7 ways to project confidence while public speaking

When preparing for a presentation, we often focus on our script and voice. But we should be paying more attention to our nonverbal signals, a body language expert writes in the Harvard Business Review.

Kasia Wezowski is founder of the Center for Body Language, author of four books about body language, and director and producer of a film about coaching. She shares that, several years ago, she and some of her colleagues attended a start-up pitch competition. Participants gave short presentations to judges in an attempt to win funding for their projects. Wezowski says her team was able to correctly predict the winners based only on their body language while presenting.

They came back a couple years later to study the competitors again. Wezowski's team rated each participant's nonverbal cues, adding points for certain positive signals and subtracting points for certain negative signals. Once again, presenters who showed more confident body language cues also ranked higher in the funding competition.

So what are the right gestures to make while presenting? Here are seven nonverbal signals that convey confidence to your audience, recommended by Wezowski and other body language experts.

1. Mind the box: Imagine a box across your shoulders and down to your waist, and keep your hands within this box. Wezowski says this was the advice Bill Clinton received after the first few speeches of his career, during which he used exaggerated hand gestures that made his audience suspicious. The story's become so well-known, body language experts now call this imaginary box the "Clinton box."

2. Pretend to hold a ball: Loosely spread your fingers and place your hands in front of you, palms facing each other, a few inches apart—as if you were holding a basketball. Wezowski says Steve Jobs frequently relied on this stance.

3. The classic steeple: Touch the fingertips of one hand to the fingertips of another, but keep your palms apart, to make a shape with your hands that resembles a steeple or pyramid. This is a common gesture among business leaders, and according to the Center for Nonverbal Studies, it reflects precise thought patterns. When using this position, Wezowski warns that you should keep your face relaxed or you might be misinterpreted as arrogant.

Also see: 3 traits the most inspiring leaders share

4. Keep your feet hip-distance apart: Wezowski says that keeping your feet slightly apart indicates "that you feel in control." Anneke Jong, an entrepreneur and technology expert, also encourages speakers to keep their feet relatively still. Both Jong and Wezowski emphasize that it's important to stand in a way that makes you feel balanced and stable. "Tipping over in the spotlight? Not cool," Jong writes.

5. Open your hands in welcome: To convey warmth and honesty, Wezowski recommends spreading your hands with your palms up. She writes that Oprah commonly relies on this gesture while speaking. Vanessa Van Edwards, a consultant who has studied the body language of TED talks, says this gesture builds trust.

6. Or turn your palms down: Spread your hands in a similar gesture as above, but turn them so your palms face the floor. You may recognize this "calm down" gesture from President Obama, Wezowski writes.

7. Don't be afraid to do nothing: Always remember that it's an option to simply let your hands fall to your sides. "It's like home base for our arms," says Jerry Weissman, a corporate presentations coach. Doing nothing is preferable to fidgeting, which several body language experts cite as the cardinal sin for public speakers (Center for Nonverbal Studies site, accessed 5/10/2017; Jong, The Muse, accessed 5/10/2017; Wezowski, Harvard Business Review, 4/6).

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