How to Use the Elements of Body Language Effectively
You’ve probably heard of the statistic that only seven percent of a message is conveyed through words. The other 93 percent are related to nonverbal communication, according to Mehrabian’s Communication Model.
93 percent! That’s huge.
So, why are we well aware of what we say but hardly aware of how we say something — with our voice, face, and body?
Even though we may be aware of some of our shortcomings in nonverbal communication, surprisingly, we barely address those. For example, in the workplace, people put so much time and effort into preparing fancy PowerPoint slides and well-researched topics when preparing a presentation. However, they mostly forget about their body language. Or have you ever heard somebody saying, “I tend to avoid eye contact with the audience during my presentations. I should work on this more often”.
What’s more, our body sends out hundreds of signals outside our awareness. Surely, we will never be able to consciously perceive and control every single expression of our body, especially not in extraordinary situations. However, we can definitely raise awareness regarding our body language with some training for less demanding moments in life.
Body language or nonverbal communication consists of several elements. The tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and posture all play their part. They are like the instruments of an orchestra. We need to use these tools properly to make our message more potent.
In other words, your nonverbal signals should be aligned with your verbal statement. Otherwise, you are sending mixed messages to your counterpart.
You may present the best arguments in the world — if you appear insecure or nervous because you lack awareness of your nonverbal signals, your statements will lose credibility.
You, as a person, will lose credibility.
To come back to the metaphor of the orchestra: You may compose the most beautiful pieces. If the orchestra’s instruments can’t play and transmit these notes correctly, your composition will sound like a complete mess.
Analyzing body language is not just a one-way street, by the way. Not only is it essential to read your body language, but you also need to know how to read the body language of other people. This way, you can spot their unspoken issues and negative emotions.
What follows are the different dimensions of nonverbal communication.
1. Tone of voice
When I took my first rhetoric course a few years ago, the tone of voice was the first nonverbal communication element we analyzed. We were a group of five or six participants, completely different characters.
Our first task was to read aloud a passage from a book. Then we gave each other feedback regarding the different facets of the voice of tone. The feedback I received from the others was brutally honest and constructive.
You may not be in a rhetoric class right now. You are probably home alone.
But it is still useful to read a passage from the book of your choice out loud just to yourself and record your voice. Next, listen to the recording and analyze your tonality in terms of the following aspects.
Are you talking loud enough? Would you still be understood with background noise, like wind or other people’s voices?
Surprisingly, many people tend to speak softly. Those ones are often asked to repeat what they have said, by the way.
Does your voice sound vibrantly alive or rather monotonous?
A vibrant speech must include pitch, inflection, emphasis, variety in pace, and pauses, precisely in the right moments. For instance, if your voice goes up every time you finish a normal sentence, it will rather sound like a question.
It is important to emphasize individual words that strongly contribute to understanding. Also, short pauses after each comma and period are essential for a better understanding.
How would you rate your pronunciation? How clear is it?
Perhaps this factor is not easy to assess because you might be too familiar with your way of speaking. Therefore, it will help to play the recording to other people and then have them reproduce what you said. If your articulation is clear, they will easily repeat the content. If they are unable to do so, your speech might not be clear enough.
Take some time to reflect on your pronunciation. Are you mumbling, perhaps? Or do you tend to swallow individual letters of words?
Are you a fast or a slow talker?
Like quiet people, fast talkers are also constantly asked to repeat their words, as it is pretty difficult to understand them.
The tempo of your speech also depends on how long your pauses are in between. Put an audible period at the end of your sentences if you tend to speak hastily. It will make you slow down a little bit.
By the way, the average speech rate for English speakers is reported to be about 150 wpm.
2. Posture and Gestures
When we were little, our mothers often told us to stand up straight. They primarily wanted to prevent us from getting a crooked back. However, I believe that there was much more behind it. Our mothers tried to tell us subliminally to walk through life with more confidence.
And they were right — a straight posture always signals sovereignty and self-confidence. Other than that, what we do with our head, shoulders, legs, arms, and hands also plays a decisive role in nonverbal communication.
Head and shoulders
Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent who specializes in nonverbal communication, refers in his book The Dictionary of Body Language to the so-called
turtle-effect. When shoulders rise towards the ears, and the head intuitively goes down, that’s a clear sign of insecurity or discomfort. That’s when we begin to look like a turtle hiding in its shell.
Whereas someone keeping the head up shows a high level of self-confidence and openness.
Navarro calls a slightly tilted head a powerful communicator of interest.
So, you will know that your counterpart genuinely likes your ideas from his sidely tilted head.
Legs and feet
When we are in a conversation, our feet and legs unconsciously point in the direction we want to go. If they face our conversation partner, we subconsciously welcome the other person’s presence and want to linger in that conversation.
However, if one foot points in the nearest exit direction, we’d rather leave as quickly as possible.
But what about the distance between the legs?
A wide-legged stance expresses territorial claims. You can often observe this stance in men. This way, they communicate a dominant attitude. When, for instance, people at the workplace gather and adopt this kind of stance, they’re signaling competitive behavior. Closed legs, on the other hand, indicate shyness and insecurity.
In my view, the shoulder-width leg stance is the best way to express self-confidence and consider the counterpart an equal at the same time.
Arms and hands
Crossed arms signal a distant attitude. A person holding the arms in front of the body is probably not ready to open up so quickly. By crossing our arms, we intuitively want to protect one of our most sensitive body parts, the belly, from possible attacks. Therefore, be sure that this is more a defensive than a welcoming gesture.
Whereas holding our arms to the side expresses well-being. According to Navarro, we move our arms freely and exuberantly when we are happy and joyous. This behavior can also be observed in children when they are engrossed in playing games.
Our hands also reveal much about our emotional state.
People who move their hands naturally during their speech appear relaxed. In addition, palms pointing upwards express positivity.
Whereas hands formed into fists clearly express tension. Pointing the index finger at the counterpart appears even more tense and dominant. When I observe this gesture at work now and then, it makes me smile a little bit because it reminds me of a parent reprimanding a child.
The spectrum of gestures is vast. It is recommendable to take a video of your body language. The next time you prepare for a presentation, meeting, or date, simulate a conversation, and film yourself while doing it. It might feel odd at the beginning, but it helps tremendously.
3. Facial expressions
Facial expressions are a broad topic, just as gestures. It is an interesting fact that we have 42 individual facial muscles in total. I’ll describe some of them.
Eye contact is essential in conversations, as everybody knows. It is a sign of giving the other person your undivided attention. However, you should not direct your eyes continuously at the other person; otherwise, you are just staring. It is better to look to the side once in a while.
A tense face can be recognized relatively quickly by the fact that it looks nervous and slightly stressed. The eyebrows are drawn together, and the forehead is wrinkled.
In a relaxed face, on the other hand, you see calm eyes and clearly visible lips.
Distinguishing a real smile from a fake smile is also easy. According to the Duchenne Smile marker, a genuine smile comes with small wrinkles around the eyes. A fake smile, on the other hand, keeps the eyes motionless.
Knowing the individual elements of nonverbal communication and honing your body language is essential.
It is of enormous importance that people are genuinely interested in what you have to say. It sets a good speech apart from a mediocre one. However, it does not mean you have to change your nature. You’re still you. It’s more about giving your verbal statements more impact.
Becoming fluent in body language does not happen overnight. It takes a lot of practice. Therefore, take a step back and analyze your nonverbal signals concerning the elements described above as often as possible. You’ll quickly discover your deficits and want to work on them. Plus, you will automatically understand the body language and the true feelings of your conversation partners.