How Nonverbal Communication Gives Our Words Meaning

Let’s talk technique. Nonverbal technique, to be precise. How you say what you say. It’s what gives our words meaning when we speak, because, let's face it, standing up there doing a data dump is not going to engage your audience. I don't care how much they need to know about the Future of Technology as it Pertains to 1st World Economics.

The job of a business speaker is to inform, engage, motivate, and entertain, not necessarily in that order. My clients always worry about that last directive, that if they try too hard to be entertaining, they'll come off as too slick. I have never seen this happen. I have, however, seen audiences in various states of--shall we say--relaxation: Audience members playing with their hair, reading, thumbing their smartphones or, worst of all, nodding off. It is the speaker’s responsibility to see to it these things don't happen.

So how can you keep people not only awake, but interested? Great content is critical. But it alone is not enough. Delivering the medicine, whatever it is, requires careful and deliberate use of nonverbal communication:

  1. Voice: The most loaded of the codes, vocal characteristics include tone, expression, volume, rate, pace and accent/dialect issues. At the top of this list is expression. Use a wide range of pitch and vary it. Steer clear of the “corporate monotone,” the current fad, unless you do want to put people to sleep. Your voice should have power and energy, diction should be crisp. I’m going to do a post just on voice--that’s how important it is and how much there is to say about it.
  2. Hands: Clients always tell me they’ve been told not to use their hands too much. Wrong! Hands are two of the best tools you have to express yourself. Recent research has shown that hand gestures help us think! They also help our audiences learn. So gesture to your heart’s content. 
  3. Body and Movement: Posture should be erect, but not military. Leaning slightly toward your audience lets them know how eager you are to be with them and share. When walking to the platform, stride purposefully. Look happy, not fearful. Once on stage, command that stage, but don’t pace back and forth. That’s another habit that will lull people to sleep. 
  4. Eyes: Eyes really are the mirrors of the soul. Our western business culture places great importance on eye communication. We can build rapport with audiences by looking at them. On stage, in front of small groups, make your way around the audience. For large groups, take in a few people at the same time. You’ll be far enough away to create the illusion you’re looking directly at each of them. Eye contact is also a terrific way to assert control during a debate or discussion you want to win.
  5. Facial Animation: Your face should reflect your feelings. If you have an interesting piece of information, it could be reflected in a raised brow. Smiling certainly has its place. There is a fantastic range of movement in the facial musculature that can communicate a tremendous amount of information.
  6. Dress and Adornment: This refers to everything you weren't born wearing, all the choices we make in clothing, accessories, hairstyle, and makeup. The choices for a presentation range far too widely to cover in this post. However, a good rule is to see what the highly regarded people in your workplace are wearing during their presentations and emulate them. It also doesn't hurt to ask someone in authority.

By the way, not all presentations are done standing. Many are done around a conference table. Everything I mention applies to the seated presentation. Just because you're sitting down is no excuse to be boring.

Taken together, these nonverbal codes will make you a much more interesting speaker, more able to display your passion and commitment, more capable of grabbing your audience and holding them until you, not they, are done.

Ruth Sherman Associates LLC / High-Stakes Presentation Skills Coaching, Consulting & Media Training for CEOs, Celebrities, Politicians, & Entrepreneurs / Greenwich & Los Angeles

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[Image: Flickr user aileron]

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