7 ways to be a better communicator — by tweaking your body language

Feb 25, 2020 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

Public speaking is one of the most nerve-wracking experiences that many of us face in our daily lives (although it’s dropped off the list of Americans’ biggest fears in recent years, replaced by more immediate threats like … sharks?).

Part of our fear is about what we’re going to say, but the other part is about how we’re going to say it, according to communications expert David JP Phillips (TEDxZagreb Talk: The 110 techniques of communication and public speaking). Phillips has spent years analyzing 5,000 public speakers to identify what moves work — and which ones don’t — when talking to an audience.

When we think of body language, many of us immediately think about hand and arm gestures. But body language is so much more than that — and it’s also something that we should all get comfortable with. By making small, easy tweaks to how we stand, move or even smile, we can help hold an audience’s attention. While Phillips has an entire 110-step system to public speaking, there’s no way or need to master them before your next presentation. Here, he shares 7 body-language tips that anyone can use.

Lean towards your audience

“Taking a step back indicates that you are threatened and makes your audience feel less relaxed,” says Phillips, who is based in Sweden. “Whenever we are threatened, we tend to close our body language, tense our muscles, and take a step back.” Crossing your arms is another move to avoid — it’s something else that people do when they’re nervous or scared and it puts those watching us on the defensive. So keep your arms open, and lean towards your audience. Make sure your head is inclined too; tilting your head backwards signals to your listeners that you feel superior to them.

Match your gestures to your words

Phillips’ rule of thumb when it comes to hand gestures: Make them functional (they should always have a purpose) and make sure they match your message. “The core of all communication is to make your message as clear as possible,” Phillips notes. If you’re talking about sales figures going up, that’s a good time to use a gentle, rising motion. If you’re setting two rhetorical options out for your audience to consider, place your hands on either side as if you’re weighing items in your palms. Humans are visual creatures, and movement will arouse an audience’s attention. But do not abuse this tendency. “If a person is using non-functional gestures, they can become annoying very quickly,” explains Phillips. “Functional gestures, however, are rarely used too much.”

Give your hands a rest

Most of us struggle mightily with what to do with our hands while talking. Put them in our pockets? (No, says Phillips: Too closed off.) Clasp them behind our back? (Nope: Domineering and overly formal.) Phillips has a whole lexicon of poses not to do with one’s hands, such as the “the prayer” (hands clasped in front) and “the beggar” (hands in front, palms up). And then there’s “the peacock”: hands on hips with elbows flapping loosely at your sides. “You often see this one being used by people who are nervous and who desire to quickly become ‘bigger’ in front of their opponent,” he explains. Phillips’s recommendation: “Leave your hands by your sides when you’re not using them.”

Tilt your head

Some of the ways that humans communicate nonverbally are pretty hardwired in us, says Phillips. One of these nonverbal signals is something you probably do all the time without realizing: When you’re trying to show empathy, you tilt your head to one side. “Good listeners are head tilters,” Phillips says. The same empathy signals work — even when you’re the one doing the talking.

Smile like you mean it

One of the most important things that a public speaker can do is deliver a Duchenne smile — the kind of genuine grin that fills your face and reaches your eyes. People respond more warmly to a Duchenne smile. “It will help make the audience more at ease and relaxed. And if they are at ease and relaxed, you’ll become more that way too and you’ve created a positive spiral, making you deliver your talk better. Also, adds Phillips, “as our emotions work from the inside out and the outside in, it means that you can affect your own emotional state in a positive way by smiling on stage.” No need to fake it — just bring to mind a person, place or animal that you know automatically brings a Duchenne smile to your face.

When you slip up, don’t panic 

We’ve all had that moment: We practiced our speech until we could recite it in our sleep, but suddenly we can’t remember what comes next. The best way to recover, according to Phillips, is to act like you’re not panicking. “Avoid reacting on your fear,” he says. “Your body will want to tense up, reverse, hide in a corner, but all that just makes you feel less confident.” Instead, he suggests, “lean forward, open up your posture, breathe deep and slow, talk slowly, pause, and smile a Duchenne smile. All of those in combination will make you feel more comfortable.”

Practice — even when you’re not in front of a crowd

One of Phillips’ favorite mottos when it comes to body language is: “It’s a skill, not a talent.” He believes that anyone can become a great public speaker, even the most awkward and nervous of us. He says that a good first step is to simply become more tuned in to your everyday body language. Learn what gestures you tend to use to get your point across. Once you’ve gotten familiar with your existing body language vocabulary, you can start changing it and expanding it. “My most practical tip is to pick one to three skills and practice them every day until they become part of your natural way of communicating.”

Watch his TEDxZagreb talk now: