When I watch people give presentations, the first thing I look at is their feet.
The body will always tell the story of who we are and how we are, and the feet can be the most eloquent storytellers of all.
According to body language expert James Borg, there are fewer neural connections from your brain to your feet than to your upper body. Because your feet are literally furthest away from your brain, they’re less easy to control – which means that unless we make conscious choices about what they’re doing, they will tend to be truthful!
Jonathan Lynn, writer of Yes, Minister, commented in interview that actors can’t fully put his lines across to the audience if their feet are out of sight – attributing the idea to Buster Keaton, who knew a thing or two about physical performance.
“They need to see you connected to the ground in some way.”
He’s right: delivering a line with appropriate aplomb while standing behind a sofa, or lectern, doesn’t work nearly as well.
Nor does a habit I’ve noticed particularly (though not exclusively) in women: of sitting into one hip as they speak – which mothers may argue stems from carrying small children around.
The other female favourite is standing as if you’re trying to impersonate a candlestick: i.e., with one leg completely crossed over the other. I’ve seen this on a female presenter wearing a mid-length skirt, and I remember nothing of what she said – only that she’d apparently got her feet on the wrong way round.
Apart from making you look as if you have a desperate need to respond to the call of nature, standing unevenly as a matter of habit will make you feel uneven.
And your audience will tend, subliminally, to think there’s something off-balance about the message you’re delivering.
So if you want to be sure you’re coming across with gravitas, use gravity! Take up a balanced and grounded stance with your feet evenly placed under your hips.
‘Under your hips’ means exactly that, and no wider.
A wider stance – or if you like, an Eiffel Tower impersonation – is something I often see favoured by men. Tends to look a bit military, especially when combined with hands behind the back.
And if the pelvis is also thrust forward – well, it’s a bit ‘inyerface’, if you know what I mean.
Men also may do the ‘caged lion’ act – aimless pacing to and fro that threatens to wear a trench in the floor.
Or they might prefer the ‘barn dance’: left leg crosses right leg, and-a backwards on the right, and-across on the left, and-a forward on the right and a doh-si-doh and so on, all the way through what they have to say.
And when that killer question from the floor gets asked, I’ve certainly seen both sexes attempt a positive verbal response – while their feet take one or more involuntary paces backwards.
When that happens, no matter how sincere or eloquent an answer comes out of your mouth, it’s hard to redeem yourself from the subliminal message that your feet would much prefer you to run away.
Don’t suppose, by the way, that hiding behind a lectern or table means your feet can do what they like. These things don’t work in isolation.
Whatever your feet are doing will tend to travel up your body, subtly informing the bits we can see – and certainly, making a difference to the way you feel about yourself.
If you’re physically ungrounded, we will detect there’s something not quite rooted about your message, even if we don’t exactly know why.
Of course, body language is never an exact science. A physical choice can easily be misinterpreted if we get too specific about attributing significance to it on its own.
What we all look for in a good speaker, consciously or not, is congruence (James Borg talks about that quite a lot). We want a sense that body, voice and words are all contributing to a whole, congruent message.
Walking around, or varying your stance is fine – and necessary when it’s underpinning the sense of what you have to say.
But for those important moments when you want to come over as speaking with absolute measured authority – place your feet firmly and stand your ground!