery. An easy-paced energy level can help reinforce your perception of being solid and strong while still projecting a commanding leadership presence.

Smaller people, following the same logic, can benefit by dialing up their energy (to continue the metaphor, to around 60–65 miles per hour). You want to show you're nimble and high-powered by revving up a bit, but you still need to stay under the speed limit. (Get too amped up and you'll just seem overcaffeinated.) By raising your level of energy, you can come across as dynamic and likewise project a powerful leadership presence.

3. Gesture Space

Finally, pay attention to where you move your hands. If you're tall and slim, you might want to keep your gesture space in line with your shoulders. You don’t want to go too wide, particularly if you have a wingspan like Michael Phelps. By keeping your gestures within your body range, you keep your audience’s attention centered.

If you are a large person, you can enhance your presence by gesturing more widely. You can extend your arms laterally, outside the width of your body. This causes your audience to zoom out toward a wider shot so that you become less dominating.

If you have a smaller stature, you can optimize your presence by keeping your gestures in the space immediately in front of you. You want to keep your hands moving forward so that you direct your energy outward, showing your audience that you're dynamic.

Make no mistake: You can be a great speaker no matter what your size. But if you aren’t thinking about how your body affects the way audiences perceive you, you’re missing out on a major opportunity for impact. And by adjusting accordingly, you can move from worrying about your size to capitalizing on it.

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