In public speaking, it’s not just what you’re saying or even how you’re saying it, your body language says a lot to your audience – both in person or even over a video call.  

If speaking standing up, try to make sure that you have a few centimetres of space between your elbows and the side of your body. This will make you appear more comfortable and will avoid constricting your chest so that you can breathe and project your voice fully. Your feet should also be about shoulder-width apart; try to make sure that you stand on both feet facing towards the audience.

If you’re presenting online, your posture and any speaking aids can still make a big difference. Make sure you sit upright (as this will also help your breathing), position yourself with a source of light facing you (ideally a window) so that your webcam captures you clearly, and don’t be afraid to still make use of hand gestures to engage your audience. Pay special attention to where your eye focus is when presenting online – you don’t necessarily need to stare at your webcam, but try to avoid reading off your screen as this is very easy to spot and may distract your listeners.

Talking with your hands

Not everyone agrees on how best (or whether) to use arms and hands when delivering a talk, but done well, it can help aid understanding for your audience and help put you at ease if you normally use hands when talking.

It’s common for the nerves associated with public speaking to cause shakey hands. If you know this could affect you, we recommend that you avoid holding paper (such as your notes) as this can draw more attention to shaking (in this case, try putting your notes to one side of you to easily refer to if you need them). We also suggest if you’re nervous that you still incorporate hand gesture – particularly if you normally use them in everyday conversation – but consider closing your fingers into a flat hand when you do so, as this will naturally help reduce shaking aswell as making your gesture appear more confident (this is also a common technique used by politicians to appear more assertive).

As a general rule, try to make any hand gestures appear comfortable and controlled – not too big/small and not too fast. Try to avoid clenched hands or keeping your palms facing your chest as these can read as being ‘closed off’, whereas open palms visible to the audience tend to be more welcoming and inclusive.

Organising your space

If you have enough space available, deliberate movement can be a helpful aid to capture attention and help the whole audience feel engaged, as well as make your talk feel more natural or conversational.

It can be tempting sometimes to wander around the space, particularly if you’re anxious, or to stay in a single position (particularly behind a desk or some form of physical barrier). Both of these scenarios, though, can give the impression that you’re uncomfortable in the environment; as a result, your audience probably won’t be quite as comfortable as they could be.

If you have the opportunity, consider organising your space; consider the position of chairs in the audience, whether you have enough space to move comfortably between a couple of points, and try to make sure that there are no physical barriers between you and the audience. If you need it, position a desk for notes or props to one side of you.

When planning your presentation, take note of any moments in which you change topic; these are normally the most natural times in which you can incorporate a change of your speaking position. If you choose to incorporate this sort of movement, it can be helpful to cement this for your listeners by accompanying phrases like “So far, I’ve introduced you to X, but now [moving to another position] I’d like to discuss Y” with finding a new speaking position. Try to use this sparingly, but as you do it, try to engage with a new section of the audience.