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The power of posture

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Let’s start at the beginning. Presumably one of your personal objectives whilst speaking in public is to appear confident. I have never heard of any speaker wanting to appear nervous. So what are the main things that will affect your audience’s perception of this?

Posture is probably the single biggest thing. In the animal kingdom, the most vulnerable parts of the body are the throat, heart

Harriet Myers defensive body languageNote how you get two very different perceptions about the confidence of Harriet Miers and Sen. Arlen Specter simply from their posture

and genitals. Ever watched two dogs fight until one decides he has had enough and calls it a day? He seems to visibly shrink in size, makes himself seem as small as possible (‘small’ in the animal world = ‘no threat’) and holds his head down. All this is done to protect these most vulnerable areas.

So body language which boldly displays these areas (and no, I’m not suggesting you display your genitals in public, before you ask …) sends the subconscious message that you are confident and unafraid.

What is the stereotypical stance of the traditionally unarmed British policeman? That’s right – shoulders back, chest out, hands behind the back. Displaying all three areas in a show of confidence and bravado (interestingly, armed  policemen don’t tend to stand that way. They either adopt a macho ‘gunfighter stance’ or stand with their thumbs hooked into their belts). Who else stand like this? Soldiers standing at ease,  nightclub doormen and the headmaster/principal patrolling the school yard - all figures of authority.

This is also behind the macho exercise of bumping chests, so beloved of American footballers .


  • Stand erect. Don’t slouch and don’t lean on things. Just because there’s a lectern in front of you doesn’t mean you have to lean your elbows on it. Or even hold on to it.
  • Pull your shoulders back.
  • Expose your chest. Most people fasten their jackets as they get up to speak, but this is an unconscious excuse to put a shield in between themselves and the audience (explained in greater detail below). So do the opposite. Unfasten yours.
  • Stand with your legs slightly further apart than normal, but don’t overdo it. You don’t want to look like you’ve just got off a horse after a long ride into Dodge City.
  • Point your toes slightly outwards. Standing with ‘pigeon toes’ (i.e.facing inwards) implies submissiveness.

Most people have appalling posture, especially those who spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen or behind a desk. Imagine a cord attached to the top of your head which is pulling you upright. Do this several times a day. Better still, visualise it every time you walk through a doorway. How many times do you walk through a door during the day? Twenty? Thirty? If you do this every time, it will soon become second nature.

Barrier Signals

When we were small children, our instinctive reaction in times of danger or uncertainty was to stand behind our mother (hence the saying, ‘hiding behind your mother’s skirts’). Failing that, a convenient piece of furniture would do just as well.

Although hiding behind your mother or an armchair would be considered socially unacceptable by most people by the time we reach adulthood, the desire to put a barrier between ourselves and what we perceive as a threatening situation remains. Nervous or anxious people subconsciously do it in one of four ways.

Obama folded arms

The first is to fold their arms and/or cross their legs. We first learn to wrap our arms tightly around ourselves when uncomfortable as small children, and this gradually becomes less obvious and more relaxed as we grow into adolescence. This is often accompanied  by crossed legs (NB: crossed legs are far more common amongst females than males, who tend to adopt what is known as a ‘figure 4’ leg cross, i.e. with the ankle of one leg resting on the opposite knee).

In the photo on the right, look how defensive President Obama looks.

The standing equivalent of crossed legs is crossed ankles, the common stance of early arrivals at cocktail parties who are waiting self-consciously for others to arrive.

Men often use a groin hold gesture similar to the way footballers (soccer players for my American readers) stand when forming a wall at a free kick, i.e. with their hands held protectively at groin level. It is an emasculated pose often used by speakers who don’t have a lectern to hide behind but who lack the confidence to move about, or people who are onstage but not speaking and are unsure what to do with themselves.

In the photo below, President Obama's entire budget team is assuming this pose. They're on stage in the glare of the spotlights (and the press) but have nothing to do, so feel uncomfortable. They can't fold their arms, so . . .

Groin hold

If you find yourself ‘in the spotlight’ but without anything to do, DON’T stand with a groin hold. You’ll look weak. Put your hand behind your back like a soldier standing at ease.

Now some might argue they cross their arms or hold their hands in front of their groins because they are comfortable like that. Well, people are comfortable when their body language and mental states are in synch. If you’re feeling defensive, folding your arms will feel comfortable.

But it would probably feel uncomfortable if you were in a very positive mood. Can you imagine sitting in a bar with a group of friends having a great time with your arms folded? Or cheering your sports team on in an exciting game with your arms folded?

The point to remember, however, is that the important thing is how others interpret your gestures. Whether you are defensive or just comfortable is irrelevant; your audience will think you’re defensive, and that’s the important thing.So NEVER cross your arms when speaking unless you deliberately want to show that you don’t agree with something.

The second way is to use a prop of some sort by holding something in front of them as a defensive shield. This could be a handbag, briefcase, folder or glass. Queen Elizabeth, for example (see below), is rarely seen without a prop of some sort.

Queen prop Queen prop 3 Queen prop4

Ever noticed how those same early arrivals at parties need to use two hands to hold a wine glass, as if it’s really, really heavy? Or how some speakers use two hands to hold what is obviously the world's heaviest microphone? By using two hands to hold it, they are subconsciously creating a shield.


Brown body cross

Romney tie Cufflinks

The third way is to use an excuse to place an arm across the body, often called the body cross. For example, a woman might fiddle with a necklace or play with the earring in her opposite ear. A man might adjust his tie or fiddle with his watch, ring or cufflinks.

Next time you are watching politicians assembling before a phalanx of photographers for a photo shoot (at an economic summit for example) you will see that amongst those confident, smiling people, a number of the men have suddenly discovered a terrible fear that their cufflinks are about to fall out, and are trying desperately to ensure it doesn’t happen.

Bush and Blair power walking

Some people will make sure this doesn’t happen by adopting an over exaggerated posture of confidence by holding their hands completely away from their body, an example is Russian President Boris Yeltsin's ‘John Wayne walk’, where he rolls his shoulders in a macho walk like he is about to draw a six-shooter (President Bush had a similar walk which -strangely - UK Prime Minister Tony Blair used to copy. It was always amusing to UK television audiences to watch the Oxford-educated lawyer walk alongside the President as if he was an extra on the set of a Western).

The fourth is to stand behind something. Some people use a large desk as a safety shield, or have their briefcase open on their desk with the top raised. In terms of speaking in public, however, they stand behind a lectern. People can kid themselves the lectern is there to be a focus of attention, or raise the height of the speaker to make her more visible, or even to provide a place to put notes and a glass of water. But the real reason is to give the majority of speakers a sense of security by providing something to stand behind.

So in conclusion:

  • Stand erect with your shoulders back.
  • Use open body language, holding your hands to the side of your body.
  • Open your jacket to expose your chest.
  • Stand with your legs slightly wider than normal.
  • Avoid ‘fiddling’ with jewellery, ties or jacket buttons.
  • Don’t stand behind a lectern.
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