Is sitting down to give a presentation acceptable?
People ask that a lot: If there are only a few people in the room, if it’s an informal setting, if we’re used to presenting seated, if it’s a board meeting and all the board is sitting, if I want to send out a casual message, if I don’t want to be too authoritative, then can I present sitting down?
Something happens in people’s heads when they sit: It no longer feels like a presentation or a speech, but rather a conversation—so they don’t get nervous.
You’ll do anything to avoid that horrible rush of adrenaline coursing through your system, right?
That becomes a circular argument for sitting down: If I don’t get nervous, then I present better; 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 were. So, people think better on their feet.
Now, there’s a reason for speakers to stand: You think better. That reason alone should nullify all the arguments in favor of sitting.
Altitude and attitude
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 once persuaded a CEO to try the following experiment. He had issues with people deferring to his authority, and he was working with me on developing a more collegial communication style.
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 try 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, had controlled it) himself.
Authority is determined by relative height. Standing up commands authority naturally without your having to be pushy. Sitting down gives it up.
I usually recommend that people do the opposite-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.
Usually, the moment when a client first understands my new way of thinking about his or her topic is when they stand up. They’re taking charge. They get it. They’re ready to run with the idea.
At that moment I’m doubly pleased, because I know they’ll think better on their feet-and it’s my excuse to keep standing.
So, you can sit down to present if you still choose to do so, but now you know how much you’ll be giving up.
A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.