Lesson 13 In the Eye of the Beholder

never judge a book by its cover, we’re told, because appearances can be deceiving. These sayings are very true, of course, yet like all our other rules, they have a counterpart. When it comes to public speaking, your appearance can be as important as your words.

Good grooming and appropriate attire are only a small part of this topic. You can be as tastefully dressed and carefully groomed as a professional and still undermine your message by something as subtle as poor posture or unclear delivery. Let’s consider some of the things that go into making a good appearance.




–in tHe eYe oF tHe beHolder–

good grooming

We’ll start with the most obvious area, our physical appearance. It is important to dress in a manner that is appropriate to the occasion. Remember the rule we established in Lesson 9: Always dress one notch better than your audience. Here are some general categories to help you show up with the right amount of style:

n Casual: Jeans, tennis shoes, t-shirts
n Business Casual: Khakis, slacks, casual shirts

and blouses, loafers
n Business Formal: Suits, dresses, dress shoes,

n Formal: Tuxedoes, formal gowns, matching


If your audience will be those present at a busi- ness meeting on casual Friday, you should plan on dressing in the business formal category. This is just a rule of thumb, however; common sense still applies. You wouldn’t address a business audience wearing a top hat and tuxedo.

It’s also a good idea to check your facial appear- ance in a mirror prior to speaking. This will ensure that your hair is in place, there’s no spinach in your teeth, and you haven’t sneezed out an unwelcome surprise. It will also increase your confdence and decrease your anxiety to know that you don’t have to worry about your appearance.

Avoid distracting items such as jangling jewelry or loud colors. I recently sat through an entire lecture staring at the speaker’s red tie because I couldn’t get over thinking that his tongue was hanging out of his shirt. Bracelets that rustle and make noise are a major distraction whenever you gesture, and even jingling loose change in your pockets can be annoying to the audience.

good Posture

When I was in elementary school, teachers were con- stantly admonishing some student or other—frequently me—to stand up straight. There are many reasons for maintaining good posture: Standing erect helps you breathe more comfortably, prevents fatigue, allows you to make eye contact with your audience, and projects your voice better, among other things. But one major reason for good posture is that it projects the image that you are confdent and well prepared.

Closely associated with good posture is the notion of “opening out” toward your audience. By this I mean that you face your audience directly, keeping your head up and your eyes at their level, psychologically removing any barrier between you and your listeners and opening up your countenance to them. This is important because it makes your voice project clearly, and it also sends subtle body-language signals to your audience telling them that you are confdent and trustworthy.

Of course, like anything else, erect posture can be overdone. You don’t need to stand with your chin pressed into your neck and shoulders pushed way back like a Marine—unless you’re a Marine. Your goal is to stand comfortably but upright. I have a tendency, evidently, to slump slightly forward and look down. I say “evidently” because I frequently catch myself while speaking in that posture and must consciously remember to square up my shoulders and open out toward the audience. Your best bet is to stand comfortably and remind yourself to keep your face open toward the audience.


–in tHe eYe oF tHe beHolder–

eye contact

Making good eye contact provides you with one of the most powerful methods of connecting with your audi- ence. It simply involves looking at your listeners— straight into their eyes.

This is a natural habit for most people in normal social conversation. It is instinctive to look into the eyes of a person to whom you are speaking because you gain information that way. We go beyond the words of others in conversation by searching their eyes to fnd whether they are telling the truth, how they feel emo- tionally about what they’re saying, and whether they’re paying attention to us or to their surroundings. The same information is conveyed between you and your audience via sustained eye contact.

Remember to look directly at specifc people in the audience as you’re speaking, holding their gaze for approximately fve seconds, then moving on to make eye contact with someone else. Shift your focus to dif- ferent parts of the audience, looking at someone on your right, then at someone on your left, and then at someone in the back, and so forth. You’ll probably also glance down at your notes from time to time, but this entire process of eye movement also contributes to using motion in your favor.

Good eye contact allows your audience to con- nect with you, but it also enables you to connect with them. It lets you know how your listeners are reacting to your words, and it also gives you good information on what parts of your speech are effective and what parts are less so. This information will prove valuable in future speeches, as you learn what works and what doesn’t. And if you notice that your audience is dozing off or is distracted, you can make adjustments to your delivery and timing on the spot.

gestures and Motion

You’ve undoubtedly heard television newscasters referred to as “talking heads.” And, from an audience perspective, that’s pretty much what they amount to. The reason is that the newscasters are sitting passively behind a desk, staring straight into the camera, and talking. That is not what you want to do when you speak publicly.

Physical motion is an important asset in holding the audience’s attention. People naturally look at things that are moving, while we tend to lose interest quickly in stationary objects. You can use that knowledge to your advantage by giving your listeners something to attract their eyes.

Simple hand gestures can be very effective in this regard. Beginning speakers frequently wonder what to do with their hands when they stand in front of an audi- ence, particularly if there is no podium—and here is the answer: Use them to your advantage by making natural gestures as you speak. Following are some tips:

n Use gestures to emphasize your words. If you’re speaking of an increase in something, use your hands to expand away from each other in an increasing gesture—and vice versa if you’re discussing a decrease in something.

n Use the same gestures you would naturally use when speaking to a friend. For example, if you said to a friend, “There are three reasons for this,” you would probably hold up three fn- gers. “There is no way I’m doing that” would be accompanied by a palm-outward wave. These same gestures should be used when speaking to an audience.


–in tHe eYe oF tHe beHolder–

n Go with your gut. If you’re getting excited about your topic, let your hands refect that excitement. If you’re showing that your oppo- nent’s viewpoints make no sense, let your shoulders shrug up and hands move outward in the familiar “hey, I don’t get it either” ges- ture. Your emotional reactions to your own speech—other than simple nervousness—are good indications of where gestures are needed.

n Use short, simple gestures. There are two rea- sons for this: You don’t want to be thinking about your gestures rather than your speech, and you don’t want the gestures to become distracting.

n Don’t get carried away. As with all the other techniques being considered in these lessons, gestures can be overdone. Some people tend to gesture quite freely when they speak in normal conversation, and such habits can actually work against them instead of in their favor. We’ll discuss distracting habits in more detail in Lesson 15; for now, be aware that gestures are like any other spice—best used sparingly.

control Your Voice

This last element is as much a part of your body language as all the other components we’ve covered. If you mum- ble and don’t project your voice, it tells the audience that you are unsure of what you’re talking about. If you bellow like a bull, it tells your listeners that you are angry and confrontational. Both extremes are undesirable.

Learning to project confdently without shouting takes some practice, and the level of your projection will be dramatically infuenced by the environment in which you are speaking. If you fnd yourself in a large hotel conference room, for example, you’ll need to speak loudly and clearly to be heard by the people in the back. On the other hand, if you have a microphone, you’ll want to moderate back on volume, lest you blast the people in the front.

The key to voice control ties back to Lesson 2: listening. Listen to the sound of your own voice as you speak in every situation, noting whether it seems to fll the space or simply sound muffed. Acoustics of rooms vary greatly, and the added dimension of microphone amplifcation will require that you pay attention to how your voice is reacting to the environment.

Finally, be mindful of your enunciation, making an effort to pronounce your words accurately and clearly. If you have a tendency to speak fast, slowing down will help you to carefully pronounce every syl- lable in your words. If you have a soft voice, deliber- ately increasing your volume will help you to enunciate. The goal is to avoid slurring syllables together in indi- vidual words.