The beginning of a year is a good time to go back to basics. With this blog, I’m starting a series on the basics of nonverbal communications, as detailed in my book, Trust Me: Four Steps to Authenticity and Charisma (Jossey-Bass, 2009).

Principle I: When your verbal and nonverbal messages are aligned, you can be an effective communicator. When they are not, your audience will believe the nonverbal every time.

Because we interpret the intent and emotion of other people primarily through their nonverbal gestures – their facial expressions, their posture, they way they wave their hands – we assume the nonverbal to be the accurate signal of that emotion or intent. If you see a loved one looking sad, and ask, “What’s the matter?” that loved one may say, “Nothing,” but you don’t believe it. You just work a little harder to get the truth out of that person.

The lack of alignment between verbal and nonverbal is a more urgent problem for speakers than most people realize. Many speakers begin their presentation saying something like, “It’s great to be here today.” But their body language says something more like, “I’m scared.”

Of course, most audiences expect a little nervousness from a speaker at first, and will forgive it, especially if it quickly gets better with time.  But once that mismatch begins, it can be hard to get over, because the body tends to feed on its own signals of nervousness or panic, and get progressively worse. 

That’s why it’s so important to spend some time before you begin to speak focusing on the emotion that you want to convey at the opening of your speech.  And to begin with an appropriate ‘frame’ for the speech, rather than meaningless drivel about how nice it is to be there.  At the beginning of most speeches, for most speakers, it’s not nice to be there, so don’t pretend that it is.  Instead, begin the presentation with a story, a question, a statistic, or an audience-involving exercise that puts everyone into the real business of the speech. 

If you think as hard about the nonverbal ‘conversation’ you’re going to have with the audience as you do about your verbal content, you’re well on the way to figuring out how to align the two successfully.  And then you can both begin and end well, as a persuasive communicator. 


  1. Nick-
    Great post. This makes a lot of sense. And I have to admit I’ve been guilty of this very thing. It just feels safer to start with a little drivel, I guess. My next talk in Feb, I’ll be starting with an audience exercise instead. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for the comment, Chris — and good luck with the talk in February. BTW, if you’re not going to start with ‘drivel’, but rather with substance, make sure you have the audience’s attention before you start. The best way to do that is to pause, count three seconds, and wait for the silence (and attention) to flow to you.

  3. hey…
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