Forget Everything You’ve Heard About Body Language

Body languageWe’ve all heard that “93 percent of communication is nonverbal.” But like a lot of conventional wisdom, that figure is a myth.

But because so many people accept it as gospel, they almost literally tie themselves up in knots in presentations, job interviews, speed dates and other important moments.

Here’s what you need to know about body language.

Busting the 93% Myth

First, about that 93% figure. That’s a misinterpretation of an isolated laboratory experiment that was done more than 40 years ago.

The study’s application to normal everyday communication between people in the real world has been widely debunked — most recently in this takedown by Craig Haddon.

In fact, the study’s author has practically begged people to stop misinterpreting his work:

I am obviously uncomfortable about misquotes of my work. From the very beginning I have tried to give people the correct limitations of my findings. Unfortunately the field of self-styled “corporate image consultants” or “leadership consultants” has numerous practitioners with very little psychological expertise.

Content Matters

To me, the biggest danger of the 93 percent theory is that it leads people to the misguided conclusion that what they say matters a lot less than how they say it:

  • Giving a presentation? Dress up a bunch of hollow platitudes in some razzle-dazzle and give ‘em the ol’ jazz hands!
  • Going for a job interview? Mirror the interviewer’s gestures!
  • Got a hot date? Lean in and twirl your hair!

Life is not quite that simple. The content of what you communicate is important. How important? Does it account for 50%? 72%? 35%?

Who knows? Trying to ascribe a specific percentage is a pointless exercise. Just know that content and delivery go hand-in-hand and you should focus on both.

Speaking of Myths

Related to the 93% theory is the idea that speakers should never cross their arms or put their hands in their pockets.

I’ve talked before about this myth before. Part of its danger is that it gets people so wound up trying to position their arms in some weird, unnatural angle.

To me, that’s a bad investment of energy. It’s like writing a novel but thinking first about the typeface it will be set in or the kind of paper it will be printed on. Those are decisions that get made based on the content and tone of the book.

It’s Intentions That Count

In the same way, you should concern yourself first and foremost with your intention. Focus your energy on being confident, warm, and positive and let the gestures flow from there.

Communication expert and speech coach Nick Morgan puts it this way:

If you’re going to give a speech, decide beforehand that you’re thrilled to have the opportunity to present to this great group of people … think first about what the purpose of the interaction is, what you want to get out of it, and what your attitude toward it is. If you focus your emotions in this way, your gestures will take care of themselves.

So focus your mind and your gestures will follow.

A Few Body Language Tips

Does this mean body language is unimportant? Of course not. But many of the basics come down to plain old common sense:

  • Stand up straight when you’re presenting. It projects confidence and it also helps you project your voice.
  • In meetings and interviews, sit up and lean forward. It shows you’re interested and helps keep you engaged.
  • Whenever you’re talking to people, make eye contact. Nervous speakers often cheat by staring at a point on the back wall. It’s very obvious when you do that and it makes you look shifty and untrustworthy.
  • Speaking of shifty, don’t shift your weight from foot to foot like an angsty teenager. Plant your feet and own your space.
  • Offer a warm smile, even when you’re talking on the phone. Obviously, that projects friendliness.

The great thing about all this is that it’s like a continuous feedback loop. The physical act of standing up straight not only makes you look confident, it helps you feel confident. Smiling can actually make you feel happy. Gesturing with your hands even helps trigger your thought process.

For More Information on Body Language

I don’t want to give short shrift to body language. I’ve just scratched the surface, and the science behind it is fascinating and complex. For a deep dive into the subject, you might want to check out Dr. Morgan’s most recent book, Power Cues.

But be sure to give the stiff-arm to anyone who traffics in the “93 percent” myth.

Photo Credit: Noelle Buske via Compfight cc

(A version of this post originally ran on the Waxing Unlyrical Blog.)

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