We know that much of our communication is nonverbal. Some researchers even estimate that up to 70-80% of communication can come from things like tone of voice and body language. One of the elements of nonverbal communication that speakers need to be aware of is posture. While I’ve seen hundreds of different postures in my years of teaching public speaking, I’ve found that problems with posture generally fall into one of four categories that I’ve named accordingly: the statue, the blockade, the metronome, or the tiger.
Speakers who fall into this posture category will get up in front of their audience and then will move very little, if at all. They tend to lock into their starting position, like they are frozen, for the majority of the speech. This is a form of self-preservation. While we hear a lot about fight-or-flight syndrome in the face of stress, there is another common response: freezing. A “frozen” speaker can come off as cold and unnatural, leaving the audience longing for the natural warmth and movement that is found in everyday human conversation.
Another posture error comes in the form of closed body language, making the speaker seem blocked off. Closed body language can take many forms: hands in pockets, feet crossed at the ankles, arms folded across the chest, or shoulders and head slumped forward and downward. These types of postures can communicate an array of things to the audience, but none of them are positive. The audience might think that the speaker is hiding something, that she is being defensive, that she lacks confidence, or even that that the speaker is bored. With all of those messages working against you as speaker, it’s best to keep your body language open.
A metronome is an instrument used to measure tempo and set pace in music. It has movement, but only limited side-to-side movement that originates from a stable base. It looks like this:
You might have heard this posture error referred to as rocking. Speakers who fall prey to the metronome effect want to move, their leaning from side to side testifies to that, but they never go so far as to take a full step. Their feet stay planted and just their upper body moves. You can imagine how irritating this can be for the audience to watch for the duration of the presentation.
I’ve named the last posture the tiger because the speaker paces back and forth, like a tiger trapped in a cage. Speakers who have had experience in sports might fall prey to this posture error because they’ve seen coaches model it. When the speaker paces for the majority of the presentation, the audience can literally get tired trying to follow him. In addition, the constant motion can feel aggressive and off-putting to the audience. While it might communicate authority, it does so in a tyrannical way which doesn’t create positive ethos for the speaker.
We’ve discussed what postures not to use, but how should you stand? Studies tell us that a good rule of thumb is to stand with your feet about hips’ distance apart, elongate your spine towards the ceiling, square your shoulders toward the audience and roll them slightly down and back, lift your chin slightly, and let your hands fall at your sides or keep them bent near your waist. This is a comfortable starting posture that communicates both warmth and authority. It allows you to move and gesture freely, and it’s the posture you’ll want to return to each time you move. Consider videoing a few of your practice sessions so that you can examine the postures you are using and can better control what you are communicating nonverbally.
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