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The Speech Within – By Jeanne LaBella

November 7, 2012

When Prince Hamlet sought to share his suspicions about his father’s murder, Shakespeare’s device for delivering this message was a play within the play.

Fellow Toastmasters, tonight I am going to borrow from the bard and give you a speech about the speech. The speaking skills I am dispatched to address in today’s project – speech number 5 – relate to body language—how we use our bodies to convey information.

The topic is a fascinating one.  When presenting my last speech to this group, I caught myself standing up here with my legs tangled together. Do you think I was feeling tense?

I’ve seen colleagues signal their own nervousness or tension in other ways when speaking.  One friend’s hands trembled non-stop while he gave a three-minute speech on a non-controversial topic. Others will hang on to the lectern, as if it is vital to remaining standing. Another colleague had clearly been to some kind of speaker training where she had been coached to use her hands to support her message. The problem was her hand movements were not related to her message and proved to be only distracting.

Body language can have a comedic effect that will undermine our intended message.  Think of Vice President Joe Biden’s enormous smiles and rolling eyes during last week’s debate with Congressman Paul Ryan.

I was very entertained by a Saturday Night Live skit this past weekend depicting Congressman Ryan making points about the economy. Here’s what he did:

  • When it comes to loopholes we are going to close them [slowly closes fist]
  • When it comes to tax rates, we are going to bring them down [lowers hand slowly]
  • When it comes to the deficit, we are going to erase it [motions like erasing blackboard]

Our gestures, our posture, our eye contact, our voice quality are all part of the message we deliver when speaking.  This is true whether we are speaking to one person, or a large group. Part of our preparation for public speaking necessarily entails preparing our body to work in support of our message.

I want to share with you this evening tips I’ve learned for using body language effectively in public speaking. I’m going to do this by breaking the discussion into 4 body parts:

  1. vocal chords
  2. hands
  3. legs
  4. eyes

First, the vocal chords. I had the pleasure of meeting the actor James Earl Jones a couple months ago.  He was performing in a Broadway play.  A friend of mine was in the cast.  After the performance one evening, I went backstage to meet Mr. Jones. He is a master of his craft.  One of the best in the field.  I found it telling, but not surprising, to learn that every night before the show, he would join a few (but not all) cast members for vocal chord warm-ups prior to the show.  [examples of warmups].

There are a number of exercises to warm up our vocal chords.  One is simply to run through the vowel sounds:  a-e-i-o-u or a scale – do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do-do-ti-la-so-fa-mi-re-do.

A tongue twister is another helpful exercise:  Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers or She sells seashells by the seashore.  You can also do this:  bbbbbbbbbbbb

Healthy vocal chords help you project and enunciate and go a long way toward making your speech effective.

Hands.  Many speakers want to hold something – either the lectern, note cards, a laser pointer. The advice from experts:

  • Keep your hands empty.
  • Keep your hands free – don’t hide them in your pockets. Don’t hold them together in prayer mode. You will need to use them to gesture and you want those gestures to be natural and relevant to the content of your speech.

And what about the gestures? Experts tell us that gesturing is so natural, you do not need to plan it. The movement of our arms and hands when we speak is as natural as talking.

I think Olivia Mitchell, who writes about public speaking skills said it best:

“By gesturing, you not only unfreeze your body, you unfreeze your mind.”

Legs:  Obviously, don’t tangle them you might fall down. Our feet are attached to our legs. Experts recommend moving as we speak. Movement during a speech has multiple advantages – it can help you as the speaker relax.  It can help keep your audience’s attention. But our movement needs to support the content of our speech. It should not detract from it.  For example, if you are talking about pros and cons, you might introduce your topic in the center of your “stage” or your speaking area.  Then you might shift to one side to present the pros and move to the opposite side to discuss the cons.

You could take a similar approach when talking about events in the past, present or future–  positioning yourself in one spot to talk about the past (perhaps away from the lectern), then moving forward, when talking about the future.

And finally, the Eyes – The eyes are a window to the soul.

What did Joe Biden’s eyes tell us during last week’s vice presidential debate?  For those who agree with the vice president, they may have said one thing; for his detractors or undecided voters, it said something else.  He was criticized in post-debate analysis for laughing and smiling too much when Mr. Ryan was speaking.

Eye contact during a speech offers clues to our sincerity, to our command of our topic.  Our eyes allow us to connect with the audience.

Mastering eye contact is, for me, one of the most challenging aspects of good body language.  Experts advise us to speak to one person at a time.  I’ve been in an audience when a skilled speaker will make a point and look directly at my face. Sometimes, that’s reassuring; other times it is disconcerting.

But it always snaps me to attention.

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