Presenting a scientific or research presentation? Here are some simple steps to help you improve your presence through body language and gestures.

Body language and gestures in scientific and research presentations

Public speaking and presenting are powerful tools for sharing your research with expert and non-expert audiences alike. Through speeches and presentations you have a chance to communicate ideas, encourage action, build connections, and get people interested in  your work so that they want to work with you, want to fund you, or simply want to know more.

The thing is that your speech or presentation is about more than your content and your visual aids. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it through your body and voice. Your body language and gestures play a crucial role in how your message is received. Today, we’re focusing primarily on body language and gestures. We’re introducing a few suggestions and strategies to help you become more aware of your non-verbal techniques and how to improve them. The aim is NOT to turn you into a robot, but rather to give you some ideas about you how can incorporate some of these ideas into your presentation to make you more comfortable and engaging, whilst remaining authentic and credible.

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Tip 1: Make eye contact

Why: Establishes connection and displays confidence.

Strategies:

  • Choose 2-3 three spots in the room and shift your gaze periodically.
  • Find 2-3 friendly faces in the audience and speak directly to them. Can’t see anyone (too dark/poor eye-sight)? Pretend that you are looking at 2-3 friendly faces in the audience – make them up!
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Tip 2: Stand Tall with Good Posture

Why: Communicates confidence and helps you project your voice.

Strategies:

  • Try putting your shoulders back.
  • Use the wall exercise to familiarise yourself with good posture – this isn’t an instant solution, but one that will help over time.
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Tip 3: Use Open Gestures

Why: Makes you appear approachable, credible, and trustworthy.

Strategies:

  • Practice speaking in front of a mirror with open arms and palms facing up.
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Tip 4: Be aware of your resting and presenting face and adjust if needed

Why: Many of us have a resting face that looks a bit grumpy, disinterested, or even unfriendly. When presenting, we can be so focused on getting it right, that we slip into a “stressed” face. Adjusting this to a more accessible neutral face, or introducing the occasional smile can help to reduce stress, make you more accessible, and reduce stress – yours and the audience’s!

Strategies:

  • Use a mirror or a trusted friend/family member to give you feedback on your facial expressions when presenting.
  • Place a pencil in your mouth with the ends sticking out left and right. Feel how the apples of your cheeks move up. This is triggering your “smile muscles”. Make note of how that feels and see if you can replicate that feeling during your presentation.
  • Think of happy thoughts to trigger a genuine smile and practice this while speaking.
  • Often, the reason we look grumpy is because the vertical lines left and right of our mouth drag downwards – gravity, genes or age, we all have our problems! Being conscious of this and occasionally trying to lift the sides of your mouth might help.
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Tip 5: Control Your Hand Movements

Why: Purposeful gestures enhance the message; fidgeting distracts.

Strategies:

  • If you don’t really use your hands, think about what you are saying and see if you can intentionally use your hands to emphasise key points during practice sessions. For example, if you say “First, second and third”, count them off on your fingers.
  • If you tend to get nervous and fidget, try controlling your hands by lightly touching the tips of your fingers and intentionally building in opportunities to use your hands to reinforce what you are saying (see the 1,2,3 example above). This will help you to control your movements AND give you an opportunity to release nervous energy.
  • If you are a “handy” person, who finds it difficult to talk without your hands, ask for feedback on whether your movements are distracting. If they are, see if there is a way for you to make the same movements, but make them smaller – for example, instead of big, expansive movements, can you make the same movements on a much smaller scale? To keep things interesting, add a few BIG movements (if you like) to emphasise your points.
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Tip 6: Consider whether your facial expressions are consistent with what you are saying – and are what the audience will expect!

Why: Enhances credibility and conveys emotions effectively. If you are terrified and are smiling all the way through your presentation or speech, whilst talking about the collapse of a project or a disaster of some sort, you might make your audience feel uncomfortable, too.

Strategies:

  • Practise your presentation in front of a friend or colleague and get feedback on your facial expressions.
  • Record and review your speeches to become aware of where your expressions don’t match the emotion you want to convey or the content you are communicating.
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Tip 7: Move with Purpose

Why: Keeps the audience engaged and underscores points. If you move constantly because you are nervous, this may serve to distract the audience – they are so busy watching you wander around the room that they forget to focus on your content. If you stay in one place, with no hand movement, you become robot-like, which might also be distracting.

Strategies:

  • Practise your presentation in front of a friend or colleague and get feedback on your facial expressions.
  • Plan and practice purposeful movements during rehearsals.
  • If you are a nervous pacer, try standing on one place for a few minutes, then purposefully move to the other side of the screen or room and stay in place for a while. This will help you release any nerves.
  • Be mindful of nervous movements – feet that move whilst the upper body stays still, swaying, crossing your ankles (dangerous – you might fall over!), stepping forward and back.
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Bonus Tip: Use Pauses Effectively (yes – this is about your voice and also your body)

Why: Emphasises points and allows the audience to absorb information. This may mean pausing your words, pausing your slides (and stopping on a blank slide for a moment), or, if you are an active presenter who likes to move, being still for a moment.

Strategies:

  • Insert intentional pauses after key statements – voice, visual aids, body.
  • If you find it hard to pause and be still, taking an intentional sip of water is a great way to pause everything.

And that’s it!

Being aware of body language and gestures and thinking about how to adjust them to help you come across as open, credible and authentic can help you share your scientific or research ideas, results and other messages.

Remember that the aim is for your to come across as comfortable (and ideally, for you to FEEL comfortable, too!) so don’t try to learn 1001 tips and memorise them all. That will only make you feel nervous and you are likely to forget them anyway.

If you’ve found this useful, you might find our Presentation Skills and Public Speaking Training and Presentation and Speaking Coaching of interest.

Curious? Get in touch!

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