Last modified 05/09/23

Speaking with impact: a guide about stage presence

by Elizabeth Van Den Bergh

When it comes to speaking with impact, I usually show one of my favourite TED(x) talks. It’s one that you can view again and again.

The crazy thing is: absolutely nothing is said in it.

Play it for a minute; it only last six minutes:

The title of this talk is How to sound smart in your TED talk. But the title could just as well be How to engage an audience when you have nothing to say. Because that’s the fascinating thing about this video: this Will Stephen says absolutely nothing, and yet you can’t take his eye off him for six minutes.

How is that possible?

Why is it that you take great pleasure in listening to ‘nothing’, and at the same time have dozed away at a lecture that had content that was actually interesting? (Most people only have to think back to their school days to remember those.)
stage presence, or: how you appear on stage, the way you bring your story.

Why is stage presence so crucial for speaking with impact?

There is interesting research on this by Dr Albert Mehrabian1, Professor Emeritus at UCLA (University of California). He did several studies on verbal and non-verbal communication.

Mehrabian concluded that there are three elements of face-to-face communication:

  1. Words
  2. Tone of voice
  3. Non-verbal behaviour (such as body language)

He makes the following point. How communication ‘lands’ with an audience depends much more on elements 2 and 3 ā€” tone of voice and non-verbal signals ā€” than element 1, the words themselves.

It’s easy to verify for yourself that there’s some truth to that. Think of a “bad liar” you know. Their words make no impression because their body, facial expression and voice betray them.

Mehrabian goes so far as to claim that words only make up 7% of your communication. I personally think that’s an exaggeration. But other studies, such as one by Allen and Barbara Pease2, show that 60 to 80% of the impact in meetings is caused by body language. And that’s my experience, too.

How do you get stage presence?

Some people are naturals. Others, not so much.

The good news is: stage presence can be developed and cultivated. Something I’d certainly recommend, looking at why public speaking is so important.

The first step is to know which factors determine your stage presence.

The elements that determine your stage presence (and whether you’re speaking with impact)

For this list, I’m assuming that you have a healthy amount of self-confidence. Because if you are very insecure when speaking in front groups, of course, that undermines your entire stage presence. In that case, you’d better work on boosting your self-confidence first.

I’m also assuming that you have properly prepared your speech. If you don’t have a clear idea of the story you want to tell, that will also come at the expense of your stage presence.

What exactly is stage presence? At its core, it’s your energy.

Energy is an emotional thing. People can emit ‘high energy’ or ‘low energy’. And energy influences other people.

You experience other people’s energy every day:

  • The receptionist who always greets you with a big smile so that you’re in a great mood when you take the elevator: high energy.
  • The guy in the sandwich bar who always frowns and where you go only when you really have to: low energy.

You could think that people’s energies are fixed. Fortunately, they’re not! Your energy varies throughout the day:

  • Coffee can boost your energy.
  • But when you’re tired, that affects your energy negatively.
  • You win a game with your team at the sports club. There’s no limit to your energy!
  • A new customer postpones collaboration. Bummer: your energy plummets.

When you speak in front of groups, you start with a certain energy level. Hopefully, a high level!

After that, there are always several possible energy leaks:

  • That one lady with no facial expression, who seems to be here against her will.
  • That guy in the corner is fiddling with his phone ā€” maybe he’s bored?
  • And then there’s the person who asks a tricky question that you don’t know the answer to right away.

Those energy leaks hinder you from speaking with impact. Because here it comes:

Your energy is the single determining factor in the impact you make

There is research on that, by the way. Olivier Oullier, professor of behavioural and brain sciences at the University of Aix-Marseille, calls this social coordination dynamics3.

In his studies, people facing each other had to make random movements.

First, with their eyes closed ā€” of course, little similarities in movement could be found. Then, with their eyes open. As it turned out, people started to mimic each other’s movements. Even after the experiment, the subjects remained influenced by the movements made by the other person.

Have you ever seen someone yawn, only to do it yourself shortly after? That is the same principle at work.

Back to your energy when you speak

Your energy determines the energy of your audience, which determines how well they listen, how inspired they become, how excited they become, and so on.

Body language expert Vanessa van Edwards proved that in another experiment. She analysed a large amount of similar TED talks to discover why some talks were hugely popular, while others were viewed just a few hundred times in total.

Her conclusion: people created their opinion about a speaker within seven seconds, and that opinion was the most positive for speakers who radiated the most energy.

Another striking conclusion was this: when people rated a talk highly with the sound off, it was also rated highly with the sound on.

So it is essential to manage your energy and keep it high

How high? Higher than you think šŸ˜. Think of the first date with your dream partner.

Note: don’t confuse ‘high energy’ with ‘hyper’. High energy can also mean relaxed, comfortable, content, self-confident.

The good news is: you have a lot of control over your energy. Are you aware of your energy? Then you can ‘turn it up’ as you please to start speaking with impact.

It doesn’t take magical thinking at all. We may think that for the most, our mind controls our bodies, but the opposite is also true. What you do with your body also influences your mind and therefore your energy.

A classic example are power poses: for example, if you stand upright, with your legs slightly apart, and your hands in your hips, you can feel your energy level rise with every minute.

The following five non-verbal areas play the biggest role when it comes to speaking with impact:

1. Your posture

Your body communicates much more than you would suspect. Which makes sense: we are descended from apes that cannot speak (neither could homo sapiens in their first phase of evolution), and yet they could communicate efficiently.

Here are a few ways your body ‘reveals’ you, and where you can make adjustments for higher energy levels:

  • Of course, your head sends signals non-stop. From how your hair is styled, to ‘micro-expressions’ that subconsciously tell your audience about your mood.
  • Your torso (back) can be straight or a little bent, which communicates different things.
  • Arms and hands tell many things too! Think of the difference between a dry presenter with hands in his pockets, and someone who gestures lively as they tell their story.
  • How you position your legs, is a way of communicating as well. Do you walk calmly across the stage, or rather in a cramped fashion? When you sit down, do you cross your legs or not?
  • Finally, there are your feet. They can be positioned at different angles. And everyone knows about the tapping foot, which suggests nervousness.

This is just a concise list ā€” there are, of course, dozens of other ways your body communicates with your audience.

What are things not to do when it comes to posture?

  • Leaning on one leg. Maybe you think this gives a laid-back impression, but in reality, it looks over-casual.
  • Standing with crossed legs. This gives you the impression that you want to make yourself smaller.
  • Tilting your head to one side. This can look either apologetic or condescending.
  • Standing behind a pulpit. This puts something between you and your audience, and sends the signal: “I don’t like speaking in front of groups.”
  • Keeping your hands behind your back or in your pockets for a long time, keeping your hands ‘busy’ with a pen for example, or putting your hands in your side for a long time.

What are things to do when it comes to posture?

  • Place your feet right under your hips, and let them point slightly outwards.
  • Divide your weight evenly between your legs.
  • Make sure your chest is ‘open’ and not ‘closed’.
  • Imagine that there is a wire attached to the crown of your head and that it pulls your body up.
  • Keep your hands moving. Use them to illustrate what you’re saying. Don’t let your upper arms stick to your body like a T-rex šŸ¦– but relax them!

Note when it comes to your hands: most people use their hands very well in comfortable situations, for example at a dinner party with friends. Chances are, you do know how to do it ā€” you just have to recreate the unconsciously correct use of your hands!

2. Your gestures

Gestures are the most expressive element of our body language. They are the more explicit movements of the head, shoulders, arms, the hands.

Gestures have a clear function within speaking with impact:

  • Express physical properties, location or movement. Think of size, weight, shape, direction and location.
  • Express importance or urgency. For example, a clenched fist shows that you want to add emphasis.
  • Comparison and contrast. By visualising these with gestures, they come to life. For example, you could perfectly imitate the receptionist and the sandwich seller from the introduction.

Do you experience a moment of ‘low energy’? Then a few powerful gestures will get you back on top.

Pay attention to the following to make your gestures effective, both for your audience and for yourself:

  • Make gestures above elbow height and at some distance from your body. So no cramped gestures.
  • Put strength and conviction in your gestures. A fast, spacious hand movement to show how big something is, makes a much greater impression than a half-baked, uncertain movement.
  • Make sure to have variety in your gestures. They are quickly perceived as repetitive.

3. Your facial expression

Your face communicates a lot about what you think and feel. This happens through your eyes, your eye movements, eyebrows, mouth, … Anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell estimates that we humans can distinguish as many as 250,000 facial expressions!

The biggest ‘danger’ is that emotions or thoughts inside you ‘leak’ outside through your facial expressions. If they’re not consistent with what you’re saying, you’re missing impact on your audience.

For example, many novice speakers suffer from small tics in their faces, because they are nervous. I don’t have to tell you that’s a great distraction from what they’re actually saying.

Some important tips on facial expression:

  • Think of your face as an extra gesturing tool: emphasise your story with the appropriate expressions.
  • Film yourself to control your facial expressions. Unlike your body and your hands, you can’t see your own face under normal circumstances.
  • Don’t be afraid to exaggerate. Go to a theatre performance. There especially, actors are often very expressive with their faces. That adds dynamism (and therefore energy).
  • Make funny faces when you ‘warm up’ for your performance. That is often relaxing.

4. Your voice

If you listen to the radio or a podcast every once in a while, you know how much character is found in a voice alone. You don’t see who’s talking, but you still take away much of who someone is, or how they feel at that moment.

Your voice is like a musical instrument, and there are countless ways in which it ‘communicates’:

  • It can sound high or low
  • It can be loud or soft
  • You can speak fast or slowly
  • There’s dynamic: how much do you switch between high and low, loud and quiet, fast and slow?
  • How many pauses do you take?
  • Your language: do you speak general English (or your local language) ā€” possibly with a light accent ā€” or do you speak dialect?

How do you use your voice for speaking with impact?

  • Double your voice volume. Yes, this sounds excessive. You probably think you’re going to shout. Still, I challenge you to try it. If you record yourself, you’ll see that you simply sound much more powerful. Note: Make sure you use your voice properly. Focus on sound, not pressure. When speaking makes you tired, there is something wrong with your technique. It’s best to visit a voice coach in that case.
  • Emphasise your voice. In a business context, many people think they have to speak monotonously. There’s no need at all. Emphasise important words and passages. This has two advantages: you speak slower and your ‘connect’ better with the content of your speech.
  • Pause often. Everyone knows someone whose mouth never seems to stand still. Or ā€” the equivalent in text ā€” someone who puts dozens of lines of text in their emails without ever pressing the Return key. That’s annoying, plus it prevents the message from ‘landing’. Pausing allows you to think for a moment, it allows your audience to think, process their thoughts and nod, and it gives you a more powerful impression.

5. Eye contact

A notorious energy leak is the lack of real contact between you and your audience. You’ll feel a sense of isolation, of being alone, of ‘you against them’.

Creating contact with your audience prevents that from happening. How do you do that? With eye contact.

The principle is simple

Look people in the eye individually, one by one. Connect directly with each of them. When it gets uncomfortable, move on to the next one.

It’s a bit like watering the plants. Instead of spraying all your garden at once, you give each plant water and then continue to the next one.

Sounds uncomfortable? Try it out. For most speakers, this technique has a reassuring effect. Instead of speaking to a large group, you speak to one person at a time. Exactly what you’re used to doing in the rest of your life šŸ˜‰

Prefer to work on stage presence with an experienced coach?

Regulating your emotions to be able to channel your intentional energy is challenging.
As a speaker coach, I have helped countless clients perform on stage with powerful presence.

If you have an important keynote to deliver in the coming months and need someone to chat with, Iā€™d love to help.

Book your free 30 min coaching call

1 Albert Mehrabian, Silent Messages, 1971.
2 Allen and Barbara Pease, The Definitive Guide of Body Language: The Secret Meaning Behind People’s Gestures
3 Olivier Ouillier et al., ‘Social coordination dynamics: Measuring human bonding‘, 2007