Return to site

Show me what you mean

by Stephan Moons

During my training sessions about public speaking I make a distinction between
word language, voice language and body language.
In order to illustrate the distinction between the three communication forms I play a trainer who introduces himself in three different ways:

  1. Completely frozen with a monotonous voice (focus on word language)
  2. Completely frozen but adding voice variations in volume, timbre, pitch, speed (adding voice language)
  3. Using voice variations in volume, timbre, pitch and speed while using  gestures to emphasize the meaning of my message (adding body language)

After performing the three role plays my students unanimously agree that the third version is the most engaging and convincing.

And yet quite some students find it difficult to use more body language in order to get their message across. Some believe that by moving more they will lose the thread and get stuck in their presentation, others believe that it will distract their audience.

I perceive a lot of discomfort when body language is dealt with.

Micro expressions

Micro expressions are about small and sudden changements in our facial traits that reveal emotions.

After I had attended an online course in micro expressions (METT) I realised that I was far more skilled at it than I had ever realised. In the beginning I found it hard to recognise anger, joy, sadness, fear, disgust and amazement when seeing flashes of facial expressions, but after some practice I became really good at it. I tend to believe that we are all good at reading body language, but that somehow we started neglecting it in favour of spoken language.

If we don't speak it out, we act it out. 

Emotions are revealed in our body language in a universal way. To this regard I have learned a lot from reading Paul Ekman, author of Emotions Revealed.

Sometimes I tell my students a neutral message while making a gesture that is proven to reveal a particular emotion such as fear or uncertainty. Immediately after I ask them how they believe I felt while telling my message. Many of them can easily derive it from the accompanying gesture I made.

We have been reading body language long before spoken language existed. Its correct interpretation must have been tremendously important to our survival.

At word level we might not hear the exact message of a participant, but when failing to read body language we simply ignore a great part of the meaning of the message: the real emotions that drive someone to make a statement or refrain him from telling the whole story.

Getting the meaning right is an important trust builder. Trust is the solid foundation of a good connection with your participants that facilitates credibility and influence.

Body language is an essential part of our communication and reveals a great part of the true meaning of the message. It can reveal how we really respond to a message.

It sounds good, but looks bad

I advise my students to thoroughly prepare their content before their presentation, but to focus on their participants during their presentation. Watch their body language carefully, especially when they are speaking. Here's why...

Ever been in the following situation?

During your presentation one of your participants asks for a clarification. After your explanation you inquire whether all is clear now. Your participant answers: "Yes, thanks for that."
It sounds great, but doesn't look good...
Somehow your senses have picked up fear, shame, lack of confidence... What you see and feel is not what you get. And yet, you can hear yourself conclude with 'OK, let's carry on then!'

Body language reveals a great deal of the meaning load, and yet we tend to respond only to word language: 'OK, let's carry on then!'
We seldom investigate perceived body language, although it's an essential part of communication. Why?

Afraid to intrude or embarras?

Haven't we got a clue what to say?

Take a look at the following dialogue:

Does this make things clearer?

- Yes, thanks for that! (shouting NO in body language)

You're welcome. Thanks for your question. I know this is a complex matter, and you have just helped me to

make things clearer. What else do you need?

An attempt by the presenter is made to restore safety. The participant now feels more encouraged to speak up. As an additional result other participants may also overcome their fear of showing their lack of understanding.

Public speaking is very often about selling a project and getting buy-in. Simply delivering your content is a bit like flying blind: you don't know what's happening around you, but somehow hope to reach your destination. Body language is like a set of sensitive instruments in the fog that can give you a better indication of what is really going on.

We are no mind-readers. At least I don't know any. To figure out the real meaning behind a message we can cautiously and respectfully investigate body language we perceive. In doing so mutual understanding grows, we become better aligned, and a gratifying sense of shaping things together will contribute to better results.

- Egg faces by Dominique Wirtz -