Exploring the importance of body language in presentations

body language presentation skills

body language in presentations

I’ve recently started teaching a module as part of the Personal Skills Award at The University of Birmingham. Each session in the Presenting Yourself with Impact module aims to teach students how to present themselves effectively in writing through cover letters, applications and LinkedIn, as well verbally in presentations and interviews.

One of the sessions a few weeks ago was on presentation skills, and we covered how to plan a presentation, structure it and use PowerPoint effectively. We also explored the importance of delivery styles and body language in presentations. Before the session I was looking for engaging ways to explore these ideas with students and came across a fun activity using TED talks. It involves playing three TED videos on mute, each for just a few minutes. While the videos play students mark each presenter using a skills matrix which covers things like gestures, movement and professional appearance.

In the workshop I chose to play the three videos suggested on the website but didn’t use the matrix because I wanted students to generate their own ideas and comments. Instead I asked students to write down what they thought about each of the presenters while the videos were playing. I’ve provided a description of each of the videos below, but you can watch them for yourself too.

Bill Gates

The first video features Bill Gates. Bill has good eye contact with his audience. He stands in one spot and occasionally takes a step in another direction. He keeps one of his hands in his pockets for a few minutes. He brings his hands out and holds them close in front of him. If you watch the video past the three-minute mark you’ll see he then returns his hand to his pocket:

Bjorn Lomborg

In the second video Bjorn Lomborg has a very different presentation style. He starts with his hand in his pocket but soon takes it out and displays open body language. He’s very smiley and varies his gaze between looking at the audience and the screen behind him. His hand gestures are fairly animated but not too distracting. Unlike Gates, Bjorn moves around a bit more but tends to take a few steps back and forth in the same space:

Jamie Oliver

The final video features Jamie Oliver. We notice almost immediately that Jamie’s holding cue cards (quite large ones in fact!) He looks away from the audience fairly frequently but his eye contact is good. Jamie uses the stage, walking around constantly and making full use of the space available:

What did students observe?

Students really enjoyed the activity and made some interesting observations from each talk. Here’s what they came up with:

Bill Gates

The group were divided at first about Bill’s presentation style. One student said he seemed very confident and professional, whereas another disagreed, saying he appeared unprofessional. When I asked what made Bill appear this way the student said it was his hand in his pocket and then other students agreed. Someone else pointed out how his hand gestures only engaged with one side of the audience at any one time. Overall, students thought his body language was fairly closed. They also commented on his lack of movement, as well as how he constantly seemed to be talking without any pauses.

Bjorn Lomborg

Many students said Bjorn came across as likeable and passionate about his topic. They pointed out that his hand gestures kept them engaged too. We then had a discussion around how nonverbal communication such as hand gestures can add emphasis to the content of a presentation. A few students noticed Bjorn’s use of the stage and his eye contact with the audience which they thought made him come across as a better presenter than Bill.

Jamie Oliver

The first observation students pointed out was how Jamie seemed less prepared than Bill and Bjorn. They referred to how he was holding cue cards and kept looking down while talking. Students also pointed out his level of eye contact and informal style. They felt Jamie’s style was very animated (big hand gestures, lots of movement around the stage) but this came across as distracting.

Final thoughts

After the session many students commented on how useful the TED talk activity had been in identifying what made a good presenter. They also left feedback on how much more aware they were following the session on the impact of body language and non-verbal communication.

I really enjoyed using TED talks for this activity but if you wanted to focus on body language more broadly there are lots of chat shows, dramas and documentaries that you can generate video clips from on the website Bob National. If you were exploring body language in an interview setting Channel 4’s The Interview would be great to draw on.

You could also find your own TED videos to use. In Why 30 is not the new 20Meg Jay uses hand gestures very effectively; even on mute you get a sense of what she is saying. I also think Monica Lewinsky’s ‘The price of shame’ could generate a good discussion. Monica stands behind the lectern and uses notes which is far from ideal when wanting to create a good impression and engage the audience.

If you’re working with students and exploring body language in presentations or more general tips on body language I’d recommend Amy Cuddy’s ‘Your body language shapes who you are’ and Nancy Duarte’s ‘The secret structure of great talks’.


What activities have you used to explore presentation skills or body language with students?



You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *