Use Body Language To Talk In Your Favour
“Should I sit or stand when I speak?” As a speaking coach, I am often asked this question. The decision to sit or stand sends a body language message about your conscious and unconscious intentions toward your listeners. Be clear about whether you need to establish authority, build credibility, increase connection, invite intimacy, energetically entertain or deepen trust. Like everything communication, it’s a two-way relationship; you need to consider what is right for your listeners and right for you.
I invite you to read Agatha’s Story to learn how she used body language to help her speak at a conference. Agatha’s speech intention was to gain credibility and inspire social change. But then she broke her ankle two weeks before and couldn’t stand up. Should she withdraw after all that preparation?
Client Story – Agatha
Agatha came to see me about how to present a sensitive and controversial topic at a formal conference. She was passionate about the opportunity to promote community awareness. She was also extremely nervous. Everything was going really well and then she broke her ankle. She wanted to appear strong and confident and worried that hobbling in and being helped to sit down would make her and her topic less powerful.
This is what we went with on the big day: Agatha sat on a low stool. She walked in slowly with dignity, a walking stick and only one shoe. She kicked it off. Leaned forward in her long silk caftan, rested her hands on her wide set knees and felt stable and calm. Agatha looked directly into the eyes of her audience and took several slow breaths. She waited and they waited with her…
At the end of the conference, Agatha’s speech was voted one of the best. She got a standing ovation, invitations to speak further and she was the only speaker to sit rather than stand. Sometimes, the situation you find yourself in dictates your choices. Agatha simply couldn’t stand up. We found a way to make her physically comfortable, emotionally powerful and her vulnerable yet strong body language helped her audience relate and engage with her difficult topic.
Timing & Empathy
Timing and empathy are very important. Hitting the right note opens up listeners and invites them to walk with you, rather than jarring an awkward moment when you lose people, fast.
Here are three scenarios when the Speaker’s timing, empathy, self-focus and lack of preparation were completely inappropriate but very funny in retrospect!
- I once heard a feathered Facilitator sitting cross-legged on the floor, demand with his Talking Stick: “Take back your power!” His group sat uncomfortably in chairs looking like they’d rather be in another tepee. It was inappropriate for the environment, participants and style of event.
- Who hasn’t been forced to attend a corporate motivational session with a hyped-up trainer trying to force change? This guy stood on a mini podium and thrust his hands in the air: “Scream this now… no, no, no!” to a small group of 7, seated women at 9.15 in the morning. Too much and way too soon before coffee.
- Imagine this and it really did happen: I went to a poetry reading and an indulgent young man in a black beret turned his back to us and lay on the floor. He closed his eyes and shared overlong banal drivel about unrequited lust, crashing waves and stallions. We listeners might as well not have been there.
To inspire the action you desire, your choice to sit, stand or lie down must be congruent with your verbal message to be meaningful and influential. Just think of the remarkable impact Agatha experienced.
Just for fun, here’s an informal 3-minute body language video I made about the question, “Should I Sit or Stand When I Speak?”
To summarise with a very general guide:
Sit to Speak When…
An informal group, especially a small one where people can’t hide in the crowd, need a Speaker who can build trust. This suggests “I’ve been in your shoes and we’re in this together.” So, join their circle and sit down with them. Sitting down also suits:
- When it’s very important to build intimacy, trust and rapport first.
- Drawing people in, like storytelling, sharing a “secret” or personal revelation.
Stand to Speak When…
A group with big expectations, strong and diverse opinions, or with a lot of emotion in the room (such as cynicism, anger or sadness) need confident presence from a Speaker “willing to take a stand.” Standing also suits:
- When it’s important to establish leadership, authority or world domination!
- Fitting appropriately into a formal situation or to formalise a too casual, not listening group.
- Performance and a need for high impact to direct all attention on you and your message.
Mix It Up
Goodness, there are no rules here folks! You can switch from sitting to standing during a presentation. It adds variety, energy and emphasis. In fact, move around a bit and come out from behind the lectern and your slides. Why only use words to communicate when you’ve got all your senses and body language to talk in your favour?
Trust Your Gut
Above all, don’t follow expert advice, including from me. Do what feels right for you. Trust your gut. Sometimes it feels right to stand and sometimes, to sit. Just don’t lie down on the job!