Body Language Myths

You’re being introduced to the sponsors of an important speech you’re giving next week. To create a good first impression, you arrive full of pep. You talk fast, shake hands firmly and quickly. Your gestures are sharp and energetic. Have you sufficiently impressed your hosts with your enthusiasm and credibility?

Likely not. Establishing a credible first impression is often more about talking and less about moving. It’s about using a slower, lower manner of speaking with fewer gestures. People subconsciously associate self-confidence and empathy with a controlled body style. Your hosts likely thought you were either trying too hard to impress or were sky high on espresso.

A sales representative is pitching his organization’s latest-and-greatest business planning software to a prospect at the senior management level. Midway through the presentation, the prospect leans back in her chair and crosses her arms in front of her. Should the rep read the body language as unspoken resistance to his price or benefits and quickly shift gears?

The prospect in fact loves the product, but simply was chilled by the cold temperature in the conference room.

A speaker stands rooted behind a lectern, exhibiting little discernible body language. But his content features an abundance of real-world examples, strong metaphors and visuals that amplify rather than distract. He also throws in some self-deprecating humor for good measure. Yet aside from good eye contact and periodic head movements, he could be a mannequin on the stage. Does this noticeable lack of body energy have the effect of passing out Sominex to the audience?

In fact, this speaker scores high on post-speech audience evaluations for authenticity, compelling content and strong storytelling ability.

The first two scenarios have one thing in common – speakers who thought they knew something about body language but sabotaged themselves either through the subconscious messages their own actions sent or by misinterpreting another person’s body language. However, we see in the third scenario that it is just as possible to ignore the body language “dos” and “don’ts” and still achieve a successful presentation.

We’ve all been conditioned to believe that some hard and fast rules exist for body language, guidelines that allow us to decode the subliminal messages being sent by certain gestures, postures, eye contact or other movements. Who among us hasn’t been advised at some point not to cross our arms while speaking, to avoid moving a closed fist up and down, or – especially in the case of women – to replace naturally flowing hand gestures with sharp moves or jabs to drive home a point?

Every day in the United States, speech coaches tell their students to stand with their feet 6 to 8 inches apart, use the “Z” rule of eye contact and use the wide, sweeping hand gestures of a televangelist when speaking. And every day, a good deal of their advice is wrong.

Urban Myths
Recent studies on the psychology of body language suggest that much of common wisdom that most people accept as gospel is really nonsense. There is no denying that some body language is universal – a smile is a smile regardless of whether you are in Boston, Buenos Aires or Berlin – but intentions and interpretations are far more frequently in the eye of the beholder than we imagine, and they are complicated by cultural factors, family origins, social dynamics, personal habits – and even room temperatures.

Indeed, much of what people think they know about body language is really urban folklore. The three examples in the opening of this the article illustrate that there is far more gray than black and white when it comes to the golden rules of body language and that includes many of the “rules” governing speaking scenarios. That doesn’t mean all conventional wisdom is suspect. Speakers who make nervous circles with their hands or rock back and forth behind the lectern would still be wise to kick those habits. Knowing how and why our bodies betray us onstage, though, is a good step toward making sure our body language is working for us, not against us. 

Power and Pitfalls of Non-Verbals
Body language is complicated because it is a double-edged sword. It has the power to amplify and elucidate the spoken word and, conversely, to express unspoken thoughts and feelings, sometimes to the point of betraying a speaker’s true intentions. Author John Napier put it best in his book Hands, a seminal work on the evolution, mechanics and functioning of the human hand. “If language was given to people to conceal their thoughts, then gesture’s purpose was to disclose them.” Experts on non-verbal behavior say we literally “leak” our true or masked feelings through our body language and movements.

Most theories on body language suggest that verbal and non-verbal communication operate independently of each other. But one theory holds that language and gesture are a single, integrated system. In other words, no separate gesture language exists besides a spoken language – a supposition that David McNeil, a University of Chicago professor of linguistics and psychology, explores in his book Hand and Mind: What Gestures Reveal About Thought (University of Chicago Press, 1992). “Just as binocular vision brings out a new dimension of seeing, gesture reveals a new dimension of the mind,” McNeil writes. He also theorizes that gestures do not simply reflect thought, they also affect thought. Gestures occur, he says, because they’re part of a speaker’s ongoing thought process, and without them thoughts might be altered or incomplete. 


                    "There is far more gray than black and white when
                    it comes to the golden rules of body language."



“The body is a hologram of your being, a 3D movie that is constantly on, showing others how you feel about yourself and the world,” says Kare Anderson, a speaker and presentation skills coach with Say It Better Center of Sausalito, California. While people consciously read your body language, Anderson says, they subconsciously react to your body signals. If a person’s mouth is saying one thing but her body another, a creeping sense of confusion and skepticism can overtake the listener, preventing a speaker’s true message from connecting. 

Myths and Misinterpretations
Certainly some common wisdom regarding effective use of body language in speeches is based on sound empirical research. But many body-language bromides are little more than urban myths that have seeped into our belief systems by sheer repetition, passed along in how-to books or industry conferences like so much gossip.

For example, how many times have you dragged yourself to an opening sunrise session at an industry conference, only to be greeted by a supercharged speaker who launches himself onstage to the strains of the Rocky theme song? “How is everybody this morning?” he bellows, gesturing in broad televangelist strokes, followed by the obligatory, “I can’t hearrrr you!”

Research suggests that such attempts to energize early-morning audiences are ill-conceived at best. Morning speakers are better off starting out at an energy level that more closely approximates the audience’s. “Speakers do it because they think they’re going to lift the audience to their level, but the research shows that the more you look different from someone upon first contact, the more likely they’ll feel different from you and less they’ll like you,” says Anderson. “That doesn’t mean the early-morning speaker doesn’t come out without presence or warmth, only that he or she start at a medium range of energy and be more conversational.” 

Crossed Signals
Consider too the open versus crossed arms body-language axiom, which says that people who cross their arms are more resistant to whatever message they are receiving. This may be true in some cases, but it’s folly to generalize their interpretation to every situation. “Research shows that many men are most comfortable in conversations with their arms crossed in front of their bodies,” Anderson says, “which doesn’t necessarily mean they are disbelieving or resisting a message. And many women, when they are feeling slightly chilled, will cross their arms in front of them during a conversation.”

Since humans are naturally imitative animals, someone who crosses his arms may simply be mirroring someone else’s body language. “If you see people up on stage crossing their arms, you’re more likely to do it yourself, often instinctively or without realizing it,” Anderson says.
We’ve all undoubtedly heard that moving our fist up and down empathetically may be interpreted as a hostile gesture. Yet communications expert Phyllis Mindell, author of the book How to Say It For Women, says her experience is that plenty of strong speakers use the gesture effectively to show power. And although some how-to books discourage open-palm gestures as being weak or cold, Mindell says that, depending on the situation, they can work well “as gestures of friendliness and inclusiveness.” 

Know Yourself and Your Body Will Follow
If you’re striving to use body language in a way that better enhances your spoken messages, experts say your best bet is simply this: Be your own counsel and do what comes naturally, because the most effective gestures are spontaneous ones. Trying to apply the numerous and often-contradictory “rules” and guidelines of body language that the experts hand down can turn you into a quivering mass of self-consciousness, steering you way off your message.

“There are a lot of myths that work against presenters, making them more anxious and unsure of themselves than they need to be,” says Gwenn Marie, an executive presentations skills coach with Coombs Media in Rochester, New York. “One of those myths is that there is a certain way to hold your body or use your arms and hands in a presentation. But from my perspective, it’s far more important to align the message and the body language with the natural and authentic being of the presenter.” 


                    "Many body-language bromides are little more than urban myths."


Whether you’re a natural cheerleader, statesman or provocateur on stage, what’s more important is what’s in your blood, says Marie. As long as your message and non-verbals are aligned with your “blood” or natural inclinations, you’ll be effective and believable.

If someone is a natural gesturer, Marie says, more power to him or her. But she believes some speech coaches go wrong trying to strong-arm speakers who aren’t natural gesturers into using more motions. “There’s nothing more painful than a speaker who goes off-message because he’s focusing on using gestures that some golden rule says he should use, but that don’t come naturally,” she says.

Even if one of her clients is nearly motionless on stage, Marie won’t encourage more use of body language as long as other key elements of good presentation are in place – voice quality and variation, conviction, strong content and good eye contact. 

Body and Mind, Working Together
Speakers can bring energy to presentations in plenty of other ways rather than having to rely on the artificial energy created through unnatural gestures. Those things include a passion for their content, confidence in their knowledge or appropriate use of humor. “Some speakers may not have the gestures, but they have an amazing sincerity and intensity about them, so they don’t need the non-verbals,” Marie says. “They carry it with their voice, their content and their aura.”

It’s particularly important that speakers be encouraged to gesture naturally in high pressure situations, Marie says. She has seen high-powered executives become thrown by large crowds or the presence of TV cameras and microphones, so she is constantly looking for ways to give them permission to be exactly who they are.

“It’s amazing what happens to speakers when you give them the freedom to be themselves,” she says. It’s the best way possible to make sure the body and mind are speaking the same language.


Dave Zielinski is a freelance writer who divides his time between Wisconsin and South Carolina. 




How Well Can You Read Body Language?
How good is the average person at reading body language? Can we get better at discerning what faces or bodies in our audiences are truly telling us about the impact or tempo of our speeches? Or conversely, about a speaker’s true intentions or convictions?

University of San Francisco psychology professor Maureen O’Sullivan studies how well people detect deception by relying on non-verbal cues from others. Given a video of subjects to review in controlled studies, most laymen detect lying about 60 percent of the time – barely above a flip of the coin. “Most people are pretty terrible at discerning whether other people are lying,” O’Sullivan says. “But if you ask them, ‘Is the person you’re watching comfortable?’ most will be able to determine that the liar is less comfortable than the non-liar, but they won’t go to the next step of calling them a liar.”

Yet one intriguing body of research suggests some people are much better than others at reading non-verbal cues that indicate lying, implying that with the right training and practice, people can become much better at interpreting body language. In this study, O’Sullivan and colleague Paul Ekman of the University of California at San Francisco tested the ability to detect lying among groups that included the U.S. Secret Service, CIA, the FBI, the California police, psychiatrists, judges and college students.

To the researchers’ surprise, the Secret Service agents came out markedly ahead of the other groups in ability to accurately judge lying or truthfulness; more than 50 percent of the agents scored at or above a 70 percent accuracy level in assessing videotaped interviews where interviewees were asked to either tell the truth or lie about a film they’d just been watching.

What made the Secret Service more foolproof than others? For one thing, the researchers found that the agents used different information than the other groups did, tending to emphasize nonverbal more than verbal cues. O’Sullivan says the agents appeared to possess superior skills in spotting or decoding “micro-expressions,” subtle emotional information displayed on the face. The agents also knew that facial muscular movements typically included more masking-type smiles when subjects lied and more enjoyment-type smiles when they told the truth.

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