Aesthetics and Delivery

9 Nonverbal Delivery

Learning Objectives

Describe the importance of nonverbal delivery in public speaking
Highlight common non-verbal pitfalls
Utilize specific techniques to enhance non-verbal delivery

Have you played charades? Many of you have likely “acted out” a person, place, or a thing for an audience, using only your body and no words. Charades, like many games, demonstrates the heightened or exaggerated use of nonverbals – through acting out, the game highlights how powerful nonverbal communication can be for communicating with an audience.

When speaking, similar to charades, your job is to create a captivating experience for your audience that leads them to new information or to consider a new argument. Nonverbals provide an important facet of that experience by accentuating your content and contributing to the aesthetic experience.

The nonverbal part of your speech is a presentation of yourself as well as your message. Like we discussed in Chapter 7, public speaking is embodied, and your nonverbals are a key part of living and communicating in and through your body. Through the use of eye contact, vocals, body posture, gestures, and facial expression, you enhance your message and invite your audience to give their serious attention to it—and to you. Your credibility, your sincerity, and your knowledge of your speech become apparent through your nonverbal behaviors.

In this chapter, we explore various nonverbal components that influence your message to create an aesthetic experience for your audience. Rather than a check-list of skillsets, we invite you to read these as a series of inter-related behaviors and practices, beginning with eye contact.

Eye Contact

Imagine bringing in 2 qualified applicants for a job opening that you were responsible to fill. The interview is intimate, and each applicant sits directly across from you and 3 other colleagues who are assisting.

While answering questions, applicant 1 never breaks eye contact with you. It’s likely that, as the interview progresses, you begin to feel uncomfortable, even threatened, and begin shifting your own eyes around the room awkwardly. When the applicant leaves, you finally take a deep breath but realize that you can’t remember anything the applicant said.

The second applicant enters and, unlike the first, looks down at their notes, and they never make direct eye contact. As you try to focus on their answers, they seem so uncomfortable that you aren’t able to concentrate on the exchange.

Both approaches are common mistakes when integrating eye contact into a speech. We have likely all seen speakers who read their presentation from notes and never look up. It’s also common for a speaker to zoom in on one audience member (like the teacher!) and never break their gaze.

Eye contact creates an intimate and interpersonal experience for individual audience members and it assists in maintaining rapport. Part of creating a meaningful aesthetic experience is through eye contact, and the general rule of thumb is that 80% of your total speech time should be spent making eye contact with your audience (Lucas, 2015, p. 250). When you’re able to connect by using eye contact, you create a more intimate, trusting, and transparent experience.

Looking Forward: We’ll discuss rehearsal techniques to assist in amplifying your eye contact in Chapter 11.

It’s important to note that you want to establish genuine eye contact with your audience, and not “fake” eye contact. There have been a lot of techniques generated for “faking” eye contact, and none of them look natural. For example, these aren’t great:

  • Three points on the back wall – You may have heard that instead of making eye contact, you can just pick three points on the back wall and look at each point. What ends up happening, though, is you look like you are staring off into space and your audience will spend the majority of your speech trying to figure out what you are looking at. This technique may work better for a larger audience, but in a more intimate space (like the classroom), the audience is close enough to be suspicious. Put simply: we can tell you aren’t looking at us.
  • The swimming method – This happens when someone is reading their speech and looks up quickly and briefly, not unlike a swimmer who pops their head out of the water for a breath before going back under. Eye contact is more than just physically moving your head; it is about looking at your audience and establishing a connection.

Instead, work to maintain approximately 3 seconds of eye contact with audience members throughout the room. You are, after all, speaking to them, so use your eyes to make contact. This may also reduce some anxiety because you can envision yourself speaking directly to one person at a time, rather than a room full of strangers.

Remember: you have done the work. You are prepared. You have something to say. People want to listen.

Movement

When you (and your body) move, you communicate. You may, for example, have a friend who, when telling exciting stories, frantically gestures and paces the room—their movement is part of how they communicate their story. They likely do this unconsciously, and that’s often how much of our informal movement occurs.

Many of us, like your friend, have certain elements of movement that we comfortably integrate into our daily interactions. It’s important to know your go-to movements to ask: how can I utilize these (or put them in check) to enhance the audience’s experience? In this section, we will introduce how and why movement should be purposefully integrated into your public speech. We’ll focus on your hands, your feet, and how to move around the space.

Survey a Friend: Not sure what nonverbals you commonly use when communicating? Ask a friend! Your friends are observant, and they can likely tell you if you over-gesture, look down, stay poised, etc. Use this inventory to determine areas of focus for your speeches.

Gestures and Hands

Everyone who gives a speech in public gets scared or nervous. Even professionals who do this for a living feel that way, but they have learned how to combat those nerves through experience and practice. When we get scared or nervous, our bodies emit adrenaline into our systems so we can deal with whatever problem is causing us to feel that way. In a speech, you are asked to speak for a specific duration of time, so that burst of adrenaline is going to try to work its way out of your body and manifest itself somehow. One of the main ways is through your hands.

3 common reactions to this adrenaline rush are:

  • Jazz hands! It may sound funny, but nervous speakers can unknowingly incorporate “jazz hands”—shaking your hands at your sides with fingers opened wide— at various points in their speech. While certainly an extreme example, this and behaviors like it can easily becoming distracting.
  • Stiff as a board. At the other end of the scale, people who don’t know what to do with their hands or use them “too little” sometimes hold their arms stiffly at their sides, behind their backs, or in their pockets, all of which can also look unnatural and distracting.
  • Hold on for dear life! Finally, some speakers might grip their notes or a podium tightly with their hands. This might also result in tapping on a podium, table, or another object nearby.

It’s important to remember that just because you aren’t sure what your hands are doing does not mean they aren’t doing something. Fidgeting, jazz hands, gripping the podium, or hands in pockets are all common and result in speakers asking, “did I really do that? I don’t even remember!”

Like we mentioned in this section’s introduction, the key for knowing what to do with your hands is to know your own embodied movement and to trust or adjust your natural style as needed.

Al Gore
Al Gore gestures during a campaign appearance.

Are you someone who uses gestures when speaking? If so, great! Use your natural gestures to create purposeful aesthetic emphasis for your audience. If you were standing around talking to your friends and wanted to list three reasons why you should all take a road trip this weekend, you would probably hold up your fingers as you counted off the reasons (“First, we hardly ever get this opportunity. Second, we can…”). Try to pay attention to what you do with your hands in regular conversations and incorporate that into your delivery. Be conscious, though, of being over the top and gesturing at every other word. Remember that gestures highlight and punctuate information for the audience, so too many gestures (like jazz hands) can be distracting.

Similarly, are you someone who generally rests your arms at your sides? That’s OK, too! Work to keep a natural (and not stiff) look, but challenge yourself to integrate a few additional gestures throughout the speech.

Feet and Posture

Just like your hands, nervous energy might try to work its way out of your body through your feet. Common difficulties include:

  • The side-to-side. You may feel awkward standing without a podium and try to shift your weight back and forth. On the “too much” end, this is most common when people start “dancing” or stepping side to side.
  • The twisty-leg. Another variation is twisting feet around each other or the lower leg.
  • Stiff-as-a-board. On the other end are speakers who put their feet together, lock their knees, and never move from that position. Locked knees can restrict oxygen to your brain, so there are many reasons to avoid this difficulty.

These options look unnatural, and therefore will prove to be distracting to your audience.

The default position for your feet, then, is to have them shoulder-width apart, with your knees slightly bent. Since public speaking often results in some degree of physical exertion, you need to treat speaking as a physical activity. Public speaking is too often viewed as merely the transmission of information or a message rather than a fully body experience. Being in-tune and attuned to your body will allow you to speak in a way that’s both comfortable for you and the audience.

In addition to keeping your feet shoulder-width apart, you’ll also want to focus on your posture. As an audience member, you may have witnessed speakers with slumped shoulders or leaning into the podium (if there is one) with their entire body.

Difficulty with good posture is not just a public speaking problem. Think about how often you sit down in a coffee shop, pull out your laptop and, after some time, you realize that you are leaning over and your lower back is wincing in pain. You likely pull your shoulders back and straighten your spine in response. If you don’t focus on this posture (and practice reminding yourself to “sit up straight”), your body may slump back into old habits. So, you guessed it: focusing on good posture is just that – something that you must focus on, over time, so that it becomes habitual.

Focusing on good posture and solid grounding will, in addition to increasing your confidence, assist you in maintaining your eye contact and focusing on projecting your voice throughout the space.

Research Spotlight: The “Power Pose.” Relaxed yet sturdy posture will aid in your aesthetic delivery, but it might also increase your confidence. Some research (Cuddy, 2012) seems to indicate that standing in a power pose with your feet wide and hands on the hips (picture a super hero) may trick your mind into experiencing higher levels of confidence.

Moving in the Space

We know that likely you’re wondering, “Should I do any other movement around the room?”

Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy answer. Movement depends on two overarching considerations: 1) What’s the space? And, 2) What’s the message?

First, movement is always informed by the space in which you’ll speak. We’ll cover this more in tips on rehearsal (see Chapter 11), but we’ll highlight a few important details here. Consider the two following examples:

  • You’ll be a giving a presentation at a university where a podium is set up with a stable microphone.
  • You’re speaking at a local TedTalk event with an open stage.

Both scenarios provide constraints and opportunities for movement.

In the university space, the microphone may constrain your movement if you determine that vocal projection is insufficient to guarantee a level of speaking that can be heard throughout the space.

Man speaking at lecture with a microphone
Using a lectern provides nonverbal opportunities and constraints

In other words, you need tostay planted behind the microphone to guarantee sound. Partially constraining, this does allow a stable location to place your notes, a microphone to assist in projecting, and allows you to focus on other verbal and nonverbal techniques.

In the TedTalk example, you are not constrained by a stable microphone and you have a stage for bodily movement. The open stage means that the entire space becomes part of the aesthetic experience for the audience. However, if you are less comfortable with movement, the open space may feel intimidating because audiences may assume that you’ll use the entire space.

In addition to the space, your message and content assist in deciding how or why you might move around the space. It’s necessary to ask, “how does movement support, enhance or detract from the message?” and “how might movement support, enhance, or detract from the aesthetic experience for the audience?”

Remember that most public speeches are ephemeral, where the audience is attempting to comprehend your message in one shot or run through. Given these circumstances, it can be tricky for an audience to track the argument progression, especially since you may be dealing with an audience of varying levels of experience with your topic. Similar to the space, thinking through where your movement can assist in translating your information is paramount.

Once you have knowledge of the speaking space and completed speech content, you can start using movement to add dimension to the aesthetic experience for your audience.

One benefit of movement is that it allows you to engage with different sections of the audience. If you are not constrained to one spot (in the case of a podium or a seat, for example), then you are able to use movement to engage with the audience by adjusting your spatial dynamic. You can literally move your body to different sides of the stage and audience. This allows for each side of a room to be pulled in to the content because you close the physical distance and create clear pathways for eye contact.

Meredith O'Connor giving a TedTalk
Some speech stages allow, even expect, movement

Without these changes, sections of the audience may feel lost or forgotten. Consider your role as a student. Have you experienced a professor or teacher who stays solitary and does not move to different sides of the room? It can be difficult to stay motivated to listen or take notes if a speaker is dominating one area of the space.

Changing the spatial dynamics goes beyond moving from side-to-side. You can also move forward and backward (or what theater practitioners might call down or up stage). This allows you to move closer to the audience or back away—depending on what experience you’re trying to create.

In addition to engaging with the audience, movement often signals a transition between ideas or an attempt to visually enunciate an important component of your information. You may want to signal a change in time or mark progression. If you’re walking your audience through information chronologically, movement can mark that temporal progression where your body becomes the visual marker of time passing.

You may also want to signal a transition between main ideas, and movement can assist with that, too! Moving as main point transitions embodies the connections between your ideas while letting the audience know that “we are going to progress in the argument.” If integrating movement as a transition feels odd, choppy, or awkward, those feelings help signal that the organization of your main points may need some re-working.

Thus, using purposeful movement can enhanced your aesthetics, but purposeful is the key word here. While movement can enhance, it can also distract and constrain. Keep these common pitfalls in mind:

  • The pace-master. We all know this distracting pitfall where (likely due to nervousness), a speaker paces back and forth without any clear reason for the movement. “What in the world are they doing?” you might wonder as an audience member. Unfortunately, if you’re internally asking that question, you’re likely not focusing on the speaker’s content. While it’s OK to “walk and talk” so to speak, avoid constant walking-and-talking. As a speaker, maintain a solid footing when you aren’t moving.
  • Obstructing the view: It’s likely that, at some point, you’ll use objects or other presentation enhancements like a PowerPoint or a video during your speech. Make sure you aren’t moving directly in front of the audience’s line of sight. Even if you aren’t referencing something, it can be awkward to walk in front of a projection light.
  • The robot: As a dance, the robot can be great, but in public speaking, it’s usually not as effective. We commonly experience students who use “the triangle” method, where each main point in the speech is mapped onto an invisible triangle. This can be done well, but it can also lead to movement looking unnatural. Work to strike a balance between pre-planned and robotic.

When you speak, moving in the space can be beneficial. As you plan your purposeful movement, be aware of the message you’re providing and the space in which you’re speaking.

Facial Expressions

Picture being out to dinner with a friend and, as you finish telling a story about a joke you played on your partner, you look up to a grimacing face.

“What?” you ask. But their face says it all.

“Oh, nothing,” they reply. Realizing that their face has “spilled the beans” so to speak, they might correct their expression by shrugging and biting their lip – a move that may insinuate nervousness or anxiety. You perceive that they didn’t find your story as humorous as you’d hoped.

Facial expressions communicate to others (and audiences) in ways that are congruent or incongruent with your message. In the example above, your friend’s feedback of “oh, nothing” was inconcruent with their facial exressions. Their verbal words didn’t trump their facial expressions, however, and their nonverbal feedback was part of the communication.

Facial expressions are generally categorized as one of the following: happy, sad, angry, fearful, surprised and disgusted. Your facial expressions matter; your audience will be looking at your face to guide them through the speech, so they’re an integral part of communicating meaning and demonstrating to your audience a felt sense.

In fact, if your facial expressions seem incongruent or contradictory from the tone of the argument, an audience may go so far as to feel distrust toward you as a speaker. Children might, for example, say, “I’m fine” or “It doesn’t hurt” after falling and scraping their knee, but their face often communicates a level of discomfort. In this case, their facial expression is incongruent with their verbal message. If you’re frowning while presenting information that the audience perceives to be positive, they may feel uneasy or unsure how to process that information. So, congruency can increase your ethos.

Instead, work to create congruence between your message and expressions. In class discussions on pathos, we often joke about the ASPCA commercials with the Sarah McLachlan song “In the Arms of an Angel” playing in the background. The music is meant to, of course, communicate feelings of sadness around animal cruelty, and rightfully so. In a speech, similar to using music, your facial expressions can assist in setting the aesthetic tone; they are part of developing pathos.

Given the amount of information that we all encounter daily, including information about global injustices, it’s often insufficient to merely state the problem and how to solve it. Audience members need buy in from you as the speaker. Using facial expressions to communicate emotions, for example, can demonstrate your commitment and overall feelings around an issue.

To be clear: facial expressions, like other forms of nonverbal communication, can greatly impact an audience member’s perception of the speaker, but not all audiences may interpret your expressions the same. Re-visit Chapter 2 on audiences.

Attire

What you wear, similar to other aesthetic components, can either enhance or detract from the audience’s experience. Like facial expressions, you want your attire to be congruent with the message that you’re delivering. In Chapter 7, we noted that aesthetics are often dicated by certain contextual norms. Context is relevant here, too, as the purpose and audience will inform appropriate attire.

We recommend considering two questions when selecting your attire:

First, “what attire matches the occasion?” Is this a casual occasion? Does it warrant a more professional or business-casual approach? If you’re speaking at an organization’s rally, for example, you may decide to wear attire with the organization’s logo and jeans. Other occasions, like a classroom or city council meeting, may require a higher level of professional attire.

Second, “have I selected any attire that could be distracting while I’m speaking?” Certain kinds of jewelry, for example, might make additional noise or move around your arm, and audiences can focus too much on the jewelry. In addition to noise-makers, some attire can have prints that might distract, including letters, wording, or pictures.

Your attire can influence how the audience perceives you as a speaker (ahem: your credibility) which, as we’ve discussed, is key to influencing listeners. Before we conclude this chapter, we return to credibility and reflexivity.

Aesthetics and Credibility

So far in Part 3 on aesthetics, we’ve discussed how to deliver an aesthetic experience for your audience. As a speaker, it’s important to remember that the audience remains a central component of public speaking and is central to consider when making aesthetic choices.

Yes, this means that you should think about your audience (as Chapter 2 discussed at length) when you are a speaker. These aesthetic choices will influence your audience and assist them in determining if you are credible and, frankly, if they want to listen to your message.

For example, an audience may view vocalized pauses as evidence that a speaker lacks confidence around their topic or does not know the material as well. Similarly, you may consider your attire before presenting, assuming that your audience will respect and view you professionally if you select business casual clothing.

Aesthetic choices are also important when you are in the audience, and it is imperative to be critical and reflect (or practice reflexivity) on how you are filtering a speaker’s information through their aesthetics. The filter that informs our willingness to view a speaker as credible is often based on a mythical norm, or what Audre Lorde (1984) defines generally as young, white, thin, middle-class men. This classification certainly does not fit all speakers, and if you are part of this classification, that’s OK! The mythical norm warns us to be conscious of holding these categories as “the best” or preferred, especially around what counts as credibility. In other words, are these categories unconsciously facilitating a more positive aesthetic experience?

For example, you may decide to wear business casual clothing to increase the likelihood that your audience views you as credible, but as an audience member, be careful assuming that someone is not credible because of their attire. Business attire can be a privilege that everyone cannot afford.

Eye contact can also be investigated. We’ve alluded that eye contact increases trust amongst your audience, and it often does; however, the connection between eye contact and higher levels of credibility is specific to a U.S. American cultural context. Culture thus defines how we interpret and understand certain aesthetic choices, including eye contact. Remember that culture is always a core component of communication. As an audience member, be careful of presumptively judging a speaker based on your own cultural expectations, identities, or positions.

Conclusion

Your nonverbal delivery assists in setting an aesthetic tone for the audience by providing embodied insight into how the audience should think, act, or feel. The space – or literal context in which you’ll speak – also contributes nonverbally to the message. We’ll discuss space in more detail during Chapter 11 on rehearsal.

Up next: presentation aids.

Media Attributions