• Michelle Johnson

Presenting: how to create confidence by boosting your body language

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

This month, I gave my first ever presenting masterclass for the brilliant Peretti Communications team. Through my career, I've interviewed jetlagged celebs for online video and hosted live panels for 3,000-strong crowds of diehard fans, and the skills I've learnt over the years have been just as useful at a gala event as a boardroom meeting, and it was such an honour to share some of what I've discovered with this talented PR team. As ever, I thought I'd share some of the key messages in this blog.

The science of communication

I believe that any kind of presenting, at its core, is about finding your role as a facilitator. You're the bridge between a client, message or truth and communicating that effectively to its intended audience. So, it's important to understand how communication works.

According to studies, Just 7% of communication is verbal – the words we use in the order that we use them. This means that we can script our presentation and memorise all the facts in the world, but we still might not get our message across if we don't understand how to put the rest of the message across as intended.

Of the remaining 93%, our vocal presentation – how we speak in terms of pitch, speed, tone, intonation, inflection, mood – accounts for 33% of our communication. A whopping 55% is our body language. So here are a couple of ways I've found helps make sure our body language is doing the work for us.

The four Cs

When preparing for a presentation of any kind, I've developed a bit of a checklist to help me cover the fundamentals that I need to know. This means that if anything goes off-script, or surprises happen, I've got a clear base to build from.

  1. Conviction – For me, this is about finding the core message. The fundamental truth of what your presentation, panel, meeting or speech is about. In a PR or sales scenario, where you're repping someone else's product, this could be finding one thing that you actually believe or are passionate about within the product. Having this will ensure your tone and body exude honesty.

  2. Clarity  The facts and figures that make you an expert. Having a few good stats or facts that display your understand means you can be concise and calm. Having these to build can also help soothe the nerves and, again, ensure your tone stays 'low and slow' to give the sense of confidence.

  3. Connection – Communication is about connection, and it's so important to create a connection between what you're saying and your audience. This could be as simple as googling the meeting attendees or meeting them in advance to foster a rapport.

  4. Confidence – Confidence is king. Not just confidence in what you're saying, but in how you're saying. Confidence is about eye contact, strong stance, openness in your posture. It's also conveyed in your tone; smiles and laughter, slow and steady speaking, the willingness to listen attentively and answer directly.

All of these can be researched in advanced, whether you have 10mins to spare or are working a month ahead. But how do you convey confidence if you are, in fact, bricking it?

Creating confidence

One of the biggest mistakes we make when thinking about public speaking is to believe that confidence is an innate trait. You either have it or don't. In fact, confidence is something that is built, structured, created. It's something that you have to fake or adapt at first, until your experience level gives you references to build on.

There are many ways to fake it till you make it when it comes to building your confidence from the inside out. When you're feeling extremely nervous, the first thing is to learn to control the anxiety. These simple techniques can help soothe stage fright, nerves or anxiety in many situations so that you can concentrate on your presentation.

  1. Breathing in squares – a mindfulness technique that focuses on the breathing. All you need is a square shape within your eye-line. This could be a window, a floor tile, a tube poster, a laptop screen, your mobile phone. Breathe in for a count of four as you scan one side, hold for four across the next side, exhale for four across the next side, and hold for four across the final edge. Repeat until you feel a little calmer.

  2. Translate the emotion – The symptoms of nervousness are exactly the same as the symptoms for excitement – breathing, palpitations, shaking, wobbly knees, clammy palms – and there are a variety of great NLP techniques that allow us to translate one emotion into the other through visualisation and vocalisation. Instead of saying "I'm so nervous I'm shaking", try "I'm so excited, I'm shaking". The more you say this, the more you'll start to believe it.

  3. Smile like you mean it – Look up and smile. Hold the pose for as long as you can. The act of smiling actually encourages the brain to release dopamine and serotonin, causing a flood of relaxed, happy hormones into the body, while stretching also releases tension in your neck.

Commanding your body language

For the final part of the session, I wanted to focus on a few ways to create an open, confident body language with is, because I believe it's hugely important both for making an impression with others, and in controlling our own nerves. Our body language can impact our own mood and performance – for example, sports scientist Luke Worthington uses 'postural restoration' to heighten the performances of his Olympic athletes.

Two simple ways to control our body language are through power posing before an event, and understanding how to transfer energy during. Studies by social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggest that power posing – adopting powerful, confident poses for periods of 2-10 minutes – can have a profound effect on our minds. There is ongoing controversy about whether this is a legitimate reaction in our body chemistry or a new age pseudoscience but, for me, power poses have an additional benefit in that they allow you to stretch and fix your body language ahead of a presentation.

Adopting the star – or Mick Jagger – pose is supposed to help you visualise adulation and success, but it also helps you stretch your arms and legs, ensuring you are comfortable on stage. The famous Wonder Woman pose may not help you feel like a superhero, but it will push your shoulders back, straighten your posture and lift your chin so that you walk in open, confident and ready for anything.

Finally, once you're on stage and your adrenaline is going, it's time to use that energy to your benefit, rather than let it make you worry. The key is to transfer energy upwards – rock up onto the balls of your feet, smile, brings your hands up to gesture – rather than letting yourself curl inwards.

And remember, each nervous presentation that you complete is another step in your portfolio of experience. Confidence can be faked or constructed, but true confidence and faith in your abilities can only come from gaining experience, so keep putting yourself out there. The more you challenge yourself, and the more you rise to that challenge, the easier it will become.