Have you ever sat in the audience and felt uncomfortable as you watch the speaker?

You are anticipating listening to the speaker, curious to hear what they have to say. Then during their presentation, you notice that you feel a bit awkward and are beginning to lose concentration. They are showing signs of nervous body language, and that can turn the audience off.  

Chances are, it is not the content that the speaker is sharing that is making you feel disconnected; it is the way they are holding their body and how they are moving.

When a speaker is moving their body and standing in a way that looks awkward or is distracting for others, that is a sign of nervous body language, and when a speaker acts this way it can impede their ability to make a lasting impression. 

So, what are the telltale signs of nervous body language and why is it important to ensure you are sending the right message with your non-verbal communication?

Our body has a language of its own, and nonverbal communication is critical for leaders to understand and master. When we stand in front of others and project nervous body language—looking and feeling awkward—it can make them feel awkward too. Part of our role as speakers is to help our audience feel comfortable, so to do that we need to look and feel as comfortable as possible and avoid being a speaker who fidgets.

Maybe you have been that fidgety speaker? Or you know someone who is, and you don’t know what advice to give them.

When you are speaking in public, the way you move and hold your body is as important as the words you are saying. 

There are many signs of nervous body language, I have included seven of the main ones that I often come across. You may be aware that you do some of these things, and you will certainly have seen others do so. Chances are, you may not even be aware that what’s going on inside your head, what you are thinking and feeling, plays out in your body language. It is only when you are willing to be self-critical that you can iron out any body language nuances that are detrimental to your reputation as a speaker. 

7 signs of nervous body language and what you can do instead


If you are feeling nervous, your body may stiffen, making you appear glued to the spot. On a micro-expression level, when we experience nervousness our facial nerves tend to take on a frozen ‘deer in the headlights’ appearance. Your listeners may pick up that you are tense and perceive this as a lack of confidence. This can drastically reduce your credibility in their eyes, and it’s hard to build trust and rapport when you are projecting a stiff solid stance. 

What you can do instead. 

Record yourself speaking in front of an audience so that you can see what they saw. Watch out for the parts of your presentation where you look frozen: is it at the beginning of your presentation as nerves are high? or are you generally a bit stiff in the upper body as you speak?

Remember to breathe and smile. Stand tall and allow your shoulders to move away from your ears. Practice your talk so that you feel comfortable with the words and your ability to present with confidence. Aim to use natural and simple physical gestures that aren’t overdone and arm movements that originate softly from the elbow. You want these movements to appear smooth and natural, never jerky. The more comfortable you feel, the more relaxed and natural your body language will look and feel.

Backwards Stepping

When you are lacking confidence or you are not totally committed to the words that you are saying, you may take one or more small steps backwards as you speak. If you have ever been in a position where you were required to deliver a presentation on a topic that was not aligned with your values or you did not believe in, then you will know the feeling. 

It may only be a slight movement of one or two steps, but it is enough to look as though you are retreating. That is how your audience will subconsciously perceive this movement. When you retreat from your audience, your message becomes less believable.

What you can do instead.

Again, play back a video recording of yourself and pay close attention to any backwards stepping. Note what you are saying at that particular time. What are your thoughts on that part of your talk—does it feel awkward and unnatural? Perhaps you can tweak the words so that they sound more authentic to you. Instead of stepping backwards when you have an important point to make, you can use forward movement to help emphasise your point and help it land the right way.


If you stand with your weight on one foot then transfer it to the other and back again you may look as though you are not relaxed or prepared to give your talk. Whilst we want to avoid appearing glued to the spot, it is equally distracting to be looking at a speaker who is constantly swaying. Once again, it takes the audience away from what is really important. Often speakers tell me that they rock because it feels comforting and that their rocking increases as their stress level increases. But the way we hold our feet is an important part of a speaker’s posture. Add the blog post here 

What to do instead. 

Practise positioning yourself in a stable, grounded base as your neutral position. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes so that you can stand tall and poised, and most importantly, have your weight evenly distributed. You can tell a lot about a speaker by their feet. 


This undesirable habit can be highly irritating for your audience. Any repetitive and unnecessary movement can be considered fidgeting, and if you are guilty of this nervous body language, taking action to eliminate this bad habit will improve your delivery instantly. 

It can be tempting to have something on your person or within reach that you can fidget with. Some fidgety actions that I have observed as a speaker coach include: twisting or playing with rings, bangles, or watches; clicking the top of a pen; jangling keys in pockets (it is especially irritating for others when there is noise as well as a visual distraction); twisting; smoothing and patting of clothes or body parts; and frequently adjusting hair (more common in women). 

What you can do instead.

As you get up to speak, avoid having anything unnecessary on your person that will later be tempting to fiddle with. Try to have your hands soft and relaxed by your sides as a neutral position and raise them to gesture when it feels natural to do so. 

Asymmetrical stance

It is quite common for us to favour one side of our body. This may manifest as leaning (having our weight more to one side of the body) or using your dominant hand exclusively when you gesture. When we stand in front of an audience to speak, we want to look centred. 

Take a look at a recording of yourself speaking. Do you appear asymmetrical? And if so, could you improve your stance by becoming more centred? You may have an unconscious tendency to lean to the right or left without being aware of it. Another reason why an asymmetrical stance can be detrimental to your speaking success is that it affects your ability to use your voice to its maximum.

Incorporating diaphragmatic breathing is important for speakers to do as it allows you to unlock your vocal potential. Consider an article on diaphragmatic breathing for speakers

What you can do instead.

Experiment with using your non-dominant hand to gesture. It might feel strange at first but with practice you will be able to correct the asymmetry in order to appear more balanced. If balance and posture are something you’d like to focus on, then both Pilates and yoga are really useful to help with posture, presence and confidence. 


If you have lots of energy as you take the stage, you may pace from side to side. Or, it can feel a bit scary to have all eyes on you, and pacing is an easy option to avoid their gaze. Whilst it is a good thing to have some purposeful movement when you speak, avoid random pacing.

Watching a speaker who is a pacer is super districting and your audience will no longer be listening to you speak; they will be watching your body language. If you are a serial pacer, then you are not adding gestures that enhance your message—you are adding noise.

What to do instead.

Practise remaining relatively still and poised, standing tall and balanced. If you begin to feel the need to pace, then take a few deep breaths, anchor your thoughts, and try and resist. As you start to embrace speaking and build your confidence, this trait will disappear. If you move, do so with intent—think of the stage as an extension but avoid pacing just because.

Screen Gazing

A final telltale sign of nervous body language is when the speaker frequently looks and\or points back to a screen. If you are not comfortable speaking in public or standing in front of others, you may look behind you at the screen as a way of avoiding all eyes on you or to read your material from your slide. 

Your screen is not going anywhere! 

What you can do instead.

Try doing your presentation without a screen. Some of the best speakers either don’t use PowerPoint or use it very sparingly. Your slides are there to enhance your message, not to be the main feature of your talk. Use a comfort screen if there is one available and set up your equipment so you can see it without looking back. Be familiar with the slides so that you know what is coming next without having to look back. Practise making eye contact with the audience members so you will be able to engage better with people. Generally, they have come to listen to you, and not watch you watch the screen.

About the author

Lisa Evans helps leaders and entrepreneurs to craft compelling business stories and become exceptional speakers.

She has coached thousands of leaders across a range of industries, including resources, banking, finance, engineering, retail and sales as well as not-for-profit and community associations. 

If you wish to take advantage of a complimentary session in order to chat about how you can become an exceptional and successful speaker with a stand-out brand, then use this link to book a time to chat.

Here’s how I may help you 

My services include: 

Virtual – Live Online Training – Public Speaking and Presentation Skills, Business Storytelling and executive Speaker Coaching is available online.

Business Storytelling Coaching – together we can get started to create your suite of stories. A minimum of three sessions is recommended 1:1 in person or virtually via Zoom.

Executive Speaker Coaching – if you have an upcoming guest speaking opportunity, funding pitch, conference talk or you want to be an outstanding speaker, we can work together on your technique. You will see the results after one session.

Storytelling for Leaders Interactive Workshops – I can come to you, or we can host a workshop offsite for your team. From half-day to two-days immersive, this customised workshop is an ideal way to kick start your business storytelling strategy and get the whole team telling stories. 

Keynote/Guest Speaking at your next conference live of virtual event – I have several topics to choose from ranging from a 30-minute talk up to a 90-minute interactive session.

Lisa Evans, MBA is the CEO of Speaking Savvy. She is one of less than 150 Certified Speaking Professionals in Australia. She is a Certified Public Speaking and Storytelling Coach, Certified Virtual Presenter, Accredited Business Coach (ICF), Author, TEDx Speaker Coach, NLP Coach, Graphic Recorder, Host and Curator of Stories From The Heart, and Improvisation Actor and Marketing Director at Perth Playback Theatre.