One question I get asked regularly is about sitting down to present. If there are only a few people in the room, if it’s an informal setting or if it’s a board meeting and all the board is sitting, I want to send out a casual message. I don’t want to be too authoritative – then can I present sitting down?
Often the real reason people want to present while sitting down is that something happens in their head when they sit: it no longer feels like a presentation or a speech, but rather a conversation. And so they don’t get nervous.
Anything to avoid that horrible feeling of adrenaline coursing through your system, right?
And that becomes a circular argument for sitting down – if I don’t get nervous then I present better and if I’m presenting better doesn’t it make sense to sit down?
A recent study comparing students who sat and students who were given standing desks sheds a little light on this question. It turns out that the standing students were able to focus better and longer than the sitting ones. So you think better on your feet.
Now there’s a reason for speakers to stand. You think better. That reason alone should nullify all the other arguments for sitting.
But if it doesn’t, then here’s a more reasoned one. Think about what you’re giving up when you sit. Authority is naturally taken by the person standing in a room full of seated people. If you sit down, you give up the authority and let other people take it or at least share it. The result is that it’s much harder for a speaker to hold the floor if he is seated during the presentation.
I worked with a CEO once that I persuaded to try the following experiment. He had issues with people deferring to his authority too much, and he was working with me on developing a more collegial style of communications. Just for fun, I suggested that he use a body language trick to change the authority dynamic in the room when he was meeting with his direct reports.
I suggested to him that they would naturally defer to him by keeping their head lower than his. He was skeptical, but offered to watch out for it. Specifically, I instructed him to start lowering his head in his next meeting, very slowly, by leaning back in his chair and sliding down surreptitiously.
When I chatted with him after the meeting, he was still laughing about it. He had become a believer in the power of body language, because as he lowered his head (very, very slowly) he saw each of his direct reports do the same thing, keeping their heads lower than his. By the end of the meeting, everyone was nearly under the table.
Here’s the kicker. No one was aware of what was going on. The CEO couldn’t believe it, but he had seen it (indeed, controlled it) himself.
Authority is very precisely determined by relative height. Standing up takes authority naturally without having to be pushy. Sitting down gives it up.
I usually recommend people to do the opposite – i.e., start out seated, and then seize the moment and the authority when you’re ready to speak by standing up. It’s a natural, effortless sign that you’re ready to go.
Why would you do otherwise?
Many times working with clients I’ve seen the moment when a client gets the new way of thinking about his or her topic that I’m suggesting – it’s usually when they stand up. They’re taking charge. They get it. They’re ready to run with the idea.
Now I’ll be doubly pleased because I know that they’ll think better on their feet. And it’s my excuse to keep standing.
So you can sit down to present. But now you know how much you’re giving up.
About the Author:
Dr. Nick Morgan is one of America’s top communication theorists and presentation skill coaches. In his blog he covers modern communications from a variety of angles, including the latest developments in communication research, the basic principles and rules of good communication and the good and bad speakers of the day. For more information about his coaching services or books, visit www.publicwords.com