From childhood, we are told the adage – ‘Actions speak louder than words’. We are told repeatedly the importance of body language (or ‘non-verbals’ as we call it in the anthropological world) by countless YouTube communication ‘gurus’ and the myriad of ways how you can master your body language skills.
Why is Body Language important? Can’t verbal messages do the trick?
Short answer – Yes they are important. No verbal messages don’t cut it.
To truly understand why we need to time-travel millions of years into the past and meet our ancestors – our stone-tool wielding, animal-hunting, grubby cave-dwellers.
You see, body language is quite ancient. It is said to be the first type of communication to emerge all those million years ago. Our ancestors used to communicate with each other by a mixture of grunting, gestures, and body movement. They would assess the body language of the humans of other human tribes to sense if they were ‘safe’ or a ‘threat’.
Modern humans emerge from those primitive cave-dwellers. As a consequence, our brains are always assessing our surroundings and other people – classifying them as ‘safe’ or ‘threat’ and the definitive factor in classifying other humans is, you guessed it, Body Language.
The brain uses this primaeval notion of body language, picks them up and responds to body language cues subconsciously all the time.
Therefore, today, if your verbal message and non-verbal message are not in sync, the receiver of your message is hard-wired by millions of years of evolution to not trust you, and you will lose credibility.
In Public Speaking, this can prove catastrophic as any loss in credibility can hamper your efforts to convey a message.
What are some areas that humans are hard-wired to pick-up?
In the modern study of Public Speaking, we identify five areas that form a significant part of your non-verbal communication.
Humans are the only primates that have the whites in their eyes (the sclera, if you will). An accepted theory 0 called the Cooperative eye hypothesis, says that this evolved so that humans can follow another’s gaze while communicating. The other human can see where humans are giving their attention to and this is especially helpful while hunting.
They say that ‘eyes are the window to the soul’. It is true! A smile only feels genuine when it reflects in the eye. We avert eye-contact when we are shy. The eye always conveys genuine emotions, whether we realise it or not.
The eyes serve as the focal point of the body. Eye contact tells your audience that your focus is on them. It conveys sincerity, integrity, and comfort when communicating with another person and builds a lasting connection with your audience.
On the contrary, avoiding eye contact could also mean that you may not like the person and is instrumental in building a disconnect.
Did you know?
Children start using gestures right from the tender age of 8! It is one of the first things babies learn so that they can communicate with their caregivers and make themselves understood.
Gestures are paramount in complementing and supporting the verbal message. Gestures help wherever verbal communication cannot be clear. They are extremely helpful to indicate space, comparison, amounts, and emphasise words or phrases.
For example – instead of just saying “this portion of the audience please join me”, showing the portion of the audience that must join you would make your message crystal-clear.
The study of facial expressions began quite recently – with the prevalence of silent films in the 19th century. Actors had to emulate how their characters would feel in a given situation realistically through facial expressions, and the efforts paid off in spades. It truly is fascinating how we connect to these characters in silent movies without them uttering a single word.
The face is the first part of the body that people observe when you’re talking. People focus on your face for an overwhelming amount of time and so can detect even the slightest inconsistency. Using your facial muscles to convey the right emotions is a sure-shot way to be effective. This is why mastering your facial expressions is crucial to communicating with force.
If you’re bored in a presentation, you slouch over and start doodling in your notebook. When you feel anxious, your body mirrors that by making you shake your leg. If you are afraid, you exhibit ‘self-soothing’ behaviour. Your body movement always mirrors your current state of mind.
One big signifier of your current emotional state is the placement of your feet or arms. Placing your arms in front of your chest makes you seem defensive. Uncrossing your arms make you seem more ‘open’ and reliable. Feet pointing towards your audience is an indication of your interest towards them whereas feet pointing elsewhere betrays your uninterest.
Positive or negative emotions are quite difficult to curb – especially in your body movement. A good public speaker must keep an eye on the information their body movement is conveying and regulate them. Some good practices include smiling, opening up your shoulders and arms, and nodding when you are listening.
You may have the best facial expressions or the most dynamic gestures, but if your posture isn’t natural and relaxed, your message will not be impactful.
Posture is the way you stand up or sit down. Slouched postures or overly rigid postures convey your anxiety and fear to your audience. Slouched postures, in particular, indicate submissiveness or fear whereas a rigid posture indicates that you are uncomfortable and aggressive. It mirrors the flight or fight response in our body – both of which is not a good message to convey to your audience.
Your posture conveys a message to your audience Ensure that the message is exactly what you intend to convey.
We are all familiar with Albert Mehrabian’s 55-38-7 rule of Personal Communication where the study found that 55%, 38% and 7% of our communication is actually done by body-language, vocal tone, and words respectively. This means that words only account for 7% of what you say. What is truly picked up by the receiver is a majority of your non-verbals and vocal tone.
If you could master the 55% – your non-verbals, you would immediately improve your effectiveness exponentially. You amplify your verbal message by complementing it with your body language.
Public speaking is a lot more than just walking on a stage and delivering your speech. It is about relaxing your body and appearing natural, about using eye-contact to maintain a connection throughout your speech and using gestures to make your speech memorable. You can do all of this by mastering your body language and making your body talk.