Enhancing Your Comfort Level with an Audience

One of the most common questions I have received in my years of coaching and training in public speaking skills is “How should I stand and look as I am speaking to an audience?” Even more specifically, I am sometimes asked, “What do I do with my hands?” or “Where do I look?” “Where do I put my feet?” Let me give you some tips on how not only to look comfortable, but also to use your presence as power to enhance your message as you speak.

  1. Focus on a definition of public speaking. Public speaking is simply enlarged conversation. In speaking to a group, you do the same things as you do in one-one-one conversation except that you adjust to the size of the group you might be speaking to. For example, in conversing with another person, it is natural to gesture and use facial expression as you talk. In fact, it would be very strange to watch someone talk without moving arms and facial features. Yet many people become almost robotic as they speak. Every movement seems forced and mechanical—if there is movement at all. Use your conversation style in public speaking; just adapt so that as you speak, 50 people can hear you instead of five, or make eye contact with the group instead of one person (though eye contact with one person in the audience is also a good idea.)
  2. Balance your weight. To make sure you have good posture and look like you are in charge, balance the weight of your body on the balls of your feet as you speak. This will give you optimum height and a steady, confident demeanor as you stand before the group. When you do not balance weight in that fashion, you may start to sway back and forth, shift all weight to one foot, or even stand on one foot.
  3. Develop the “ready” position for gestures. The uncertainty about what to do with hands can often be seen in how people will rub hands together or continually put hands in and out of pockets as they begin to speak. Consider the old western movies where the good guy met the villain on Main Street. As he ponders reaching for his gun, the hands go into the “ready” position. Visualize that pose as you think about where to place hands in the opening part of your speech. That will force you to use a gesture early instead of fumbling with hands. In addition, making yourself say something that needs a gesture will also help you use the hands and arms to reinforce your message. You might describe how large or tall or wide something is as you develop a story or illustration. Gesture toward your audience instead of away from them. Keep your gestures below your face so they don’t interfere with facial expressions. With a large audience, gesture from the shoulder out and with a small audience, gesture from the elbow out.
  1. Eyes and face look pleasant. Smile before your start to speak and continue to look pleasant as you develop your ideas. Look at your audience as you start and pick out the “friendly faces” to make eye contact with first. Making that initial contact with the audience will help relax you and make you less self-conscious as you use your presence to deliver your ideas. Continue to look directly at your audience in small “clumps” as you speak. Avoid looking away from the audience, such as at the back wall or ceiling.

Following these simple ideas will make your movements  powerful tools in helping your message become more understandable and persuasive.

Steve Boyd
Steve Boyd
Stephen D. Boyd, Ph.D., CSP, is Professor Emeritus of Speech Communication, College of Informatics, Northern Kentucky University, near Cincinnati. Steve won the Toastmasters International Speech Contest in 1970 and was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year at NKU in 1984, among other awards and honors. Since retiring, he volunteers with nonprofits, spends time with family, travels, preaches occasionally, and enjoys reading and writing. Contact Steve at (859) 866-5693 or at steveboyd111@gmail.com.

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