Our body language says more than our words.
What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
There is an excellent series my husband and I are enjoying on Netflix called Lie to Me, a TV series that ran from 2009-2011. It is based on a deception specialist that reads faces and body language to crack all sorts of cases – murder, business matters, etc. for government and law enforcement agencies. While the disclaimer at the beginning of the show says the concept is fictional, I find it believable because of the findings in many non-verbal communication studies. For example:
- In his book titled, Nonverbal Communication, the leading Californian researcher Albert Mehrabian claims facial expressions are almost eight times as powerful as the words used. That words only count for 7% of our message. And that 55% of our message is conveyed by our body language.
- Professor Ray Birdwhistell of the University of Louisville found that in face-to-face conversations two-thirds of the communication takes place non-verbally.
While gesturing and facial expressions do affect your message when presenting, we want our gestures to be natural. Watching how we converse in private will give us clues on how we should speak in public. Watch yourself as you recite your favorite story or when you climb on your favorite soapbox. Chances are likely you’ll see lots of facial expressions, dramatic (maybe even wild) gesturing, and hear plenty of vocal variety. These represent YOUR way of expressing yourself. Pick them out and bring them to your presentations. Better yet, incorporate stories and examples that you feel passionate about into your presentation – your gesturing will be natural.
Here are some additional insights about body language I’ve picked up along my professional speaking trail:
Space = Power
Watch the body language of a leader. Leaders tend to take up more space than others. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The general rule for posture and presence is that “space equals power.”[/pullquote]
Posture which is erect, feet planted 13-18 inches apart, and gestures that are broad convey confidence. Clasped hands, crossed arms and feet planted closely together contract your presence, conveying a less-than-powerful message to your audience.
Hands talk too! The way we use our hands while presenting affects our message. Here are three POWERFUL messages conveyed by hands:
1) Pointing: Pointing is a hand gesture best to avoid. Pointing directly at members of the audience tends to send the message of threat or accusation.
2) Sideway palm: When wanting to gesture towards the audience with your hands, an open, sideway palm, as if offering your hand for a handshake is non-threatening and quite effective.
3) Open palms – I once read an article in a management magazine by Winston Fletcher titled, Let Your Body do the Talking that said: “The palms of your hands are signals of honesty and showing them as you speak emphasizes the truthfulness of what you are saying.” The message of open palms is quite evident in a surveillance tape we have of a problematic neighbor a few doors down (the reason why we have the cameras) verbally accosting my husband about homeowner issues. In this video, you see the neighbor pointing angrily and threateningly at my husband, while my husband’s hands are primarily open, sideways or palms faced up. If we ever end up in court, the intention conveyed by the body language of these two men in the video speaks volumes.
Does your body match what you say?
Donald Rosenthal of Gant & Donald Communications Inc. claims that the candidate with “the better nonverbal skills” has won in every election since 1976, when Democrat Jimmy Carter replaced the stiff Republican Gerald Ford. Non-verbal communication, body language, is a serious consideration as a speaker. Videotape yourself to make sure your body matches what you say.
Body language often is expressed as distractions. Convey confidence and power by watching for and eliminating distracting, nervous habits.
Through the many years of being a Toastmaster, I have seen many types of distracting habits. They include:
- Playing with keys or change in a coat or pant pocket
- Fiddling with a pen, pencil or the gavel
- Playing with one’s hair
- Scratching one’s arms, head or face
- Fiddling with jewelry – earrings, bracelets, necklaces, etc.
- Fiddling with a tie
- Playing with a belt
- Playing with glasses
Nervous habits are power leaks. After a while, the audience becomes so aware of the repeated distraction that they are no longer listening to the speaker. However, the audience IS receiving a message – that this speaker lacks poise, power and confidence.
Videotape yourself to identify distracting habits. If you find that you fiddle with things, then do what you can to remove the temptation(s) until the habit falls away (although removing your hair might be a problem!) Remove change and keys from you pocket. Wear minimum, if no, jewelry. Button your coat to keep the tie out of reach. Ask someone you trust to watch for your nervous habits and somehow signal such to you from the audience. A simple reminder that you are scratching your arm can make you aware enough to refrain from repeating it the rest of your speech.
“I used to do this with my nose” (as he put his right finger astride his right nostril), “not picking my nose, just sort of rubbing it. But it looked like I was picking my nose and I have cut that out. If my finger goes up in that direction I immediately take it down. I stopped a lot of nervous affectations that I didn’t know I had, even after years of speaking. Yes, video feedback has definitely helped me.”
In conclusion, let’s make sure our body language supports or even enhances our message, not distracts from it.