Public speaking

I’m writing here in general about public speaking, but the principles may also be applied to teaching, acting, and other situations when facing a group of people.

Speaking to an audience

There is no substitute for thorough preparations and rehearsals before speaking to a group of people. Understanding the subject and feeling comfortable when asked questions are so important.

Common advice to novice speakers is that before facing an audience, one should calm down using a relaxing breathing sequence. However, some speakers have the opposite need. Even though they have ‘stage fright,’ what works best for them is to hype themselves, so they start with high energy. We are all different, and it’s personal.

More than anything else,  the body-language signals I send out on stage determine how the audience perceives me. The more coherent and synchronized the gestures I make, the better I can command attention, build trust, and leave a memorable impression.

Listening to me speak, audience members are more interested in my feelings than my thoughts. Adults know that people can say anything, ‘words are just words.’ So the critical question is: what are the speaker’s feelings towards the words she or he is saying?

  • The words I say reflect mainly my thoughts.
  • My body language reflects mainly my feelings.

I have three imaginary ‘windows’ through which an audience can try and evaluate my feelings towards words I say:

  1. Body language.
  2. Intonation
  3. Breathing

I can leave different impressions when the audience members feel these three windows are open.

The window of body language or gestures

Some people don’t use their bodies much when speaking to an audience. It may have to do with upbringing, personality, or culture. In the absence of gestures, their body language window is kept shut. How we use our eyes, face, hands, head, spine, and legs sends out clues about the feelings behind said words.

The window of intonation or ‘sound coloring’

Some people speak in a monotonous tone and tempo. That keeps the window of intonation shut. How we variate the tone and tempo of our speech opens the window of intonation and allows others to evaluate our feelings.

The window of breath

How we breathe when speaking to an audience can give many clues about our feelings. Some people are good at acting out gestures and intonations, which hide their real feelings. But it’s much more difficult to act out breathing.


Audience members constantly evaluate what they see through my imaginary windows when I speak. Every breath, tone, gesture, expression, and micro-expression I make, is unconsciously assessed by spectators. In the viewers’ minds, there is something like a spreadsheet (for example, an Excel sheet), and I get positive and negative points in a Colomb. The summary (Σ) is my presence score.

Of course, every person evaluates differently, but there are common denominators. I strive to improve my presence score and am looking for ways to increase it.

Learnable skill

Delivering a message successfully to an audience is a learnable skill that most people can develop, improve and acquire. Yet, I feel uncomfortable and worried whenever I stand in front of an audience. The feeling of constantly being evaluated by strangers or even people I know is mostly unpleasant. The question, ‘what if I fail to deliver?’ is often at the back of my mind. This fear interferes with my public speaking and may overshadow some of the abilities I otherwise have.

It took time before I realized that many who seem super-confident have stage fright, just like me. If a speaker really cares about the outcome of the speech, chances are that stress will be there, and that’s fine. But there is a big difference between speaking with fear, which is energy-draining and being mildly stressed, which can be positive.

In any case, when I mess up a speech, I always find comfort in the thought that this is how all great speakers started 😊.


I appear attractive (get a high presence score) if I manage to well synchronize these four elements: body language, intonation, breathing, and spoken words. When synchronizing, there is no such thing as perfect, only minimum conflicts.

For synchronization, there must be a clock or timing mechanism somewhere. Talented speakers synchronize to their hearts, metaphorically speaking. Since I’m not blessed with that ability, I try to use a breathing clock instead.

Coordinating gestures with breathing

I was looking for ways to improve my ‘presence score.’ The character I was aiming for was a combination of a commanding and warm person. Many speakers seek the combination of being friendly and having authority; in this respect, I’m not unique.

Reading about the subject, I understood that there are six essential body language gestures, which comprise most of my body signaling: eye contact, facial expression, hand gestures, head gestures, body posture, and body motion. I then decided to experiment in front of a camera and see what gestures could help me project authority and warmth. So I added power gestures to my speech and mixed them with friendly ones. It was difficult for me to watch the recording of myself; I  delivered a ‘conflicting salad,’ which was difficult to digest.

To improve, I thought it might be better to separate the gestures into two primary groups: authoritative and friendly. I decided to try and use inhaling and exhaling to create the separation. After further experimenting, I got to this combination:

While inhaling:

  • I fill my lungs adequately.
  • Focus on symmetric, authoritative gestures.
  • Correct some synchronization faults.
  • Use the available time to gather my thoughts.
  • Reset the 6 key body language gestures.
  1. Eye contact.
  2. Facial expression.
  3. Hands-positioning.
  4. Head position.
  5. Body posture.
  6. Body motion.

Taking the time to fill my lungs adequately using my nose relaxes me and reduces the overall tempo of my speech. As a result, the audience gets more time to digest the information I served on the previous exhale.

I use 3-part breathing converted to a two-beat when I  inhale. In the first stage, I inflate the bottom part of my lungs to full diaphragm amplitude. In the second stage, I inflate the upper part of my lungs using my ribcage and chest.

On the exhale:

  • I say my text.
  • Focus on friendly and asymmetric gestures.
  • Expose vulnerability.
  • Try to ignore my inevitable synchronization mistakes.

Initially, focusing on this combination distracted me from my words. Still, with practice, I managed to automate some of the movements. In addition, being familiar with the resetting actions I make while inhaling works for me as a safety net. The big challenge is making it look natural and not mechanical. I have made good progress with this technique, but I still have a way to go.


They say the eyes are the windows of the soul. More than any other body gesture, my eye movements reveal most about my feelings. Common advice for public speakers is to talk to an individual member of the audience, not to a block of people. Talk to one person at a time, a sentence, or a defined part of it, and then shift eye contact to the next person. Talking to people ‘eye to eye’  gives a strong impression.

Erratic eye shifting may drastically reduce my ‘presence score.’ Timing is crucial here. It’s also essential to ensure eye contact synchronizes with other body gestures and the words I say.

Generally, talking to someone and not looking at that person is considered impolite. The same applies when speaking to a member of the audience. Shifting my eyes prematurely away from a person before getting to a comma or a period may give the impression of being impolite. A period in the text is the best time for breaking eye contact.

It gets more complicated because I also ‘talk’ with my body besides talking in words. For example, I may say things with my hands. If I can reduce ‘hand talking’ while I shift eye contact, I may improve the impression I leave.


Improving eye-contact timing

I shift my eyes from one person to the next in 2 stages.


While inhaling:

  1. I keep eye contact with the person I’m speaking to and inhale to maximum diaphragm amplitude. 1 count.
  2. Shift eye contact to the next person and complete the inhale inflating my ribcage and chest. 1 count.


Shifting my eye contact in these two stages minimizes the chances of breaking eye contact before I finish the sentence. When I close my mouth and maintain eye contact, it’s a form of ‘goodbye.’ After making eye contact with the next person, there is some ‘handshake’ or, to be more precise, ‘eye-shake’ pause. This ‘eye shake’ is completed as I finish inhaling. Finally, when I start to exhale, my eyes are locked with the next person’s eyes, and I come out with my text.

When I shift my eyes, I can’t be sure the next person I would like to address is available. I may try to initiate eye contact but get no response from an audience member. It happens. If a person feels uncomfortable with having eye contact or if there is a distraction, I may fail to lock my eyes. In this case, I continue to talk to that person without eye contact. To the rest of the audience, it often seems as if there is eye contact, and this is what counts. However, if the person turns the head or body away, I may be forced to improvise and shift eye contact prematurely to the next person.  

When a sentence is too long or when it just feels awkward, I try to get to a comma, close my mouth, and shift my eyes to the next person. Of course, this may create conflicts, but it’s probably better than holding long and forced eye contact, which may be unpleasant.

Facial expressions

Some speakers talk with a ‘poker face’ or a fixed expression and still get a high presence score. Although it’s tricky, once a speaker manages to ‘convince’ the audience the fixed facial expressions are intentional or part of an acted character, it doesn’t necessarily reduce the presence score, even though it blocks the exposure of feelings.

I try to display a variety of facial expressions when speaking to an audience. It leaves an impression of openness. A fantastic facial expression is a smile. It’s similar to a Joker when playing a card game, yet it’s an enigma. I mentioned the benefits of smiling earlier. Smiling relaxes both me and the audience. The more synchronized transitions into smiles, the better my chances of improving my ‘presence score.’

It’s not that I never smile when I talk as I  exhale, but the emphasis is on smiling when I inhale. Of course, when the situation or the text is inappropriate for smiling, I skip it.

I’m like a waiter, serving packets of information when I speak. The audience needs to digest the servings, and a smile is a perfect expression for ‘improving digestion.’


Important: The effect of rigid body language gestures dissolves. For example, if a speaker constantly smiles throughout the speech, the positive impact of smiling is drastically diminished.


Improving facial expression transition

While inhaling, I transition my facial expression by shifting into a Duchenne smile (plus teeth exposure) in two stages.


  1. I smile with my mouth closed at the person I am talking to and inhale to maximum diaphragm amplitude. 1 count.
  2. Continue smiling, open my mouth, and show my upper set of teeth as I shift to the next person and complete the inhale using my ribcage and chest. 1 count.


The first stage is a sort of ‘goodbye’ smile to the person I’m speaking to, and the second stage is like a ‘hello’ smile to the next person. For example, when I meet a person and shake hands, it’s many times accompanied by a smile. I do the same thing when I focus on the next person before delivering the following sentence as I exhale. Exposing my teeth when smiling is a friendly gesture, but I take care not to overexpose them.

Hand gestures

People feel more comfortable watching a speaker who makes hand gestures while talking.  I ‘say’ many things with my hands, and their movements are the emotional subtitles of my speech. They may give the impression of openness but may also confuse. I can either use my hands for sending out visual ‘poetry’ or uselessly move them uncoordinated. Continuous hand movements may create an overload and difficulties in synchronization. I can easily spot those speakers who ‘artificially’ move their hands all over the place just because they were told it’s good to make hand gestures.

Body language gestures, particularly hand gestures, are not universal even though ‘our world is getting smaller.’ A hand gesture in one culture may mean the exact opposite in another, so I try to be aware of local nuances.

Synchronized and open hand gestures are particularly relaxing for the audience to watch. It’s similar to a hand puppet show with two puppets. One may disappear, then the other appears, and after some time, the first reappears, and they are both up, and so on.

Showing my palms may signal that I’m not trying to hide something. I cross my hands occasionally, but I try to avoid static crossing.

My hand gestures while standing define my static space (the dynamic is when I walk around). The audience also evaluates that. When my hand movements occupy considerable static space, are coherent, consistent, and synchronized with the rest of my gestures and speech elements, it improves my presences score.


Improving hand gesturing

I synchronize my hand movements by lowering them to the sides of my body while inhaling. If this action does not fit other gestures or feels unnatural at specific points, I ‘freeze’ my hands on the inhale; no motion. I try to ‘say’ minimum with my hands when I inhale.


Scratching and covering the neck

I watched a recording of myself speaking to an audience and saw I scratched my head occasionally. In some cases, it seemed awkward. In other instances, it seemed very natural and contributed to authenticity. I was trying to figure out what made the difference.

The standard advice for public speakers is to avoid scratching their heads or touching their necks while speaking. The claim is these actions imply dishonesty or some coverup. But part of being human is scratching the head and touching the neck; many honest people do it frequently. Looking more closely at my recordings, I noticed a difference between scratching my head or touching my neck while I talk (exhale) and while I halt (inhale). So my ‘scratching policy’ is simple, I avoid touching myself when I inhale. In addition, scratching is a mostly asymmetric gesture; I aim for a symmetric body posture when inhaling. When exhaling, I feel free to scratch my head or touch my neck, but I try to minimize crossing my body with my hands while doing it.



I try to use fixed hand gestures ‘vocabulary’ for words such as: ‘I,’ ‘feel,’ ‘think,’ ‘progress,’ ‘all,’… etc. Even though there are some conventional hand gestures, repeatedly using unconventional ones may imply independence. So if I use the same fancy hand gesture for the word ‘think’ and repeat it enough times, it will register.

Head gestures

Keeping my head straight with my chin up is meant to give the impression of confidence. On the other hand, when I tilt my head to the side, it signals I’m not trying to be dominant or I’m listening.

If I manage to follow my gestures to a certain degree, it induces the audience to do so. Head gesturing gives me this opportunity. My hand gestures are the easiest to follow with my head. I try to confirm with my head what I’m ‘saying’ with my hands to make the message more credible. My hands lead, and my head follows.

In most cultures, there are conventional head gestures for confirming and denying. However, the same gesture in different cultures may mean the exact opposite. For example, in English-speaking countries nodding the head up and down means yes, and when turning it from side to side, it means no. In Bulgaria, the same side-to-side movement means yes. In India, side-to-side head wobbling means yes, or I affirm. Therefore, knowing the local conventions of head gestures is helpful.

An example of my head gesture conflicting with my text (in English) is when I say “No” while nodding my head up and down, which conventionally means ‘yes.’


Improving head gestures

My head movement synchronization is done by straightening my head and lifting my chin while I inhale, which projects confidence. When gesturing symmetrically with both hands, I center my head, which is my 0⁰. When speaking and making warm asymmetric gestures, I try to follow with my head by shifting it to the left or right at about  45⁰.

Head positioning related to my hand positioning may support positive or negative speaking.


Positive affirmation by head following:

  • When my right-hand gestures, my head turns to the right, towards the hand.
  • When my left-hand gestures, my head turns to the left, towards the hand.


Negating by opposite head following:

  • When my right-hand gestures, my head turns to the left, away from the hand.
  • When my left-hand gestures, my head turns to the right, away from the hand.


An example of my head gesture conflicting with my hand gesture is when I point my hand in one direction, saying: “I am going to go that way,” while simultaneously pointing my head in the opposite direction. That may indicate what I say is not authentic, or I mean the opposite.


The power of head-following

Generally, members of the audience track movements of my head more than my eyes. A conjurer performing a magic trick can shift the heads of most audience members to one side by shifting his head and ‘focusing’ on one hand. Meanwhile, the magician can perform many unnoticed moves with the off-focus hand.

When I was playing board games as a child, we needed to find out who would start the game. Many times the person who began had a slight advantage. So, we used to place a game piece in one of the hands behind the back and then bring both hands forward so the opponent should choose one of the hands. Then, the one who chose the hand with the piece would start. I read somewhere about a trick to improve my chances of guessing correctly. The advice was to choose the opponent’s hand, to which the nose was pointing, not the eyes. Some people may deliberately try to fool with their eyes, but the head positioning may give away the needed clue. This trick worked well for me many times, and I never ‘breathed a word’ to others about it until writing this book.

Body posture

My body posture signals to the audience, among other things, how comfortable I feel. Standard advice to public speakers is to erect their spines and relax their shoulders. It signals power and confidence.

Suppose I stand through the whole speech in a commanding posture. Straight spine, shoulders down, chin up! As if I had a broomstick up my… let’s say, back. What are the consequences of that? If I don’t demonstrate warm, empathic gestures and stick to rigid commanding postures, the audience will probably expect me to have a very high standard of body-language synchronization. They will have less unconscious ‘forgiveness’ when I make synchronizing mistakes.

Conversely, they will be much more lenient when I make errors if I arouse their sympathy. I achieve that by projecting flexibility and warmth when I bend forward and shrug my shoulders. Subtle gestures with my spine, which get my torso closer to the audience, may also contribute positively and connect.


Improving body posture sync

My body movement synchronization is done by erecting my spine and getting into a symmetric posture when I inhale. On the exhale, I demonstrate warmth and flexibility in my posture. I bend slightly towards the person I’m directing attention to and occasionally assume asymmetric postures.

Body motion

If I can speak well to an audience while standing, that’s great, but if I can successfully coordinate walking & talking, that’s even more impressive and boosts my presence score. When walking around, I command a larger space than when I stand. The boundaries of my movements define the dynamic space I occupy. Of course, it’s not always technically possible to walk around, but when it is, this is when I can demonstrate synchronization of movement and speech.

I try to find a purpose for my movement while talking. It’s mainly to get physically closer in front of the person I’m speaking with. When I talk to someone ‘torso to torso,’ it gives a feeling of undivided attention. The audience, too, becomes less static when I move around because they need to move their heads or bodies to follow me.

I try to avoid a fixed route or pattern of movement, which also implies rigidness. Walking around may also reduce the negative effect of rigid body language gestures I may be doing as I speak.

Some speakers pace monotonously back and forth like a lion in a cage; others freeze like a mouse playing dead. Both of these may negatively impact the presence score.


An example of motion missyncronization

I watched a video on the internet of a woman talking about nutrition. She spoke very clearly, smiled, and was obviously knowledgeable. Simply a pleasure to watch. Then, suddenly, out of the blue, she started moving back and forth on the red dot-shaped mat she was standing on. The moment she started moving back and forth, the impression she left on me plummeted from a score of 9 down to a score of 6, a real crash. Her walking was uncoordinated with her other gestures, creating a strong disturbance. So strong it overshadowed the many positive sides of her speaking. I guess she knew it was good to walk around when talking, but she was unaware she was missing the inner clocks needed to synchronize her movements. Not moving at all would have produced a much higher presence score, and refraining from moving while inhaling an even higher one.


Improving body motion sync

I synchronize my body motion by standing still in one spot while I inhale. I move from an imaginary point A to B while exhaling and talking to an audience member. When I inhale, I’m always static. However, as I start to exhale and choose to walk, I may change direction.

After making eye contact with the next person I’m about to talk to, I start walking toward that person while exhaling and talking.