How the Dance is Performed: The Physicality of Audience Engagement

How can you tell the difference between a dancer and someone who is just dancing? Is it the level of steps that are performed? The difficulty of the tricks? The confidence exuded? The emotion conveyed in the movement? The level of performance added to the movement?

You cannot tell the difference between a dancer and someone who is dancing simply from the quantity and complexity of the steps. Rather, the difference lies in the quality of the movement. As I have said before, dancing is not about performing a set of steps. It is not the content that makes the dance. It is the technique, the way in which the movement is performed, that makes a beautiful and powerful dance.

When people learn how to ballroom dance, professional dance teachers start by teaching the basic steps. Seemingly simple movements that are only slightly different than walking. Once students learn the steps, dancers then teach them how to do the steps properly. This is the technique. This is the pointed toes, the hip action, the extension of the lines, the strength of the frame, the connection between the dancers, the rotation of the head, the stretching of the leg, the gliding across the floor, the angle of the knees, the movement of the core. The technique is often far harder to master than the steps. This is what professional dancers twist and break their bodies trying to perfect. And dancers know that there is no end point in their training; they will have to continue to work on and master the technique of a dance throughout their careers. The level of technique is often what makes clear the difference between a dancer and someone who is just dancing.

It is not the steps in a dance that matter, it is how the dance is performed that does.

The same is true in communication. When leaders are asked to stand and deliver an important message in a presentation or a public address, it is not merely the message itself that is being judged by the audience — it is how the message is delivered that is judged first. Before leaders can even begin to deliver their meticulously crafted message, the audience has already decided whether or not to engage with the person speaking. Leaders have about 15 seconds to draw their audience in. And in that time audiences are reading the leader’s body language. Does the person seem confident? Or does he/she appear nervous and uncomfortable? If the speaker seems uncomfortable, people will disengage. But if the person exudes confidence and appears calm and controlled, the audience will home in and want to hear more.

Think about the leaders who are known or remembered as good communicators: Steve Jobs, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Margaret Thatcher, to name a few. We not only remember the words they spoke, but the way in which they spoke them: the power and confidence they conveyed, the cadence of their voice, the way they moved around the space they occupied, the finesse in their presentation.


In public speaking, there is a well-known ratio of 55-35-10. It means:

  • 55% of the impressions an audience remembers are visual, the way in which the person communicating carries his or her self.
  • 35% of the impressions are based on the tone and quality of the person’s voice.
  • Only 10% of the impressions are based on the content, the actual words that were spoken.

Think about a time in which you had to make a presentation in front of an audience. When preparing for that presentation, did you spend the majority of time preparing how to modulate your voice at key moments or how to manage your physical presence? Or did most of your time and energy go towards developing the content of the speech? More often than not, people spend the majority of their time on the latter. But if 90% of the audiences’ impressions come not from what you say but how you say it, why is less time and energy spent on perfecting the physical aspects audience engagement? Mastering the physical aspects of audience engagement is just as important, if not more important, than perfecting the content of a speech.

A key principle in effective communication is that leaders need to commit to learning how to engage with audiences effectively. There is a premium on leaders who are able to perform well in those first 15 seconds—those leaders who physically and vocally exude confidence and comfort. If a burden of leadership is to communicate effectively, then not only knowing the words to use but also how to speak those words effectively is vital to a leader’s success. Just as dancers dedicate time and energy into mastering their technique, leaders need to dedicate time and energy into mastering their personal communication skills to engage with audiences effectively.


This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.