Watch your Posture

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My second grade teacher, a strict and traditional Austrian transplant named Ms. Vriezen, used to tell us 7-year-olds to “stack your bricks” and “keep your hands on the table” when we sat in our chairs. I’m often reminded of those messages when I work with clients.

I recently worked with a group of presenters from a large organization. After spending the bulk of our time on their content, our only time to work on delivery issues was on location during their on-stage tech run-through. By that time I had to focus on only the most glaring issues. Still we were able to substantially improve their delivery. Some of the most meaningful advances were a result of their modifying their posture and body language.

Speaking from his lectern, one presenter alternated between two postures which seemed to throw his content off-track. One was a severe contrapposto, with one arm akimbo on his hip. For those who haven’t studied art history, contrapposto is a standing position where most of the weight is on one foot. That hip juts out, and the shoulders and arms turn away from that side. In sculpture, this posture relays a natural, relaxed appearance, but with his hand on his hip, this speaker’s look was an exasperated, “Why are you late for dinner? Do you realize what time it is?”

When I asked him why he was standing that way he said he thought it was more casual. True, but it also looked awkward from the lectern and gave off a negative, arrogant impression.

His other posture was actually a movement. He shifted markedly between one foot and the other, which was highly distracting and gave the impression that he was nervous.

Fortunately he was able to integrate my suggestions very quickly, and his body language – and delivery — improved remarkably. I urged him to face the audience, except when he was doing his live demonstration of their interactive website. At that time it would be appropriate to glance up at the screen while describing the action. I also asked him to stop moving around so much. It was distracting him and the audience. And I asked him to stand up straight, not leaning so much into one hip, and put his hands on the lectern or gesture with them, but certainly not hold his hip.

When he cleaned up his posture and body language and spoke directly to the audience, he immediately exuded a more powerful, and more friendly, presence. He also focused more on his content and on his audience, and was thus better able to connect with them.

Another presenter clearly didn’t know what to do with his hands, so he alternately kept them behind his back, in his pockets, or moving about in a random fashion. He was very nervous and his arm gestures only exacerbated his anxiety and his audience’s perception of him as nervous. When I suggested he keep his hands on the lectern, ready to gesture when so moved, it reduced his anxiety. He felt and appeared more grounded and felt freed, able to move his hands in a way that related to his content.

On behalf of myself and my clients, thank you, Ms. Vriezen.


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