You emerge from the fringe and walk slowly onto the stage, laboriously putting one foot in front of the other. As you cover the short distance of seven paces to where your introducer stands, the feeling of barely suppressed dread rises from the pit of your stomach. Yet you trudge on…one foot in front of the other, until you finally reach the desired spot in the middle of the stage.  The master of ceremony gives a brief introduction, which is followed by weak applause from the audience.


You take your position behind the lectern and turn to face the audience – a sea of unsmiling, critical faces. You cringe at the glares you imagine are piercing you and try to scan the first line of attendees for any encouraging smiles. You receive none. Panic now wells to your chest, and you suddenly can’t breathe properly. You visibly gasp as you clutch the sides of the lectern for support. You look desperately across the conference hall, where 200 professionals, industry leaders, press people, and three board members are seated, and you realise that the show must go on. Resigned to your fate, you open your mouth to speak.


But instead, you squeak. 


Your throat is too dry to continue, so you pause. With trembling hands, you open the bottle of water, thoughtfully provided, and pour some into the glass placed in front of you. You dare not look at the audience, whose searing gaze you cannot handle, while you gulp the water.


It takes five minutes for your heart rate to normalise, and for your knowledge of the content to become evident. By the time you’re feeling confident of your material, you’re only 20 minutes into your 90-minute keynote, but you instinctively know that the damage has been done. As you continue, you notice whispering and hear muffled laughter.  Occasionally, you scan sections of the room and see people on their smartphones. Then you zero in on the three board members who are now frowning and shifting in their seats.


You finally finish your keynote.


Exhausted, but determined to exude authority, you fold your arms across your chest and glare at the unhelpful audience, daring anyone to cross you during the Q&A session. However, you’re surprised that all the press wants to know is who they could contact for more information. Relieved, you reel out details and quickly exit the stage.


You know it wasn’t your best performance but you survived the ordeal. Nevertheless, you’re horrified at the feedback you receive from the board members who attended the event – ‘uninspiring’ and ‘distant’, they wrote in an email, after carefully highlighting your faux pas. The press was particularly brutal in their description of your delivery – ‘robotic’, ‘undeserving’, ‘fish out of water’, and even ‘comical’.


The fictitious scenario is not as far-fetched as you might think. Nonverbal communication is often the unappreciated sibling to oral and written communication skills. However, it is critical to the perception of your credibility. Strong nonverbal cues help influence people and gain trust in situations where the spoken word cannot be verified, or the written note analysed. Many a politician or leader has been vilified because his/her nonverbal or body language cues were not congruent with the promise given or the message written.  In such instances, body language signals—everything you do with your body without speaking—become a deciding factor when gauging trust or assigning credibility.


Moreover, in corporateville,  mastering nonverbal communication at work, as well as exhibiting strong emotional intelligence, would quickly set you apart from your colleagues as leadership material.


So when it comes to honing these crucial skills, what lessons could we learn from the fictitious event recounted above?


1) Move confidently to inspire confidence


Instead of sprinting, or trudging like the speaker, move purposefully. By walking briskly, you’d show confidence that the audience will notice. Leaders, politicians, and professionals who display high energy in their gait, project confidence. Walk that way first, and you’d feel that way too.


Therefore, adjust your posture and walk confidently, especially at the beginning of your speaking engagement. This nonverbal signal will inspire confidence in your anticipated session. Remember that the audience forms an opinion within seconds of seeing you.


Movements can also be useful in transitions, and when used strategically, they increase the retention of points. For example, when highlighting three points, begin on the left for the first point, move to the centre for the second, and end on the right with the third point. The audience will associate each point with the specific position, and will easily recall the information shared. To increase engagement, you could even ask the attendees to repeat the points made during each movement.


Thus, use your movements to power your delivery.



2) Be mindful of negative facial expressions


It’s often difficult to be aware of the facial expressions we display. Nonetheless, note that negative thoughts tend to produce negative facial expressions such as cringing, frowning, or glaring.


For example, if you’re facing audience members whose expressions are hostile, you’re likely to react to those unfriendly faces with a negative expression, unless you reframe your thinking and think positively. So, instead of cringing, which is a defensive reaction to this thought: “This audience doesn’t like me and doesn’t believe I can help them.”, reframe your thinking to a positive assertion: “This audience wants to be convinced that my content is the solution they need.”


Positive thoughts will trigger positive facial expressions such as smiling, laughing, and other encouraging body language cues like nodding and clapping.




To become aware of your facial expressions, cultivate a habit of recording your pitches, speeches, keynotes, etc. Review them after the events to catch many expressions and micro-expressions that you don’t remember making. This is a simple but effective way to identify errors and track progress over time.



3) Pause more


In the fictitious account above, the speaker did pause…but only to gulp some water after a squeaky opening. Don’t allow panic to set in before using this simple technique.


Pausing is a good opportunity to regularise your breathing and recover your thoughts. I always say that pauses help your points ‘marinate’ in the minds of your audience. Brian Tracy, renowned author and speaker, identified two types of pauses: the dramatic pause and the sentence-completion pause, which he argues help persuade your audience to take the action you want.


Another benefit of the pause is that it reduces the excessive use of filler words such as er, um, so, you knowbasically, etc. so that you speak more convincingly.


Moreover, isn’t a thoughtful pause better than gasping for air or clutching the sides of a lectern for dear life?




4) Look at your audience & engage




Even if your audience is an unwelcoming bunch, will yourself to look at them. Scan sections of the room (if filled to capacity) so that you identify at least one curious gaze. One curious look is enough to reframe your internal dialogue to a positive statement, which will improve your expressions and boost your confidence. Even if you’re reading from notes or a script, look at the attendees at key moments and deliver critical lines to them before reverting to your notes. Accord them the respect they deserve and acknowledge their presence.


Engage with your audience members as much as possible when appropriate. Ask questions, get them involved in some activity or get them to offer their opinions. Smiling is also a good way to disarm people and connect with them.


Often taken for granted when forming a rapport with your audience is your tone of voice – which can be used as an influencing tool. Vocal dynamics improves trust; therefore, vary volume, pitch, pace and depth to heighten emotions, to stress points or to command attention. Practise using your voice as a rich tool to add ‘flavour’ to your delivery.



5) Adopt ‘open’ body language cues


Whenever you’re delivering a keynote, speech, pitch or lecture, be mindful of ‘closed’ body language cues and avoid them. ‘Closed’ or defensive nonverbal behaviours, including folding arms across chest and shrugging, placing hands in pockets, rolling eyes, glaring, frowning, and cringing, should be avoided because they negate your performance. In the scenario described, the ‘closed’ body language cues displayed during the Q&A session further alienated the speaker from the audience.


Instead, adopt behaviours whereby your hands are visible—such as open palms, and outstretched arms—as these indicate an ‘openness’ and are an unconscious signal that you’re a friend and not a foe. (This behaviour as explained by body language experts, is linked to evolutionary signals that trigger a fight-or-flight scenario).


Gesturing can also make you appear comfortable in your own skin, and thus confident to your audience. This is because you naturally gesture when speaking to relaxed audiences of friends or family. Since the best connection you can have with your audience members is one whereby they feel you’re relating with them on a personal level, gesturing can be effective in gaining trust. Yet, for gestures to be effective, they must be natural – not canned. Simply believe in your content and speak passionately about it. What would follow would be organic gestures that your audience will believe. Avoid rehearsed gestures because your audience will perceive you as inauthentic, and will not be moved by your performance.






The next time you’re poised to give a speech, pitch/presentation or keynote, be aware that certain nonverbal cues can mar your credibility. Realise also that your audience can judge your entire delivery not necessarily by what you say, but by how you say it. And even more unfair is the fact that you might be labelled a certain way even before you open your mouth.


But there’s hope.


By avoiding negative nonverbal cues, ‘closed’ body language positions,  and by using the other tips highlighted in this article, you’d boost your credibility and increase your influence.  If you’re unconvinced, ask experts such as Allan Pease, Mark Bowden, Amy Cuddy, and other advocates of effective nonverbal communication. Their professional experiences and research findings provide ample reasons to consider nonverbal communication skills as critical to your overall communication effectiveness.


In other words, ignore nonverbal communication to the detriment of your career or business.




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N.B: First image is courtesy of Sira Anamwong, via Second image is courtesy of Bplanet, via Third image is courtesy of Master Isolated Images, via Last image is courtesy of Watiporn, via


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