Why Ignoring Body Language Is Like Betting on an Inside Straight

Every presentation is two conversations, and I find it ironic that speakers spend a great deal of time thinking about their content – the first conversation – and hardly any time at all thinking about their body language – the second conversation.  And yet the communications research has shown for a long time that if the two conversations are not aligned, people believe the second conversation every time.  That’s gambling against the house, and against long odds. 

Another way to put this is that the second conversation trumps the first when the two are not consistent.  That suggests that it is incumbent upon the speaker to make sure that the two conversations are aligned, or suffer the consequences.

Take a simple example.  A CEO is giving a speech to employees about alarming trends in the marketplace.  He arrives at the end of his prepared remarks, and then says to the audience, ‘I’d be pleased to take any questions you have.’  At the moment he says these words, he steps back a pace and folds his arms.

There are no questions.

What’s happened?  The audience has unconsciously read the CEO’s body language instead of believing the words, and correctly determined that he was hoping there would be no questions.

Too obvious, you say?  I’ve seen this precise scenario at least half a dozen times.  And I’ve seen all the hard work of a reassuring speech undone by unconvincing Q 'n A.  All because of body language.

You need to put the same effort into choreographing your body language as you do preparing your content.  If you’re not doing that, you’re only an amateur.  You might be a lucky amateur, but you’re taking your chances on hitting an inside straight every time.

Comments

  1. says

    Super good reminder, and a positive tip to always keep in mind when speaking Nick.
    But if we know this, and we still do it, is it because we don’t care or because we’re just lazy? Curious what you think.

  2. says

    Hi, Phil —
    It’s because it’s not easy to master body language. It takes discipline and lots of practice. Most people want instant results, and body language doesn’t yield to (conscious) thought instantly.

  3. says

    I’ve noticed that many people aren’t even aware of their body language until you show them a video of their speech.
    The CEOs in question probably weren’t aware of the message they were sending their audience . This is why some people like practicing in front of a mirror or other people beforehand.

  4. says

    Hi, Scott —
    Thanks for your comment. You’re right about the power of video to show people what they’re doing. Practicing in front of a mirror just doesn’t work as well, because you’re in the performance, and it’s hard to watch and do at the same time. I’ve also noticed that CEOs often don’t believe what other people tell them, so video remains the best way:-)

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