Louder than words – non-verbal communications

Copyright October 2008

The US election presidential debates. Senator Obama counted on his fingers. Senator McCain stuck out his tongue, rolled his eyes and wandered the stage. Who won the debates? The polls and the independent pundits credited Senator Obama with having a clear plan to address the economic crisis. And for a man whose opposition was trying to position him as someone without the experience and ability to lead the country, that was victory for Senator Obama. Both had non-verbal communications. Why Obama over McCain?

One of the thinkers about “body language” has said that this isn’t just a “by-product” of the speech process (Kendon 1980). He said it was just a different way that we expressed ideas and that the receiver registered them as such.

So, in the thoughtful piece Debate coaches: McCain must up game on Politico.com October 13, 2008, Andy Barr compared McCain’s delivery of his plan with Obama’s: “McCain then made many of the same points, but in a digressive fashion that was considerably harder to follow…The dishevelled delivery (my emphasis) was matched in last week’s town hall debate by an equally disconcerting style, as McCain walked around the stage seemingly without purpose.”

Back to Kendon. The non-verbal communication of Senator McCain in the debates has spoken louder than his words and his “ideas” have not gone over well with those he needed to influence.

There are many examples of non-verbal communications – demeanor captures part of it – conflicting with verbal communications. Here’s a reprise of a piece I did a few years ago in another space.

Did Kobe Bryant – the Los Angeles Lakers basketball star accused of sexually assaulting a female hotel employee in Colorado – hurt his claim of innocence because his demeanour sent the wrong message? At least one PR consultant thinks he may have.

When reports first came out that he was being investigated, Bryant acted as though nothing had happened, even appearing the picture of contentment at an awards show with his wife.

But, on MSNBC’s Right Now program, Los Angeles PR executive Michael Levine commented that Bryant didn’t act “innocent.” He said that if he were advising Bryant, he would recommend a strategy that would have Bryant “create a feeling of more righteous indignation” over the accusation.

It took the prosecutor a couple of weeks to lay the charge of sexual assault. Only at that time did Bryant become righteously indignant about his innocence. (Not too righteous – he had to admit that he had committed adultery with the woman, but claimed it was strictly on a consenting basis.)

MSNBC Editor-in-Chief Jerry Nachman commented that more than a PR strategy, Bryant’s early lack of righteous indignation – his demeanour in other words – spoke to a key legal point.

Nachman was referring to the “exceptions to the hearsay rule” regarding testimony. One such exception is “tacit admission,” which means that if a person fails to strenuously deny an accusation, statements about his or her passive demeanour can be used in testimony – from a policeman perhaps – to support tacit admission. In layman’s language, according to Nachman: “an innocent man wrongly accused will protest.”

 The picture of attitude

Even those of us who don’t have celebrity clients (or bosses) need to be aware of the impact of demeanour in the business environment.

For instance, consider the story of a CEO who is not happy with the demeanour at meetings of a particular high-potential young executive. While another senior officer interprets the demeanour as a front for shyness, the CEO finds it either a display of boredom or displeasure. Either way, demeanour is now a factor in the career path of this individual.

And herein lies a big part of the problem of demeanour as message. First, we may not know that we are displaying a certain demeanour, and second, whether we know or not, we don’t have control over how others interpret that demeanour.

Certainly different audiences have interpreted Kobe Bryant’s initial “no sweat” reaction to the allegation of a sexual assault in different ways. He may have meant one thing, but some people interpreted it as another thing entirely.

We all have our biases, which are based on prior knowledge. It’s this prior knowledge that we use to filter all new data coming into our brain.

We have images of demeanour stored in our brains, and meaning attached to the variety of demeanours: bored, outraged, angry, afraid, threatening, empathetic, enthusiastic, interested, and so on.

Vincent Covello, the risk communications expert, tells a great story that demonstrates just how this works. At a public meeting where a certain company’s representatives were meeting with “the community” over a contentious issue, he instructed the executives on the panel to sit forward throughout the whole meeting – even if it went on for several hours. They were not to sit back in their chairs and they were not to cross their arms over their chests.

Once the meeting was well underway and photographers and TV camera operators had drifted away from the front of the stage, Covello signalled one of the execs to display the banned demeanour. Once that one executive had leaned back in his chair and folded his arms, it took only a moment for the visual image makers – the photographers and camera operators – to move into position to capture that executive’s demeanour. But before they could shoot, Covello signalled the exec to sit forward and uncross his arms. The media waited, but when the demeanour didn’t reappear, they went back to the sidelines.

Covello explains that the disengaged posture of leaning back, together with the crossed arms of “closed” body language captured for the media the stereotypical demeanour of big company executives toward the little people of the community and their concerns. It was this “prior knowledge” image that the media had in their brains as an illustration of disinterest.

 Walking the talk

So, when we walk into a business meeting, what message are we giving with our demeanour and what interpretation are the others in the room giving it? Is it what we want them to read?

In an article entitled The Power of Posture, Nick Morgan* wrote:

“The way you stand could change your life. Immediately. For businesspeople, stance is an important indicator of how deeply you are engaged with your job, how much you believe in the products you are selling, how confident you are that your company will survive.”

Of course, it’s not only how we stand but also how we sit, as Covello demonstrated. It’s our whole demeanour. And the first step in ensuring that our body language matches the message we want to send is to be aware of our demeanour. When we become conscious of our demeanour, then we can modify it. (I’m still on the learning curve on this. I tend to display my emotions and feelings and am not good at poker – I have too many “tells.”) Sometimes that means asking a trusted advisor to watch us and give us a description of our demeanour.

As Covello advised his corporate clients, we can still be bored, but don’t let anyone see the signals for it! Match your demeanour with your conscious, intended message.

# # # 

* Nick Morgan is the Editor of Harvard Management Communication Letter. “The Power of Posture” appeared in the HBS Working Knowledge electronic newsletter but first appeared as “Are You Standing in the Way of Your Own Success” in the June 2003 edition of HMCL.


One Response to “Louder than words – non-verbal communications”

  1. Linda Says:

    I love this because it is so true. We sometimes focus so much on what we or our client’s are saying that we let our body language go unnoticed. A very good article to remind us of the importance of the “whole package.”

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