Non-Verbal Techniques in a Large Group Forum

The following article was written by Theresa Zagnoli and a product of her work as a jury consultant and years of experience coaching executives and business leaders. For more information, visit her website.

By now most of you have heard of body language and its usefulness in personal and small group business relations. Body language, or better termed non-verbal communication, which is more responsible than our words for whether the audience is moved, is often ignored when speaking to a large group. When facing an auditorium full of listeners, you have more tools to work with than your mic and slide show. Just as a reminder, the components of non-verbal communication are: body posture/movement, hand and arm gestures, artifacts such as accessories or clothes, facial expressions, eye contact, space use and finally, even sound or voice when not considering actual words.

Since most of us are not rock stars or preachers, we do not have a following. Our goal and obligation on stage is generally to entertain while simultaneously teaching the audience something useful about business or life, or both. That makes credibility paramount. The key component of credibility is dynamism and the root of dynamism is energy. Thus all non-verbal efforts in speaking to a large audience should be devoted toward demonstrating a controlled but strong aura of energy. Showing vitality is also an effective way to charm your audience. Cicero explains that all communication must start with one person’s ability to charm another in order to proceed through the other steps to successfully communicate. People are drawn to personal energy like bugs to a zapper. They can’t help themselves. Showing energy on stage is tricky. The energy cannot be frenetic and yet it cannot be so choreographed that it appears unnatural. This is where using your entire non-verbal arsenal is advantageous.

  1. Start with the stage itself. A confident speaker does not hide behind a podium –use the space you are given. Watch any performer and you will see that most move from the center of the stage.
  2. Once the safety of the podium has been left behind, the feeling of security goes with it. Now what do you do with your hands instead of allowing them to hang limply by your sides?  There are two reasons to gesture: for emphasis and for demonstration. Plan gestures ahead of time by reviewing your script (which you must have) to look for opportunities to punch up the words with a gesture of instruction or accent.
  3. You may think that making eye contact with 300 people is impossible. So instead you sweep your gaze across the audience thinking you are reaching everyone, while in reality you have reached no one. Watch a good comedian and you will see that he or she makes eye contact and basically has a conversation with different people in the audience. The comedian knows that he has to connect with his audience, and he has to do it one person at a time. Will he get to everyone in a venue that holds a thousand fans? No. But each person attending your speech will see that you care enough to make contact with a single person time and again. This is interpreted as caring and interest in the audience. It doesn’t matter if each person gets individual attention; it only matters that some do.
  4. Men and women have different rules when it comes to artifacts.  Follow these rules or break them. Both plans have fallout. If you show up in what you are ‘supposed’ to be wearing for example, you will meet the audience’s expectation but will also not be doing anything to surpass their expectations. If you color outside the lines, you might surpass what was expected, showing that your are delightful and refreshing, then only to find some will be immediately put off because your surprise feels wrong to them. Consider the situation. If you have the opportunity to read Horton Hears a Who to the third grade class, get an elephant head and feet, a t-shirt and paint your face. Showing up dressed like you are on your way to work sends the message to the 3rd grade that they are just an inconvenience on your way to the C suite. It shows that no energy was invested in the task. On the other hand, if your goal is to show the properties and benefits of a new anxiety drug, a funny hat will not serve you. While those two examples are clear, there is much room in between to stretch your creativity beyond the audience’s expectations – if not in what you wear, then maybe through a prop. This year, I spoke to an organization about a legal case involving a baseball bat. I brought a bat with me to use as a prop. Four of us spoke on the same case, and I was the only one to bring props. Others brought slides or spoke dramatically and eloquently. I assume I did too, but I had a bat.  They moved their arms and legs, gesturing with their hands to show how the bat was swung and what it hit….nice, but I had a bat!

Being aware of your non-verbal communication and using the aforementioned tools to emit the correct energy to your audience can make all the difference in how you are received and, ultimately, how effectively your message is delivered.