Since 1977, over 10,000 Spokespersons Trained.
Part 1 - Delivery

Chapter 5
Physical Reinforcement

Those of you who took high school speech courses or studied acting are no strangers to the term gesture. As commonly used, the term, gesture, is inappropriate for public speakers. Any physical movement at the podium may indeed be a gesture, but many such movements clearly do not add to the speakerís effort to communicate. Many detract.

Physical reinforcement is my preferred label for what speakers should try to achieve nonverbally while before the listener. People tend to seek out the most interesting thing happening in their immediate environment. If the speaker engages in nervous fidgeting by rocking back and forth, by fondling pocket change, by wringing sweaty hands or poking at slippery glasses, the listeners canít help but be distracted.

Everything you do nonverbally before the audience should be productive; in other words, it should reinforce the spoken message. If not, you are competing with yourself. There are three principal reasons why you should use physical reinforcement:

  1. To communicate better with the audience.
  2. To help relieve nervous anxiety.
  3. To help rivet audience attention on you.

Audiences listen with both their eyes and their ears. Much of what they perceive comes from your nonverbal communication with them.

Although estimates vary, many experts agree that some 87% of the knowledge we possess comes from a visual source. That figure compares with 7% from hearing sources, 3.5% from smell, 1.5% from touch, and 1% from taste.

We gather information with our eyes. Audiences read your ďbody language;Ē they form opinions and reach conclusions based on what they see. Listeners need visual stimulation Ė a point of activity to keep their eyes focused on. Donít foster visual boredom. Use your physical assets to good advantage. As a speaker you need to be aware of your body language to insure that your total presence is giving a single, unified signal Ė and a productive one at that.


The way speakers carry themselves tells an audience a good deal about them. Sloppy, undisciplined posture projects a sloppy, undisciplined image. Your posture and demeanor begin communicating the moment you come into view. This is always well before you reach the lectern, and so considerably before you begin to speak. One important aspect of your initial physical impression is grooming (see Chapter 10).

The most advantageous posture is to stand erect, with your shoulders back; this posture conveys an alert and enthusiastic manner. If you physical presence communicates alertness and enthusiasm, you will have come a long way toward gaining audience respect and attention. This effort begins before you enter the building, is important during and after the speech, but reaches its most critical stage as you are being introduced.

As the program coordinator introduces you, the audience is checking you out. Donít let them find you frantically wiping gravy off your coat or gazing into space with a dazed look on your face. Look and be alert and ready; donít rise and stroll casually to the lectern. Instead, approach the lectern with a sprightly enthusiasm in your gait. Look as though you have something important to share with the audience. You do have something important Ė or you wouldnít be there.

Podium posture should continue to project a confident and energetic image. Stand flat with your full weight distributed equally on both feet. Do not stand on one foot. This is an unstable speaking position, which causes distracting shifting or swiveling. Shifting body weight frequently from one side to the other is equally distracting to the audience. Keep the lower half of your body stationary except when moving your entire body. Most of your nonverbal communication occurs from above your waist.

Do not undo your accomplishments by melting into a puddle of silly relief upon completing the presentation. Exit the dais as majestically as you entered: warm, confident, sincere, and energetic. Go ahead and acknowledge audience applause and appreciation with a well-deserved smile, but donít collapse with relief at having achieved your mission. You are on stage until you depart from the building.

Hands and Arms

With the exception of turning an occasional page, unskilled speakers have few useful functions with which to occupy their hands. And hands can be a tremendous communication tool or a horribly handicapping annoyance. Below are common ďdosĒ and ďdonítsĒ concerning your hands and arms during public appearances.


Support your body weight with your hands on the podium.
Place a death grip on the podium.
Keep your hands in your coast or pants pockets.
Fold your arms over your chest (too defensive).
Fondle rings or wring the sweat from your palms.
Clasp hands together in fig-leaf fashion.
Lock hands in place on your hips.
Wave a writing utensil or pointer at your audience.
Point at your audience in a scolding manner.
ďGestureĒ in front of your face.


Keep your hands lightly on the podium.
Use a hand to keep your place in notes or script, if needed.
Use hands and arms to communicate ideas better, such as size, shape, number, emphasis, and direction.

In spite of what we were taught as children, itís okay to talk with your hands. Indeed, itís desirable. Be natural. By being natural you automatically use all of your physical attributes while you communicate. The next time youíre at a party or in the park, watch the people around you talk. They use their hands and arms extensively Ė and usually to good advantage.

Itís interesting how something you do naturally when communicating one-to-one suddenly feels so strange when you mount the podium. Physical reinforcement is natural and, with practice and experience, will feel as comfortable to you as it appears to the audience.

One reason some speakers seem so artificial when making gestures is a lack of eye contact with the audience. Using your hands and arms with eyes glued to your notes on the podium is a sure sign of rehearsed gestures, not of physical reinforcement. As a rule, eye contact and physical reinforcement work best together, just as they do in informal conversation with a friend.

Donít feel compelled to put on a show by waving your arms about. Relax and call upon your body to help communicate ideas and feelings that lend themselves to visualization. Donít resist the urge to move.

Facial Expressions

In Chapter 4, I pointed out the importance of personality projection, of developing a warm relationship with the audience. Your facial expressions tell the audience just how warm and friendly you are, that is, how warm and friendly you want to appear to be.

The pressures of public speaking have an uncanny way of turning normally happy faces into faces of stone. Speakers concentrate so hard on getting out the right words and passages that many project a cold, harsh, stern image. That sort of image does not help build audience rapport.

Loosen up. Smile. Be pleasant, not frivolous. Be nice. Even serious subjects can be discussed in a friendly fashion. Let the audience like you.

Earlier I mentioned that physical movement at the podium may help relieve nervousness. Speakers are not storage batteries and should, therefore, attempt to allow nervous energy to flow rather than to build up. The use of props and other visual aids create the need for speaker movement (see Chapter 8).

Audiences need visual stimulation as well as auditory stimulation to rivet their total concentration on you and your message. If people in your audience are listening with closed eyes, you arenít providing enough of either. Your body should be lively, vibrant and natural, just as your voice should be. Speaking without the use of physical reinforcement greatly reduces the odds for your success. Use the physical tools you have available. Remember, even when silent, your body continues to communicate.

Note: Smoking has no place in public appearances. It is not only offensive to growing numbers of people, but creates an obvious visual distraction as well. The same is true of chewing gum and tobacco.

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