Advice on vocals, gesture and movement when public speaking from Olena Skyrta, co-founder of Speak2Me.
Confidence and presence play a big part in presentation success but they don’t come naturally to everyone. In fact, three in four people have a fear of public speaking and, for a long time, I was one of them,
I used to suffer from performance anxiety. Then I learned how to manage it in such a way that it could not manage me. I also learned that anxiety can be your friend. It gives you energy – you just need to know how to use it.
Why Anxiety Strikes
Why do we feel uncomfortable before giving a speech or presentation?
At Speak2Me, our experience is that you’re only confident about what you’re about to tell your audience if you’re prepared. You have a solid plan. You’ve memorised your presentation, rehearsed thoroughly, and you know exactly which parts of your presentation are the most important. As a result, you look confident, your voice and movements are natural and the audience believes what you’re saying.
However many things, relating to your vocals, gestures and movement, can undo this hard work. I have a friend, who is an experienced speaker, who has problems with voice loss when presenting to a new audience, something that can be hugely distracting. They’ve been advised to “drink cold water” and “take deep breaths” but sometimes, quick tricks simply aren’t enough. I often observe people in presentations, using vocals, gestures or movements that don’t match the main idea or tone of their presentation.
There’s no quick fix, but there are ways to improve your vocals, gestures, and movements helping you to better control your voice and body language, giving you the ability and confidence to present like a pro.
Here are some simple techniques.
As a marathon runner stretches before the start of a race we, as inspiring speakers, should do vocal warm-ups before presenting.
When we speak one-on-one with someone, we don’t use all of our vocal apparatus we have and it feels natural. Vocal warm-ups prepare your voice box for public speaking, debating, and even giving a toast for a big audience. We use warm-ups to reach our full potential as a speaker.
Vocal warm-ups are largely overlooked but they:
- Help to prevent voice loss (especially important ahead of a longer talk)
- Prepare the voice box for public speaking that feels and sounds natural
If you’re not an opera singer, just spend five to 10 minutes doing vocal warm-ups. The length of the exercises is not as important as their quality.
Start With how you Stand
As strange as it may seem, we will start working with our voice from the correct posture, it should be relaxed with a straight spine. It helps to hold your hands in the belly area. As an example, look at actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s posture in his talk. You can get tired if you stand for too long, so it’s better to move around on stage. Try standing on the balls of your feet instead of your heels. Even if you like heels, try to use comfortable and stable ones. The power of your voice comes from within your body, that’s why the right posture is a key to proper warm-ups.
We use breath to focus on our sounds. Regulate your breathing so that it becomes rhythmic and natural. Stand up straight, breathe deeply into your stomach, expanding your lungs, and taking as much air as possible. Try to keep your posture relaxed and your shoulders low. Power comes from the central zone, so try placing a hand on your stomach to make sure you’re breathing into the right cavity.
You can try another breathing technique. Take the right posture, inhale deeply and slowly through your nose. Exhale slowly through your mouth. It’s the kind of deep breath that you do with yoga. Repeat a few times to slow your heart rate down and relax.
Breathing exercises work for all. If you feel anxiety, breathing deeply is the first thing you should do to feel comfortable. It will absolutely calm you down.
Before you go on stage, try to meditate a little. Breathe deeply, relax, imagine yourself in a beautiful place, where you feel calm.
Tricks to Warm up Your Voice
- Vowels:This is probably the easiest way to warm up your voice fast and should be the base of your rehearsing routine. Just pick a random vowel sound (e.g. ‘ma’) and try to play around a couple of octaves. The most popular one among singers is: “mi, me, ma, mo, moo”. Practising it for 3-5 minutes should be enough to avoid uncomfortable sounds once you start speaking on stage.
- Humming:If you want to have a resistant loud voice to be able to speak out long enough, you should practise speaking in a way so that the sound goes out of your nostrils. You can practise this by humming out of your nose while exhaling slowly.
- Lips, jaw and tongue twisters: Controlling the jaw, lips, and tongue is a big part of controlling the final voice sound. The most simple exercises for this are widely yawning a couple of times and saying a few simple tongue twisters. Another helpful tip is to loudly repeat the sounds you’re most uncomfortable about (e.g. ‘rrr’, ‘trrr’, ‘bzz’).
- Mouth opening: Think of your mouth as an orchestra. You need to create enough space to ensure a quality sound comes out of it. Therefore to speak clearly you should get used to opening your mouth wider than if you’re talking to a friend. A good exercise is to imagine that you are biting a huge piece of a pie, and try warming up your facial muscles by practising a few uncomfortably wide smiles, followed by filing in your mouth with air like a balloon. Finish by trying to speak while holding a stick/pen horizontally between your teeth.
Other Things to Think About
Keep in mind that certain foods can be physically damaging to your vocal cords before speaking aloud. Professional singers warn you about:
- Sweets (including sweet water)
- Lemon/acid water
- Cold water
Here are a few helpful tips:
- Drink warm water or warm tea
- Rinse your throat with slightly salty water the night before (can help to kill bacteria and prevent a sore-throat feeling)
Varying Your Voice
Using your voice is an efficient way to draw attention to important parts of your speech. Stressing consonants, adding pauses before and after are easy ways to do so.
Remember that improvising with your voice is not a good idea. Do your homework: skim through the text when rehearsing and mark points that deserve emphasis. Making pauses may feed awkward, but it’s a powerful tool. In our experience, 90% of speakers do not make enough pauses and speak too fast. As a good example, check the famous first iPhone presentation and the number of pauses Steve Jobs makes at the beginning.
The diapason or pitch of the voice is different in public speaking from one-to-one communication. The general rule of thumb is to start and finish on a louder note.
A speaker who starts with a trembling voice does not set themselves up for success. Try memorising at least the first line of your speech so you can start with a confident loud voice, even if you are super nervous.
Gestures and Movement
Why do we need to pay attention to non-verbal communication? Why is knowing the text, presentation, and speaking deliberately not enough? It’s because 90% of the information processed by the brain is visual, and people perceive information from your movement and gestures, whether you know it or not. Your talk and slides can be impressive, but non-verbal communication can be misleading and not strengthen your arguments.
The key point to remember is that if you don’t feel comfortable on a stage, you can fake it. You can start using a pose of power and after that, you will feel more energetic. You are more likely to feel uncomfortable and anxious when you go on stage, even people who like public speaking can feel anxiety if something goes wrong. You can also use broad gestures or a winner pose before the speech. Such techniques can help to reduce adrenaline.
If you’re nervous, holding something cold may help. It can calm you down. It’s the same idea as a cold compress for a fever.
Build Trust With Gestures
Open your palms and open up your hands: These gestures give a feeling of a confident, passionate, and open person speaking in front of you. It means a lot because you trust and rely on this person. Michio Kaku has one of the most watchable YouTube talks about science with good examples of gestures.
Speak with hand gestures: Gestures should highlight the main idea of your talk. If you turn your back to the audience, slide from one foot to another, it’s difficult to look confident. What people see at this moment is a person who is nervous about speaking.
Legs and authority: It’s important to feel comfortable when standing. Stand relaxed, your feet are shoulder-width apart, your spine is straight. The first step is to try to stand during your talk and understand your comfortable pose.
Where are Your Eyes Focused?
Don’t focus on one person only. If someone told you “find the person who listens to you and keep eye contact”, they’re wrong.
- If the audience is small – about 50 people – you should make more eye contact. About 10 eye-contacts with people, in different room zones.
- If the audience is big – 500-1000 people – you shouldn’t make too many eye-contacts. Otherwise, your gaze will run around. With a big audience, focus on different zones of the conference hall.
- There will probably be strong lighting in a big auditorium, so you won’t be able to see the faces in the room. To be prepared for it, you should ask organizers and make a check before the speech.
- In a large auditorium, look at the tops of people’s heads, particularly when responding to questions and feedback. You will look as focused and connected, but will feel less pressure.
When it comes to online talks, often we don’t see the audience. It’s quite stressful and speakers can lose momentum during a speech because they don’t see a response. Ask organizers to show you reaction signs or to display the audience by video, if possible. Use two monitors, one for the presentation, one to read comments.
It’s better to look at the green dot in the web camera, not at your own image, when giving an online talk, and avoid the distractions of having multiple tabs and notifications open.
What Else Should we pay Attention to?
Be conscious of cultural differences. Nonverbal communication varies around the world. You can prepare a few gestures and make sure they will be interpreted in the right way. The same gesture can be aggressive in one country and neutral in another.
So be aware of the audience you are speaking to, and don’t rush into judging nonverbal language. A good example is a famous speech by Barack Obama and his mic drop at the end. The gesture became famous in the 1980s in the US, when it was used by rappers and comedians. It is a symbol of triumph at the end of the performance. It was well-perceived by Americans but could be quite confusing for other cultures.
Don’t improvise your movements and gestures. It can look chaotic. Public speaking is a stressful process: people tend to speak faster than usual and gestures look more nervous. At the same time, no one likes watching people struggle during a public speech, and it doesn’t help the audience understand the main idea of the talk.
It’s better to rehearse movements and make them fit the main idea in the speech. Make them natural and live with them. That’s how you can unlock the potential of nonverbal communication in a speech.
What to Wear?
It’s important to dress in a way you feel comfortable, but we need to pay attention to what we wear because it also sends a message to the audience. If you want to wear something tight or high heels, rehearse in the same clothes so you know what the risky movements are for you on stage.
Be Aware of Your Strengths and Weaknesses in Gestures
The key thing with strengths and weaknesses is to reinforce the first and to eliminate second ones. My strength is that I always use open hand gestures. So I just keep using it in presentations to emphasize my key point. My weakness is that when I get nervous I start gesticulating too much. Once I even broke a glass of water. So I started a habit of short meditation before the speech and I held my hands in, about 20cm from my stomach. Ask yourself what are your strengths and weaknesses, and how can you use them in your favour?
Rehearse According to the Venue
When it comes to offline events, it is worth checking how big the conference room is. The bigger the room is, the broader gestures you should use.
2020 is the time of presenting online, so we need to transform our rehearsals and pay more attention to details of online format. Whether you sit or stand during online talks can make a difference to the gestures and movements you use. If you sit, you should pay more attention to how your hands reinforce the main point of the speech within the screen.
Broad gestures make you look confident on stage. Imagine that you are in a bubble, your hands should move in its diameter. You should occupy all space around you.
There is a structured way for you to move comfortably on a stage and for the audience to listen to your talk, it’s better to move in an imaginary or real circle on the floor, it’s called the “golden middle”. People don’t like to look at speakers who walk up and down on a stage. You can go out of the circle if you need to, but do it carefully and thoughtfully.
If You’re Nervous
Sometimes you don’t notice that you feel nervous. In our practice, especially during online talks, speakers often start touching the microphone or a pen on the table, which causes loud sounds for the audience. You can prevent nervous habits causing noise by putting something soft next to your hands, having a glass of water to sip on.
Presentation software, clickers, and microphones are there to help you, not to stress you. It’s better to check how everything works before the talk.
Of course, in a perfect world you will have enough time to do everything we advise above. However, if you are stretched in time, here is useful quick preparation check-list:
- Do vocal warm-ups: 5-10 minutes. Have a cup of warm water to sip on at hand.
- Tricks to warm up the voice – use vowels, humming, lips, jaw and tongue twisters
- Stand in the straight and relaxed posture. It helps to hold your hands in the belly area.
- Regulate your breathing so that it becomes rhythmic and natural. Stand up straight, breathe deeply into your stomach, expanding your lungs, and taking as much air as possible.
- Mouth opening. Think of your mouth as an orchestra. To have a quality sound coming out you need to make sure you created enough space for it.
- Use accents in voice. When you want to draw attention to some parts of your speech, you should accent your voice. Stressing consonants is an easy way to do so.
- Diapason of voice. If you want to stand out on the stage, you should start and finish on a louder note.
- If you don’t feel comfortable on a stage, you can fake it. You can start using a pose of power and after that will bring extra energy.
- If you are nervous, holding something cold may help. It can calm you down.
- How to build trust with gestures? Use open palms and open up hands. Such gestures give a feeling of a confident, passionate, and open person speaking in front of you.
- Gestures should confirm the main idea in your talk. Don’t turn your back, stand or sit in a closed pose, shift from one foot to another.
- Where is your eye focus? Speaking to the audience, don’t focus on one person only. If the audience is small – about 50 people – you should make more eye-contacts. About 10 eye-contacts with people, who are in different room zones. If the audience is big – 500-1000 people – just focus on multiple venue zones.
- When it comes to online talks, often we don’t see the audience. Ask organisers to give you hints of the audience reaction through the talk.
- When giving an online talk, it’s better to look at the green dot in the web camera.
- Non-verbal communication varies around the world. Prepare gestures and make sure they will be interpreted in the right way.
- Don’t rely on improvisation in movements and gestures. It can be a problem. Rehearse your movements and gestures to make them fit the main ideas in the speech.
- How to stand? Where do you put your hands? To build the confidence you should stand relaxed, but with a straight spine. Your hands should be in the belly area.
- What to wear? It’s important to dress up in that way to feel comfortable. Don’t wear heels or something tight. If you want to wear something risky, rehearse in the same clothes.
- Broad gestures on a stage make you look confident. Imagine that you are in a bubble and your hands should move in the diameter of the bubble. In this case, gestures cannot be too tight. You should occupy a broad space around you.
- Move on a stage in an imaginary circle on the floor. It will help your moves to look natural.