Professional Presentation Pointers: Part Three – Nonverbal Communication

Ok, you’ve gotten an assignment to deliver that presentation and you’re well into the preparation process. You understand that preparation is key (read my 1st installment in this series) and you also understand that stage fright goes with the territory (read about that here).

Ok, you’ve gotten an assignment to deliver that presentation and you’re well into the preparation process. You understand that preparation is key (read my 1st installment in this series) and you also understand that stage fright goes with the territory (read about that here).


Today is about technique – nonverbal technique to be precise, how you say what you say. Basically, nonverbal communication give your words meaning because let’s face it, standing up there doing a data dump is not necessarily going to engage your audience. I don’t care how much they need to know about the Future of Technology as it Pertains to 1st World Economics in the Year 2012.

The job of a business speaker is to inform, engage and entertain, not necessarily in that order. Clients are always worried about that last directive, that if they try too hard to be entertaining, they’ll come off as too slick. I have never seen this happen. I have, however, seen audiences in various states of, shall we say, “relaxation.” Audience members playing with their hair, reading, thumbing their Blackberrys or, worst of all, nodding off is something to be avoided. So how do you keep people awake and interested? One major way is via careful and deliberate use of nonverbal communication.

Following is a list of the primary nonverbal codes and how to use them so that your message has the very best chance of being heard.

• Voice. The most loaded of the codes, vocal characteristics include tone, expression, volume, rate, pace and accent/dialect issues. The most important of this list is expression. Utilize a wide range of pitch and vary it. A voice that has a lot of variety is the opposite of a monotone, which has, unfortunately, become fashionable in business. Next is rate of speech. A moderate rate, punctuated by appropriate pauses is next most important. Mastering just these two aspects of the voice will infuse your delivery with a level of power and energy that will compensate for other, perhaps weaker skills.

• Hands. Hands and arms should be in almost constant motion. The next time you are having an informal conversation, observe how your hands and others’ hands move. That’s what should be happening on the platform. Avoid placing hands in pockets, folding arms, or putting them behind your back. Down at your sides is the place they should start. By the way, for some reason, this position feels terrible, but looks good. Also be careful that you don’t use a single gesture too much. If you’re having difficulty, it’s a fine idea to choreograph some moves. Often, that’s enough to get you going.


• Body and Movement. Posture should be erect, but not military. Leaning slightly toward your audience is the way to go. When walking to the platform, stride purposefully. Once on stage, movement must be monitored. It’s fine to step toward and away from the audience or to move to one or the other side of the screen (if you’re using visuals), but any movement should have a meaning. And definitely avoid pacing from side to side (I call this Wimbledon).

• Eyes. It’s important to build rapport with your audience by looking at them. If it’s a fairly small group (20 or fewer), you should try for contact with each person. In a large group, take in small groups. Aim for 5 seconds per contact. You will succeed at 2 or 3, which is enough. Don’t make the mistake of expecting them to look back at you. If they look away, move on and come back to them later.

• Facial Animation. Your face should reflect your feelings. If you have an interesting piece of information, it could be reflected in a raised brow. Smiling certainly has its place. There is a fantastic range of movement in the facial musculature that can communicate a tremendous amount of information.

• Dress and Adornment. This refers to everything you weren’t born wearing, all the choices we make in clothing, accessories, hairstyle and makeup. The choices for a presentation range far too widely to cover in this post. However, a good rule is to see what the highly regarded people in your workplace are wearing during their presentations and emulate them. It also doesn’t hurt to ask someone in authority.

By the way, not all presentations are done standing. Many are done around a conference table. Everything I mention above applies to the seated presentation. Just because you’re sitting down is no excuse to be boring. However, you must read the room. By this, I mean you will generally have to tone down your physicality according to the audience, their mood and even their profession. For example, I am much less expansive and expressive when speaking to investment bankers than advertising professionals. Even then, I monitor things. If I suspect someone is watching my hands move instead of listening to what I am saying, I adjust.

Altogether, these nonverbal codes will make you a much more interesting speaker, more capable of grabbing your audience and holding them until you, not they, are done.


In subsequent posts, more on presentation technique including whether it makes sense to memorize, when to use podiums and lecterns and how to spice up a presentation by using stories, humor and other rhetorical devices.

Ruth Sherman • Ruth Sherman Associates, LLC • Greenwich, CT • ruth (at) ruthsherman (dot) com

About the author

Ruth Sherman, M.A., is a strategic communications consultant focusing on preparing business leaders, politicians, celebrities, and small business entrepreneurs to leverage critical public communications including keynote speeches, webcasts, investor presentations, road shows, awards presentations, political campaigns and media contact. Her clients hail from the A-list of international business including General Electric, JP Morgan (NY, London, Frankfurt), Timex Group, Deloitte and Dubai World.