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I previous blog posts we've discussed eye contact, hand gestures, using props, how to get your energy tip-top, and much more. But we've never really talked about what to do with the lower half of your body, besides how to keep your knees from shaking.
All kinds of strange things happen to our bodies when we're pumped up with adrenaline and feel pressured. It's all about awareness of your body and what it's doing at all times. Here are a few of the most common embarrassing things that can happen to your legs when you're nervous.
The first time I spoke in public, I had uncontrollable leg spasms. I remember thinking, 'How can I speak when I can't even stand up?' It's really easy to panic if your legs start shaking, because it feels as if the floor might fall out from under you. The good news is that this feeling will dissipate quickly if you allow it. Even better news is that your audience won't even be able to see a few leg shakes so don't give it a second thought.
One of the many 'funny' tricks that adrenaline plays on your body is to make us feel uncomfortable or itchy in places we'd never otherwise be conscious. You may find your legs crossing over to subconsciously protect yourself from the audience, or rubbing them against each other to kill an imaginary spider.
Whether or not there IS in fact a spider running up your legs or not, crossing your legs doesn't show you in a very good light. Because you're not stable, your audience will pick up on your message as being less reliable than if you are centred. Crossing your legs indicates discomfort and inexperience. More than that, if you're not planted firmly on the stage you'll feel more uncomfortable and off balance. Gently bring you legs back to that static spot, shoulder width apart.
I was once at a networking event for 300 people where I saw a business leader spend 20 minutes speaking with one foot in front of the other, rocking gently back and forth. I have to admit, by the end of his speech I felt rather seasick and couldn't remember a word he said.
Repetitive movements performed without your awareness have the potential to steal your audience's attention from you. The Rocking Horse is one of the most common of these show stealers. Moving back and forth show uncertainty, that you're not committed to your speech. Commit to your movements and you'll show commitment to your message.
If your legs haven't completely collapsed yet, congrats! Now comes the next challenge. If, like the Jackson 5, you just can't control your feet, this next part is all for you. Excessive feet shuffling from one foot to the other makes you seem nervous and uncertain. To some, it may even make them think you're doing the 'potty dance' and need to use the toilet.
If this happens to you, drop your Michael Jackson moonwalk and put BOTH of your feet flat on the floor. Open your shoulders, place your feet shoulder width apart, and allow yourself to feel balanced and comfortable. Remember that NO movement is better than too much movement. Planting yourself in one spot may seem a touch static, but it's a minimum that will put your audience at ease.
Now that you're comfortable on your feet, you might want to start integrating movement into your performance. Obviously, this has many benefits. With movement you can influence larger audiences, appear more dynamic, and if done correctly, it can build on your message.
However, if you use too much movement it will disturb your audience. If they have to continually move their heads back and forth to follow you they will start to feel as if they're watching tennis. If you see lots of neck craning going on, you're making your audience work too hard. If they've stopped looking at you altogether, you've worn them out.
Likewise, if you're talking around a table, movement is not necessary. In these situations if you move, you'll be walking behind peoiple's back, which either forces them to bend at unusual angles, or gives the audience the impression of being stalked.
Unless your intention is to come across as slightly predatory and creepy, avoid wandering behind chairs.
So... we've talked about movements to avoid, how do I use my legs as a force for good to dazzle my audience?
To make a point feel more authentic to your audience, move slightly forward. To encourage them to think, step away slightly, putting some distance between you and them.
If you have a speech structure that is comparing two sides of an argument, you could set up one side of the room as Option A and the other side for Option B. Every time you mention a point for Option A, walk to that side of the room and deliver that point standing still. To speak about Option B, move to that side of the room.
To toss up between the two, stand in the middle, pick a winner and head to the winning side of the room to deliver a conclusion.
Get this right and you'll look like a pro.
In Western culture, pas to future generally runs from left to right. In the minds of your audience, therefore, their left is a good place to stand when you're talking about the past. As you move forwards in time, you can more towards their right.
The same is true when you're presenting the old (bad) versus the new (good). The right side of the stage holds a subconscious positive position in the minds of the audience. Don't forget that this is the OPPOSITE from what you'll experience as a speaker. Your left is the audience's right etc.
Don't ever turn your back on an audience. Seeing a speaker's back can make audience members feel shunned. Unless you're using your back as a storytelling technique and want your audience to fee excluded, it's a pretty big no-no to turn your back on those to which you're speaking.
You can get around this by moving like a crab. This means that your body always faces forwards, but you cross one leg in front of the other as you walk. Keep your steps wide and slow so you don't lose your balance and topple over.
So now that you know... you can make sure your knocking knees won't take center stage and take the focus away from the words coming out of your mouth. Remember, when in doubt, plant both feet on the floor and speak on!
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