A Look At The Presidential Debate: What Is Your Posture Saying About You?

1st Presidential Debate on 9/26/2016
1st Presidential Debate on 9/26/2016

I hate seeing myself on video.

Have you ever said this? Chances are that you have watched a video of yourself delivering a speech or a even just having a casual conversation and wanted to look away after a few minutes. Even the greatest speakers know how difficult it can be to watch yourself on video.

Seeing yourself on camera is a stark reminder that how you say something can be just as powerful as what you say.

That’s why when preparing to deliver a speech or presentation, you should carve out time to practice how you deliver your content. For tips on what to focus on when practicing your delivery, look no farther than the first presidential debate. Politics aside, here are a few tips that those wishing to improve their public speaking game can take away from last night’s presidential debates.

Standing Tall

Televised presidential debates historically have the candidates standing at podiums or at least able to stand when they are speaking. If you have the opportunity to stand rather than sit while speaking, you should opt for the former.

Standing tall and strong at the podium is essential to conveying confidence in yourself and your ideas. Imagine either candidate standing slouched at the podium, shoulders sagging, back curved. This type of posture sends all the wrong messages to the audience and can detract from the speaker’s own confidence. Standing tall with your shoulders back and head up is known as a “power pose.” Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy has shown that standing in a power pose with elbows slightly out, chin lifted, and shoulders back for just two minutes can generate a 20 percent increase in testosterone and a 25 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol. These physical effects can translate into making you feel more empowered and confident.

Standing with strong posture also sends certain signals to the audience. You can convey authority, importance, and control. The current president signaled that he knows the power of standing back in December of 2015. President Obama delivered remarks from the Oval Office about how America will defeat terrorism. Speaking to a nation rattled by terrorist threats, Obama opted not to sit at his desk during the address, as is typical of Oval Office speeches. Instead, he spoke to the American people while standing at a podium. As Callum Borchers of the Washington Post observed at the time:

Whatever the impetus, let’s get one thing straight: Obama’s choice to stand at a podium in his office rather than sit behind the Resolute Desk, as is customary in an Oval Office address, was very deliberate . . .

Just as President Obama and the presidential candidates last night want to convey strength and confidence, so too do you when delivering your speech. So spend some time practicing a strong, tall posture in front of the mirror before you find yourself in front of a camera or audience.

Making a Connection

When you see yourself on video, you are looking into your own eyes. And sometimes your own eyes are not looking back. Eye contact is essential to creating a connection with an audience. Looking down, away, or even over people’s heads can suggest you are disconnected, nervous, and even trying to be evasive.

During the presidential campaign last night, Hillary Clinton averted her eyes downward to the podium more regularly than Donald Trump. Although a small move of the eyes, it still can have a viewer wondering why she is looking down rather than listening to what she had to say.

Donald Trump tended to drop his eyes and look directly at the microphone when he was rebutting sometime that Clinton had said. For example, he looked at the microphone and repeated “Wrong” three times in a row at one point. By dropping is eye contact, viewers may be more skeptical about his claims that what Clinton was saying is wrong.

Don’t let eye contact be a distraction from your own message. To get comfortable at making eye contact, practice by yourself first. Pick a few points on a wall (maybe a painting or photograph) where you will make and hold contact. Work up to a small audience and commit to making and holding eye contact with at least three people. For many speakers, looking the audience in the eye can put them at ease and help to relieve some nervous tension.

Hand Gestures

Just as eye contact can distract from a message, so too can hand gestures. Hand gestures also can be used effectively to drive home whatever point you are making. Hillary Clinton often gestures with open palms, which signals warmth and inclusion. Donald Trump often makes an “A-okay” sign his fingers, which can suggest confidence in his message.

The key to using hand gestures effectively is to first be aware of what gestures you tend to make and how often you make them. Consider keeping your hand gestures between your shoulders and waist. Look for opportunities to repeat hand gestures for key words or ideas in your speech. This tactic can make it more likely that people will remember what you saying. When you watch yourself on video or other upcoming presidential debates, pay attention to hand gestures that you particularly like or find effective.

Together body language and posture can help the audience to feel comfortable while watching you speak and focus on the message you wish to send.