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Peter Clayton

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Body language FAQs: Hiding presentation nerves


Our resident body language expert Peter Clayton advises on how to effectively cope with presentation nerves.

FAQ: I really enjoy delivering courses but get nervous when delivering a presentation and become aware that my body language might give my nervousness away. Do you have any tips?
I think we all get nervous before we deliver a presentation, whether it is to six people or 60, and there are a number of reasons for this.
In a normal one-to-one meeting the conversation is interactive, with both sides explaining where there is agreement and disagreement on each issue. Body language is much easier to read and of course we also voice our opinions because there is just the two of us in the meeting.
Delivering a course to 10 or 12 people is fairly similar to one-to-one meetings in that it is also interactive. People are asking questions and seeking clarification about something that has been said.
When you are delivering a presentation, big or small, the rules change. You may be talking for half an hour and are uninterrupted for the greater part of it. 
You look around the audience to see if they agree with you or have issues and concerns with what you are saying. Unfortunately, what you see can be misleading because the body language on display can be very different to that in a one-to-one meeting or a course. 
Some people look at the speaker and nod attentively all through the presentation. Others take notes so their heads and eyes are down.
Others take up a relaxed, laid back, arms folded posture, eyes all over the place that can give you the impression they aren’t that interested.
I remember a presentation I gave to large audience. A gentleman on the front row pulled faces all the way through. When he came to talk to me afterwards it was to ask if I would give the same presentation in his company. When I said that he’d looked annoyed about certain elements, his response was that his company were doing many things wrong and they needed to sort them out. Because he was part of the audience he wasn’t aware of the effect his body language was having on me. Had it been one-to-one he would have reacted differently and I could have asked him questions!

The two golden rules

So, rule number 1: Believe in your presentation, but do not look to your audience for agreement in the same way as in a meeting.
Rule number 2: Don’t ask your audience if your agenda is OK after you have outlined the topics you intend cover. They will just keep looking at you expecting you to start with part one of the presentation. If you do and they don’t all nod in agreement, you might just take it the wrong way and wonder if you have already got some of it wrong. It is without doubt the most disconcerting part of any presentation and it took me many presentations to get used to it. So, after outlining your agenda, just start.
Like most trainers and presenters I use the lighthouse technique to look all around the room and from one group to another, without focusing on any one individual for too long. This prevents you picking up body language signals you cannot accurately read but which may cause you to be distracted. This is especially important when everyone is seated 'theatre style' as they are very close to the people sitting either side of them and it makes them feel slightly uncomfortable.

Body language when delivering a presentation

If you know you rock backwards and forwards from one foot to the other, or something else that you think people will notice, you may need to simplify how you move to keep your confidence high. The posture I suggest to those who are apprehensive is to stay in the same spot, whilst swivelling the upper part of the body and looking occasionally at your screen, at the audience. By swivelling to the left and then to the right and looking in the general direction of the front half of the audience, and then the rear, you will look as if there is plenty of movement in your body.
I would also suggest holding the presentation controller (or even a flip chart pen will do) which allows you to point at the screen for a moment. It keeps your hands busy and separated rather than clasped together which your audience might notice and become distracted.
Finally, if your presentation is going to last for 30 minutes, it is quite natural to rehearse it all the way through several times to feel comfortable with what you are going to say. If I rehearse the whole presentation five times, I would rehearse the first three or four minutes 25 times. If you do this, by the time you have got to the three/four minutes mark when delivering your presentation you become relaxed and confident. Your voice sounds richer, more enthusiastic, and because you haven't made a mistake, you don’t feel awkward. If you make a mistake in the first three minutes of your presentation, because you have concentrated on learning the entire thing as a block, you may feel you are making a mess of it and that will put you off your stride and it may get worse.
Finally, how do you prepare yourself to make sure that you look relaxed and confident before going on? My own rule is that I don’t like being introduced, other than somebody announcing my name. The longer you sit there while somebody talks about you, the more likely it is that nerves will set in leading to rapid breathing. 
As I stand up, I will go and fetch something that I have left on the other side of the room – something that I placed there earlier. As I am walking back I start to talk and greet everyone and by the time I am back on the platform I have not stood there solid feeling awkward for 30/40 seconds. It is a tip that I picked up off an American friend and it really does work for me.
In conclusion, don’t spend time trying to figure out what your audience is thinking, it will shake your confidence – and have the first three/four minutes word perfect and start the presentation in a way that you feel most comfortable with.

Do you have a pressing body-language related issue that Peter can help you with? If so, please email us: [email protected]

Read Peter's previous columns: Body Language demystified: Profiling your delegates, Body language demystified Part 1: Beady and Bambi eyes, If the know-it-all actually knows it all and Reading between the lines.

Peter Clayton is a leading body language expert, speaker and trainer as well as a consultant for the BBC and ITV. He writes for a wide range of national papers and magazines and is a specialist consultant to other speakers, leading businesses, celebrities and politicians. For more information, visit his

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Peter Clayton

Manageing Director

Read more from Peter Clayton

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