May 25, 2016


12 nonverbal ways to improve speeches and interviews


Speaking publicly or giving a video interview, we’re careful about the words we speak, but what about a presentation’s physical aspects: gestures, eye contact, pacing? The experts weigh in.

By Russell Working

When Jenna Cooper was a TV anchor, her news director let her in on a key secret of how he hired his on-air staff.

He would cover up the bottom half of the candidate’s face to see whether his or her eyes told the story, says Cooper, founder and president of Gratia PR.

“If the anchor used the same eye expressions while reading a car accident script versus the proverbial water-skiing squirrel kicker, that anchor didn’t make the cut,” Cooper says.

It’s the same thing with giving a speech, shooting a video or answering questions in a town hall. The eyes tell all.

When senior leaders speak publicly or sit for an interview, they usually understand the importance of using the right words and phrases. What fewer have mastered are nonverbal tools that help in delivery—from posture to gesturing to the expression of the eyes.

Here are some tips for your senior executives:

1. Rehearse.

 When leaders prepare, they should practice in order to “develop the kind of muscle memory of the speech, of the rhythm of a speech,” says Jeff Shesol, founding partner of West Wing Writers.

“Even if you’re a naturally a good speaker, simply the act of having said it out loud even just once, but ideally more than once, really without any guidance, will improve your delivery,” he says.

This helps them determine where the pauses and emphases are. They also might sense where the speech drags and should be cut.

[FREE DOWNLOAD: 10 ways to enliven senior executives’ communications]

2. Relax.

“Some people talk with their hands; some don’t,” says Drew Keller, president of and an Emmy-nominated PBS writer and editor. “Typically, the more anxious they are, the more stressed they are, the stiffer they are.”

Keller reminds interview subjects that in his medium—video—he usually isn’t recording live. If they don’t like the way they said something, he can start over.

3. Pace yourself.

 When people get nervous, they talk more rapidly, says attorney James Goodnow, who regularly appears on CNN and on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” Your audience must process what you are saying. Effective speakers talk at a rate of about 125 words per minute. Record yourself to find out how fast you’re speaking.

 Also, pause before and after a significant point. “Let it simmer with the audience,” Goodnow says. “What seems like a horrible awkward silence for you is actually giving your audience time to reflect on the point you made.”

4. Maintain eye contact.

We’ve all heard it, but few speakers do it effectively, Goodnow says. Eye contact conveys sincerity and helps you connect. Scan the room and hold your gaze for no more than three seconds. Too long, and your audience gets creeped out. Not enough, and people think you’re not interested in them. If you’re connecting via satellite or on Skype, look at the camera. If you’re being interviewed in person, look at the interviewer—not the camera.

5. Practice hand gestures.

When people are uncomfortable, their hands feel cartoony, twice their actual size, Cooper says. Practice using your hands to underscore points (one, two and three takeaways). Don’t cross your arms—that makes you look closed off.

“Also for men—be careful of the hand in the pants pockets,” she says. “There’s a tendency to jiggle change, which can be distracting.”

6. Scale your gestures.

When addressing a gathering of 10,000 associates in an auditorium at an annual sales event, feel free to throw your arms wide when talking about “all of us here.” If you’re on live TV, your gestures must be smaller, contained within the frame of the screen, says Terence J. Murnin, communications specialist with Fennemore Craig.

Gestures should be consistent with the content they are reinforcing, adds Ronald Kaufman of the Ronald Kaufman Consultancy. Examples:

  • Move your hand up or down to indicate rising or falling profits and expenses.
  • Place one or both hands straight out in front for stop, like a traffic cop.
  • Make a circular movement for continuing to do something such as being a team.

7. Maintain good posture.

“Listen to your mother—stand up straight,” Cooper says. “Picture a piece of string at the top of your head pulling you toward the ceiling. It opens up your lungs and diaphragm and makes you look more confident and approachable.”

8. Move around.

Get out from behind the lectern, Cooper adds. This is more interesting visually and keeps your presenter’s blood flowing.

9. Carefully plan your visuals.

 PowerPoints fail when you treat them as essays or overload them with text. Carefully consider the visual story you’re telling through your PowerPoint, says story strategist Justina Chen, author of “The Art of Inspiration: Lead Your Best Story.” Think metaphorically when you select images.

“If you’re telling people that we’re actually in a precarious situation right now, show a picture of a slack line right behind you,” she says.

Emphasize a point with an image or a few short words in large font, Goodnow says. Anything more, and it will detract.

10. Punctuate the script.

Depending on your speaker, stage directions in the script can enhance nonverbal communication, Shesol says. If your speaker finds it helpful, punctuate the script as people speak it. Writers often place ellipses or bracketed directions in scripts, such as “[pause]” or “[pause for applause].”

“A lot of speakers just don’t need that, because they understand it intuitively and they pick it up when they’re rehearsing it,” Shesol says. “Others really like to have the stage directions there.”

11. Sip warm water.

Avoid the ice water on the table and drink warm water prior to speaking, says Lynne Curry of The Growth Company. “Ice water chills the vocal cords and makes your voice sound harsher and more strident, while warm water loosens your vocal cords,” she says.

Also, take a short walk around the room to greet people prior to speaking. Walking helps your body to process the adrenaline in your bloodstream, which helps you stave off nervousness.

12. When all else fails, call in a coach.

“If you don’t know the basics, bring in a trainer,” says speech consultant Rob Friedman. This is particularly true if you have an executive who does a lot of public speaking. It’ll be worth the cost.


This article was written in partnership with Ragan Communications, and is Part 2 of a 3-Part Series.