Speaking Nonverbally

I’ve written a lot lately about my new book, A+ Strategies for C-suite Communications: Turning Today’s Leaders into Tomorrow’s Influencers. The fact is I’ve published two books concurrently.

Granted, I haven’t made that big a deal about the brand new second edition of The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations. Nonetheless, I am proud of it. It’s not a huge rewrite; no need for that. Rather, this new edition contains such updates as fresh examples, a nod to the effects of digital media on presentations, and a total rewrite of the chapter on nonverbal communication.

Today’s post is a passage from that chapter. Enjoy.


While we all heed nonverbal signals when we listen to speakers and watch the news on TV—at least on an intuitive level—it is important not to place undue weight on individual signals. Taking these indicators out of context can lead to significant misunderstanding.

Extrapolating one cue to represent an overall attitude is dangerous, especially if you are dealing with someone you don’t know well. Does that squint indicate a lack of clarity or is it habitual due to poor eyesight? Does that halting voice reveal uncertainty or might it belong to someone fighting a cough or cold?

practice being present2

Imagine this situation. You are speaking to an audience and note one listener with his arms consistently folded across his chest. The knee-jerk reaction among many is to assume he is closed to your message. Maybe. But it is possible he is simply chilly, comfortable, or any number of other feelings.

Or envision this circumstance. You are on Capitol Hill talking with a staff member for a key senator when you notice his eyes begin to dart from side to side. Is he looking to escape from you and your efforts at persuasion or is he just watching for the boss to make an appearance?

It is important to take into account the broad range of nonverbal qualities if you hope to put together an accurate assessment. If that audience member with arms folded also plays with her mobile device, fidgets maniacally, then gets up and leaves, that likely indicates an aversion to your presentation. If, however, she leans forward, takes notes, and nods occasionally, she may just be cold.

What about that Senate staffer? If he points his feet toward the door while nodding rapidly, you would be wise to shift gears or wrap up your conversation. On the other hand, if he engages actively in the discussion with a well-modulated voice, you are likely hitting your target.

The main thing is to keep matters in context both as you receive and as you send nonverbal cues.

Your Words Still Count

Your message is vital and should be supported by your nonverbal performance. After all, you decide to speak before an organization or choose to allow a reporter to interview you because of the message you seek to impart, not because you want to wow them with a dazzling smile or impress them with your ability to enunciate perfectly.

Note well that a focus solely on acting techniques or the timbre of your voice misses the mark. Yes, those abilities matter, but do not believe for one moment that you will achieve success on the podium or in the press if you master only your nonverbal tools.

Cast a wary eye upon anyone who claims their ability to teach you acting methods will, in and of itself, transform you into a good speaker. That is only part of the equation. While they may have experience when it comes to displaying body language, they likely have little to no expertise in helping you craft a magnetic message capable of winning converts in the business world. Ignoring that aspect would prove risky for you and your company.

Your message and your nonverbal signals are intricately intertwined. Make your message attractive to your listeners by adorning it with sharp Video and Audio performances to give that message a sense of magnetism. You need all of your communications skills—verbal and nonverbal—operating at a high level if you want to achieve communications success.

Congruency Counts

Your nonverbal and verbal tools must work in harmony with one another. If your speech pattern proves asynchronous—for instance, your level of emotion fails to match the words you speak—your listeners will sense the mismatch. This impacts your credibility, driving down your odds of persuading your listeners, be they reporters, policymakers, or any other audience.

How can you sharpen nonverbal performance as well as your ability to assess the nonverbal signals from others? Regular reviews of your nonverbal performance when you speak in public, deal with reporters, and petition public officials is mandatory if you plan to increase influence for yourself and your organization.

Assess your Video tools and Audio tools every few months. Shine a light on your strong points when you speak. Work over the long run to either improve those qualities you find challenging or eliminate them from your repertoire.

The stakes are high when you communicate in public—too high to risk a nonverbal faux pas. Your next new client, big sale, promotion, or public affairs victory may hang in the balance.


Both A+ Strategies for C-suite Communications: Turning Today’s Leaders into Tomorrow’s Influencers and the new second edition of The Truth About Public Speaking: The Three Keys to Great Presentations are available now.

Read an excerpt from A+ Strategies for C-suite Communications when you join Ed’s Communications Community.

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