Power Failure – How Not to Use Your Body…


It has often been said that sound and words – the verbal and vocal aspects of communication, aren’t the only way to transmit and communicate ideas. And that’s true as far as the Vocal, Verbal and Visual trinity are concerned. Therefore, as speakers and presenters on stage, we’re often required to rely on not only the power of words and vocal variety, we’d often need to supplement them with our gestures, expressions, poise and general movements on stage.

Now, having shared with everyone earlier about the some of the moves that speakers can use on stage in my post on Power Moves, I’ve been receiving requests to follow up on that post with an entry of moves to avoid on stage. Now I use the word “avoid” because I’ve never believed in the concept of absolutes. The moves that I’m about to show you will have it’s uses in specific circumstances. However, their use should be kept to a minimal, if not zero, during general speeches and general circumstances.

So, now that I’ve got my disclaimer out of the way, let us start by examining some of the troublesome tendencies we have on stage:

1. How Not to Use Your Legs

Perhaps one of the biggest tell-tale signs of nervousness would be pacing and swaying movements on stage whilst your speaking. You see, our survival mechanisms are triggered and we enter into the “fight or flight mode” when we’re afraid. In any case, the adrenalin is pumping, and suddenly the world seems to be unraveling in slow motion around you. Hey! You’ve just developed superhuman ability and you’re not acutely aware of everything that’s happening to you – your palpitating heart, your sweat, and your shaking limbs!

Now here’s where the problem comes in – you can’t keep still. And because you’re still in your flight or fight mode, your limbs are shaking and you’re fighting hard to gain control of your feet. The result of this tension between the want to run and the need stay and finish your presentation causes you to sway (your legs are on the ground, but your body’s swaying like a pendulum) and you start to pace back and forth, to and fro on the floor.

And there you have… you look like an inept dancer doing the “cha-cha” on the dance floor.

2. How Not to Use Your Hands

Remember the times when your mother told you not to point at other people because it rude to do so?

Well guess what! It’s official – she’s right!

If you haven’t caught on during my earlier post on the Power Moves on stage, the showing of your palm is a sign of safety and submissiveness. It shows that you’re safe because you’re ‘clean’ and unarmed.

Conversely, the purposeful showing of the back of your palm is interpreted as a sign of authority and aggression. This gesture is one that bosses/managers/parents use to direct their subordinates or children and, when used excessively can make you seem extremely pushy (and dangerous!).

Now, I know there’re lots of trainers out there teaching us to be assertive. I’ve nothing against that because I recognize the value of it. However, I think it’s sufficient in most cases to show your assertion with words, confidence and authority and the times you do need to use your fingers, you use it sparingly (yes… it’s that POWERFUL!)

Power, when tapped and used appropriately, has the potential to create. However, power uncurbed has the potential to be highly destructive. In a similar sense, uncurtailed pointing will erode and destroy the rapport that the speaker has with his audience – and trust me, by the times the defensive walls are up, most would try to run or shut the pushy salesman up than sit and listen to him say his piece!

3. How Not to Stand

So, now that we’ve all gain a little bit of insight on how not to use our hands and legs, let’s go on to examine how we shouldn’t stand and use our hands and legs collectively as a unit on stage.

That’s right, the key word’s collectively. You see, whilst we may train and attempt to isolate the troublesome gestures individually, body language is essentially interpreted collectively and read as a dynamic set of combinations rather than by itself. The manner in which our hands combine with our body to transmit a message should not be ignored either.

The following picture shows three examples of stances we should attempt to avoid whilst speaking on stage:

Most trainers would recommend budding speakers to avoid using the abovementioned stances for fear of misuse and the consequences that follow. Indeed, whilst I’m not surprsed to see certain speakers make those moves to ensure that their points are conveyed effectively, speakers who are less apt and familiar with the ramnifications of the tree stances may study the meaning behind the stances to better understand the negative connotations that are aroused when those gestures appear.

i) Hands in pocket
Audience Perception: Suggests Speaker is distant/secretive/reluctant to talk/share. Nervousness
Significance: Speaker-audience relationship suffers strain. Decline in speaker’s credibility. Listeners lose interest in the speaker.

ii) Cross Armed
Audience Perception: Indifference, distant
Significance: Obstruction towards speaker-audience is formed. Rapport breaks down. Speaker & audience finds it hard to engage each other. Speaker and audience lose interest in each other.

iii) Hands on Hips:
Audience Perception: Authoritative, commanding, aggressive
Significance: Audience withdraws and becomes defensive. Likely formation of vicious cycle as speakers attempt to regain control whilst audience brace themselves for ‘backlash’.

As you can see, the general connotations that follow the stances are usually negative. This does not necessarily mean that they should be shun at all times, for the accurate and purposeful employment of each move could still very much help the speaker achieve his purpose – that is if he/she is proficient at handling them.

SO! There you have it AS PROMISED – the 5 stances that speakers should attempt to avoid on stage.

Related Posts:

Power Moves – 5 Tips to Make Body Language Work for You

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9 thoughts on “Power Failure – How Not to Use Your Body…”

  1. Alrighty! My long overdue post on the things not do on stage is finally here! I’m sorry, I really wish I’d done this earlier but it just got bogged down with all the work that’s been surfacing since I returned from my break!

    Anyway, here it is! Enjoy, and let me know what you think!

  2. There are two things you could do to make this post really really useful:

    1. Recognize that body language, and especially hand gestures, are cultural. The meaning of an open hand or a closed hand, palms up or down, et cetera, can vary wildly depending on the cultural traditions of your audience. There are cultures, believe it or not, where showing an open palm is considered highly offensive, so always watch out for local customs.

    2. It’s all well and good to tell us what to avoid. Your points are, by and large, ones I’ve heard elsewhere and are probably good guidelines. But how about telling us what we _should_ do? One things I’ve learned as a parent that I think also applies in the context of helping people use better body language is that negative re-enforcement (“don’t do that!”) is not nearly as effective at modifying behavior as positive re-enforcement (“do this”). For example, it’s less effective if I tell my son “don’t hit your sister” (negative re-enforcement) than if I tell him “say ‘excuse me, please'”. So please, follow up this post with one giving people guidance on the boundaries of positive body language than just telling us what to avoid. Show us the inside of the playground, as it were, rather than just showing us the playground’s fence and saying “don’t go outside the fence”.

  3. Hi Jason,

    thank you for this post! Indeed, body language (like verbal ones) are interpreted differently across different cultures and time. Indeed, certain cultures, like some in the middle east, do interpret the palms up/down as a sign of disrespect or disdain.

    Unfortunately, I’m unable to cater my post to incorporate the different interpretations of body language and gestures by the one million and one cultures that we have in the world today…

    (actually, I could! That would be a great idea for a book! Thanks! But that would be for another day and time)

    Anyway, I think there’re books that’s been written about the dos and don’ts of specific cultures and countries, so it would always be wise to check them out or with your local guide/host before you speak or deliver a speech lest you SAY something wrongly or SHOW the wrong sign. After all, it is important for the speaker to do his homework – and this includes both his speech and his actions!

    Thanks for sharing!

    PS: With regards to pt 2, I’ve shared some suggestions on what are some of the gestures that we could use under Power Moves. You can check it out here. Of course, do factor in the cultural factor in this case too!

    Talk soon!

  4. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for this post. The above mentioned negative aspect of it aside, it was your headline that got me here.

    And look at all the feedback.

    Any time we create an open discussion, we improve the art of public speaking.

    At the very least, we open the mind for further learning.

    And that is a good thing for us and our audiences.

  5. Hey Gary,

    Great post. You mention your idea about the swaying motion that anxious speakers often display: “The result of this tension between the want to run and the need stay and finish your presentation causes you to sway (your legs are on the ground, but your body’s swaying like a pendulum) and you start to pace back and forth, to and fro on the floor.”

    In my book Winning Body Language I’ve dedicated quite a proportion of chapter 2 on this motion and exactly why it happens (you are almost right) and so how to stop it with one simple move of your arms!

    If anyone is interested sign-up for free chapters at http://www.truthplane.com

    Keep up the great work,

    Mark

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