Improve your non-verbal communication

Posted on February 28, 2019

You may have the best political ideas in the world (from PLI’s Progressive Agenda!) and employ the best messaging (from PLI’s Voicing Our Values!) but still communicate ineffectively because of a failure in non-verbal communication.

In face-to-face communication—whether you are giving a speech, making a fundraising pitch, or talking to neighbors at their doors—what you say can be overridden by how you say it. That’s because your listeners rely on non-verbal information, like body language and verbal tone, to determine what you really mean.

A famous study by Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, found that an audience decodes the intent behind a speaker’s words:

  • from visual clues (facial expression and body language) about 55 percent of the time;
  • from tone of voice about 38 percent of the time; and
  • from the speaker’s actual words only about 7 percent of the time.

Mehrabian’s work also demonstrated that when a speaker’s words and non-verbal messages are in conflict, the audience consistently believes the non-verbal. There are several common situations where this research is important to you.

First, when people are trying to decide whether or not they like you, they will pay most attention to your non-verbal expression. Politics is a popularity contest of sorts, and whether you win or lose often depends on whether people like you enough to listen.

Second, when people are trying to decide whether they trust you, they will again pay most attention to non-verbal cues. For example, if you use strong words about a policy problem but your shoulders are slumped, your hand gestures are weak, and your voice is high, they will simply not trust your presentation.

Third, when people are trying decide whether to believe what you are telling them—because they aren’t familiar with the facts of the matter—they focus on non-verbal “proof” of the matter. This is very important when communicating with persuadable Americans because they pay the least attention to the nuances of politics or policy.

Fourth, if people disagree with your position on an issue they will still use non-verbal cues to make up their minds about you. For example, they may disagree with particular facts or ideas but decide to support your side anyway because you come across, non-verbally, as a stable and trustworthy person.

In short, we all use our emotions to help us decide what to think. Oftentimes we will first form an opinion based on our emotions and then look for facts to support that opinion. When the verbal and non-verbal are in conflict, people trust the non-verbal. So it is essential to make your best possible non-verbal presentation.

About your posture: You don’t want to give the appearance of weakness or insecurity. So don’t stand with your feet too far apart, or locked side by side. Don’t sway forward, slouch, crouch over or put all your weight on one hip. Don’t let your arms hang limply at your sides, droop your shoulders or look down. Don’t cross your arms, clasp your hands in front of you, put your hands on your waist or in your pockets.

Instead, adopt a posture that projects confidence. Stand up straight, with your feet shoulder width apart, and balance your weight over the balls of your feet. Keep knees and hips in line with the middle of your feet (not forward or back). Relax your shoulders, keep your chest up and stomach in. Hold your head upright and straight with your chin elevated slightly. Hold arms at your sides, in a controlled manner with fingers slightly curled; (this takes a little getting used to, but it is a very open posture to assume). Overall, stay alert, but relaxed.

About your movement and use of space: Don’t move just for the sake of moving; don’t rock, sway, pace, or race back and forth across the stage. Don’t move forward toward the audience too suddenly (aggressively), and don’t lean on the podium.

Instead, own your space; give the appearance of control and purpose, in natural manner. Use gestures as you move, then re-establish good posture when you stop. Scale your gestures to the size of the audience/room. Step forward to establish a connection with an audience member, or to signal you are about to make an important point. Step backward as you conclude an important point, or to create a verbal and physical pause. Move laterally to strengthen a transition between thoughts.

About your gestures: Don’t over-gesture. Don’t use gestures that don’t feel natural to you, in other words, don’t try to “play” politician. Don’t cross your arms (cold, closed), or clasp your hands in front of you (weak), or put your hands on your waist (too parental), or put your hands in your pockets (nervous). Don’t touch your hair, face or neck (nervous), or put your hands behind your back (what are you hiding?), or use gestures that are much wider than your body (out of control), or use too many large gestures (chaotic).

Instead, use gestures that match your presentation. Incorporate natural gestures that you do spontaneously when practicing your remarks. You can use hands open, palm up at a 45 degree angle, to express honesty and openness; hands open, palms down, to express certainty; and hands open, palms perpendicular, to express measurement or movement. Use gestures that go somewhat wider than your body (for a large concept or idea), but “stay in the frame” even if there’s no camera. Be sensitive to cultural differences; use gestures that mean the same thing to the audience as they do to you.

About your facial expressions: You want to avoid looking nervous, harsh or wooden. Don’t smile constantly, lick or bite your lips, or tighten your jaw. Don’t scowl, sneer or shake your head “no” when you mean “yes” (you’d be surprised how many people do this).

Instead, use facial expressions purposefully. Smile but make sure your expressions match your points. Practice in front of a mirror, especially if you are naturally prone to having a “poker face.” Arch your eyebrows to indicate skepticism.

About your eye contact: Don’t scan the room generally, or look only at one area of the room, or dart your eyes around the room, or try to look at everyone, or methodically work through the room section to section. Don’t look at your notes or slides more than you look at people. Don’t bore down on people, or look at the top of people’s heads, or at the back row.

Instead, try to maintain eye contact 90 percent of the time—natural eye contact. Make eye contact with individuals in the room, make a connection with people who are nodding and frowning, and connect with people who help humanize your points (i.e. look at a parent with her child when making a point about education). Maintain eye contact with the same person for one complete sentence or thought. In a large room, focus on the sections about two-thirds of the way back from the front. Be sensitive to cultural differences; gently look away if it seems someone is uncomfortable with you looking at them.

About your breathing: Don’t forget to breathe, or forget that shallow breathing will make your voice sound more shrill (louder, maybe, but not more powerful).

Instead, practice breathing deep and exhaling slowly. Take a breath before you start speaking, use deep breathing to form a natural, powerful sound, breathe during pauses, and breathe through verbal tics (i.e. “um,” “ah”).

About your voice: Don’t speak in a monotone, or speak too quickly or mumble. Don’t use words you can’t say, (i.e. avoid “s” words if you have a lisp, and don’t use words you routinely stumble over).

Instead, practice an even but slightly varied tone. Employ breathing exercises if your voice is squeaky and high (more common with women). Pause just before and after an important word or concept to allow your audience to absorb that you are making an important point, and speak in an appropriate voice, (i.e. conversational at a house party, authoritatively in a debate).

About your volume: Don’t raise and lower your volume too many times (erratic). Don’t try to use volume to convey power; a powerful voice comes from proper breathing. And don’t speak over applause, laughter, etc.

Instead, project your voice and articulate clearly. Use volume purposefully, make sure you are using it to convey the proper tone. Raise the volume to convey excitement, anger, indignation, energy, and lower your volume to convey seriousness and draw people in. Learn how to use a microphone properly and practice raising your volume if you are soft-spoken and generally hard to hear. Conversely, lower your volume if you are a naturally loud speaker. Minimize noise distractions (i.e., ask for lunch to be served before your speech, and close windows).

About your pitch: Don’t keep your pitch high (unless you want to be perceived as weak, nervous and less truthful), and don’t vary your pitch too frequently.

Instead, lower your pitch to convey authority and credibility (women naturally have a higher pitch than men, but both genders usually benefit from lowering their pitch somewhat). Relax and take deep breaths, and vary your pitch (higher to convey excitement, lower to convey seriousness). Practice your inflection.

About your tempo: Don’t lift the end of your sentences unless you are, in fact, asking a question, and don’t lose the audience with long, run-on sentences.

Instead, vary the tempo, or pace, of your speech. Practice speaking 150-160 words per minute (a slow speaker speaks 120/minute and a fast speaker 190; planning 150-160 will allow you to vary your tempo). Use a faster tempo to convey excitement, importance, and a slower pace to convey seriousness. Use appropriate sentence length to match your speaking style and to allow the audience to absorb what you are saying. And use pauses to transition between ideas, call attention to an important thought and capture attention.

All of you public speakers out there, think about how you spend your time when preparing to give a speech. Are you like most policymakers and leaders we’ve worked with—focusing exclusively or almost exclusively on the words? We urge you to thoroughly practice your non-verbal presentation. That’s what friends (and mirrors) are for!