Non-verbal communication

If you’re like most people, you think about body language as follows. I’m pretty much in charge of my body. I direct it, from the control tower in my head. I tell it what to do. ‘Make coffee’ I say, and it goes through the motions. ‘Now drink it’ I say, and it obliges. Sure, there are activities like breathing that I let it handle on its own, but that’s mostly low-level stuff I don’t think much about. In short, I live in my body, my brain rules it, and that’s the deal.

It’s actually much more complicated than that. In certain realms, like the realm of emotion, and relationship, and personal safety, just to pick three, your body literally thinks faster than your conscious mind, and rules the roost accordingly.

In other words, the older, lower part of your brain, the one beneath the cerebral cortex, ’thinks‘ non-verbally. And it thinks faster than your conscious cerebral cortex. So many of those things that you do, like hugging your spouse when you see her at the end of a long day, you do because you’ve had an emotional/physical thought first, and a conscious ‘Nice to see you, honey’ thought only afterward. The body is in charge, in short, in some significant areas of human expression.

Why should public speakers care about this? Because what I’ve found in working with a thousand speakers over the years is that what your body does under adrenaline, your mind begins to think. So, for example (and this is important), if you’re one of those people who tends to freeze under stress, the kind of speaker that stands in one place, speaks in a monotone, and gestures minimally if at all, then gradually your conscious thought will become more and more restricted as well. You will experience the phenomenon I’ve seen again and again where the speaker becomes verbally limited, getting tied up in word knots and using the same few words over and over again. Or, you’ll miss an obvious answer to a question, or forget to give an important part of your speech.

The body rules. Especially under adrenaline. It’s just trying to keep you alive. So pay attention to it.

What can you do about this phenomenon? If you find yourself getting stuck in some way, climb out of the rut! Force yourself to move, to change the subject. Announce a short break, or walk to the back of the room, or ask the audience to stretch with you. Anything that’s not illegal, immoral, or fattening and that gets you doing something different. You’ll find that your conscious mind and your verbal facility will come to life once again when you do.

Then what? What else do public speakers need to worry about when they’re speechmaking and look down and notice they have a body?

The question I get asked most often about body language is, “What do I do with my hands?”

My answer, when there’s a video screen handy, is to show a clip of Leo Buscaglia speaking. Leo was a wonderful public speaker on the subject of relationships and he gestured beautifully with his hands. In fact, his hands virtually told the whole story; you can just about get the speech from his gestures if you turn the sound off.

The point is not that everyone can learn to gesture like Leo, but that you’ve got a much wider range of expressive options that you perhaps realize. Many speakers hold their elbows close in to their sides protectively and wave their hands from the elbows on down. I call this the ‘Penguin Gesture’, and it’s not very expressive. It signals to the audience that you’re nervous, or feeling exposed, or shy.

Don’t get trapped by limiting your hands to a tiny retinue of gestures. Gesture from the shoulder, using the whole arm. Talk with your hands, to the extent that you can do it tactfully and appropriately for who you are.

And one more thing. Keep your gestures open. Don’t fold your hands in front of your chest, or crotch, or put them behind your back. All of these are defensive gestures and will not inspire trust with your audience. Keep your gestures open and reaching toward the audience.

Think Leo, not penguin.

Beyond the hands, the next most talked about body part is… the eyes.

‘Make eye contact’ is the simplest and most common piece of advice that public speaking coaches give. It’s so simple — why would you imagine you could get away with not looking at your audience? — that it’s hard to believe people both need and give this advice, for money.

But is there anything more to it? I was watching a YouTube clip of Tom Cruise in a dull moment the other day and I realized that there are some important subtleties to making eye contact. Tom was talking to Oprah about jumping on couches, Katie, Suri, and scientology, and other such weird issues, and he was making eye contact with Oprah, across his own couch.

But his eyes were narrowed to (nearly) slits, and the effect was that he radiated distrust. And so, we don’t trust him.

The first sophisticated rule of eye contact, then, is that if you’re going to make eye contact, you have to do it with your eyes wide open. Not shut, or almost shut. If the lights are bright, or you’re near-sighted, tough. Learn to compensate. It’s so basic to our reading of you, that you’d be better off wearing dark glasses if you’re going to squint.

The second sophisticated rule of eye contact is that you actually have to make eye contact. With individuals. For up to 30 seconds. You can’t look over the heads of the crowd (a lot of speakers do this when they’re too nervous to look at the audience), and you can’t dart your eyes around nervously like a lizard’s tongue. Imagine you’re having a conversation with people — better yet have a conversation with individuals in the audience — and look at them fixedly-but-not-too-fixedly, just like you would in a real conversation.

The third sophisticated rule of eye contact is that you should be monitoring the extent to which your audience is making eye contact with you. It’s a simple way to gauge interest in the talk. If 80 percent of them are focused on you, you’re OK. If 80 percent (or even 40 percent) are focused elsewhere, you’re in trouble.

Eye contact, like other aspects of human communication, can potentially convey many meanings. Make eye contact, to be sure, but be careful that you’re doing it right.

If you’ve got your eyes under control, what’s next? What else should you be worrying about?

The voice. The voice is an oft-neglected part of body language. I mean the tone of voice, its pitch, and everything else you do with it.

Let’s look at the basics. Voices need both resonance and presence. Resonance is the quality of the voice that makes it pleasant to listen to, and it’s created by good breathing and support of the air in the lungs. Basically, you need to take air into your belly, by expanding it, not into your shoulders by lifting them up, which is the way most people breathe. That actually makes your lung capacity smaller and gives you less resonance. Instead, take the air in (your belly should expand out) and then tense the diaphragmatic muscles below your rib cage to hold the air. Let it trickle out as you speak, and you’ll have good resonance.

If you breathe properly, your voice should stay strong and clear throughout a day of speaking. If you’re one of those whose voice gets tired, or hoarse, or weak, then you’re not breathing and supporting properly.

Presence is the opposite quality — it’s the timbre of the voice that allows it to be heard. Basically, you need to have a little bit of your voice coming from the nasal area. That creates presence. Put your fingers on either side of your nose and relax your mouth. Now, make a noise like a cow. If you can feel vibration in the nasal passages, that’s presence. Too much presence and you sound like a dentist’s drill and no one wants to listen to you. Just the right amount and you will be heard.

After that, voices need what I call the authoritative arc. Listen to Martin Luther King, Jr speaking. His voice rises up in the middle of the sentence, and then comes down toward the end, almost as if he were singing. That’s authoritative. Too many people today say everything as if it were a question? They let their voices rise in pitch at the end of the sentence? That confuses people? Because we lose the semantic difference between a question and a statement? Don’t do it!

After that, you need variety in your voice. Loud and soft, fast and slow, rising and falling in pitch, dramatic pauses — the voice is an amazing instrument for meaning, persuasion, and emotion. Don’t neglect it.

The beginnings of speeches are the moments when the attention, interest, and affection of the audience are won over or lost for the duration. Indeed, you can win over or lose your audience in the first 30 seconds of your appearance in front of them with your body language. Really.

How do you accomplish the feat, or avoid this disaster?

You’ve seen speakers who bound on the stage with lots of energy, and no doubt seen speakers also who creep onto the stage with the opposite — low energy and lots weighing them down. Which did you look forward to more?

So it’s important to smile, move quickly (but not so quickly as to fall or injure yourself) and look as eager as you can. But there’s more to it than that.

The real secret lies in your posture. There are 3 ways to stand and only one of them is effective.

Think of how you look from the side, as if a straight line were being drawn through your head down to your toes. If you’ve got good posture, like your mother used to tell you to have, then the balls of your feet, your pelvis, and your shoulders and head all will line up on that vertical slice.

Some people, however, project their head forward. In fact, most people who spend a lot of time at the computer do this; the computer work rounds their shoulders and pushes their head forward. We call this the ‘head posture’, sensibly enough. It signals subservience, humility, and deference to the audience. Great for the Dalai Lama, who has a terrific head posture, but not so good for the rest of us who don’t need (or want) to be as professionally humble.

Others project their pelvis forward. (Imagine yourself playing air guitar without the air guitar.) This posture, which is highly sexualized, is typical of teenagers and pop stars. Again, not so good for speakers. You don’t want the audience thinking of you primarily as a sex object. Really.

The third possible posture is the straight up, lead-with-the-heart posture. Imagine a soldier, seen from the side, but relaxed across the shoulders rather than rigid. That’s the heart posture, and it radiates trust, authority, and confidence — all the attributes you as a speaker want.

(There is a fourth which is a combination of head and pelvis, a kind of question mark. Most typical, again, of teenagers, who are both self-conscious and sexualized. Or intellectual rockers. Not good for speakers.)

So bound on the stage, and look happy. But more importantly, watch your posture. It will signal to the audience who you are, whether you intend it to or not.

What else should you be thinking about during a speech in terms of your body language?

There’s a lot to do — you have to stand straight, act energetic, focus on the audience, remember your speech, keep your finger out of your ear, and so on. What are the main points to pay attention to?

You need to know your speech cold, or you won’t be able to do anything but struggle through. The ability to do more than survive depends on knowing the speech so well that you have some extra RAM to devote to all the other things you and the audience are supposed to be doing.

If you do know your speech, then the first place to put your focus is on you. Is your body language consistent with your message? In other words, if you’re asking the assembled multitudes to work harder, stay later, and bring in more customers in order to meet a stretch goal for the 3rd Q, then do you look like someone who is already doing that? How is your posture? Is it straight and heart-oriented? If you’re slouching, don’t expect your audience to respond to your plea. You don’t look like you’re ready to, so why should they?

Then think about your body language in relation to the audience. Are you looking at them, more specifically, selected individuals within the audience in about 30-second bursts? Is your face animated, energetic, and interested? Once again, if you’re not having a fabulous time and showing it, don’t expect the audience to respond.

Then get in that audience and give a brief bit of your speech to one audience member, in the front right part of the audience. Once you’ve done that, go back left. Then front left, and then back right. Imagine you’re having a conversation with each one in turn. Audiences will take the individual to be a proxy for the whole, and everyone will feel like (to a slightly lesser extent) they had an individual conversation with you. They’ll remember the speech as personal, engaging, and authentic.

Remember, every speech is two conversations, the verbal and the non-verbal, and you need to be in control of both. Because when they are aligned, you can be persuasive. When they’re not aligned, the audience believes the non-verbal every time.


  1. A very nice explanation about non-verbal communication. I have heard many people giving various explanations about this but this article is comprehensive, innovative and informative. Thanks to Nick Morgan for his in depth analysis about this mode of communication. I really felt pleased when I finished the last sentence of this post. Thanks Nick for your inputs.

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