Bill Gates and the head posture — can you get away with it?
Bill Gates was all over the news last week in the UK talking about his charitable programs, taxes, and eradicating disease. Here’s a brief sample clip of the billionaire in action on the BBC.
Bill's public persona presents a fascinating dilemma for communications coaches like myself, because he’s doing one important thing wrong – but it doesn’t really matter. What’s up?
When we’re in front of an audience, either standing up or sitting down, the way in which we stand (or sit) has an essential effect on how we’re perceived. There are 3 possible ways for humans to stand (teenagers can manage a fourth, but more about that in a minute). First, seen from the side, we can pitch our head forward, and slump our shoulders, adopting the head posture. This is the posture typically adopted by intellectuals, professors, and people who are discouraged, dominated, defeated, or dismayed. I have demonstrated this posture many times for audiences, and they always react in a very specific way. Audiences read the posture as subservient, timid, unhappy to be there, and shy.
Second, again witnessed from the side, we can lead with our pelvis, adopting the pelvic posture. This is the posture typically adopted by fashion models on catwalks, slinky actresses playing vamps, and flirtatious secretaries in ‘Fifties sitcoms. I have demonstrated this posture for audiences, to general hilarity, and they always react, again, in a very specific way. Depending on how ‘PC’ they are, they’ll say “a come-on” or “Don Juan!” or just “creepy!” Audiences read the posture as flirtatious, sleazy, or, in the words of one young, enthusiastic audience member, “You’re trying to hook up!”
Third, we can stand straight, like a soldier, only without quite so much tension in the shoulders. This posture is the one your mother wanted you to adopt on the first day of school, or that first job interview. When I demonstrate this posture to audiences, they will say words like “trustworthy,” “honest,” “professional,” and “normal.” They read the posture as someone who is in charge, competent, and friendly (in a good way).
Thinking about your posture is important because it signals an intent to the people that you meet – whether in one-to-one conversations, meetings, or in front of audiences. That audience will read your posture unconsciously as who you are – at least in relation to them – regardless of what you’re actually thinking.
Bill Gates adopts a clear head posture, most probably because he is a very smart man who spends a lot of time thinking. But head postures tend to get ‘read’ by others as subservient. But in Bill’s case, it doesn’t matter. He can get away with it, because all the world knows that he’s a successful billionaire, and we’re ready to defer to him anyway, in most situations, because his reputation precedes him.
For the rest of us, though, it doesn’t usually work to go through life with a head posture unless we want the world to take us as read – and think we mean to be subservient.
And those teenagers? Some can simultaneously adopt a head and pelvic posture, forming a kind of question mark. Certain rock stars do the same. The result is self-consciously focused on the sexual, something that describes those two groups of people quite well.