By Tricia Drevets
Whether it is a shrug from Hillary Clinton or a scowl from Donald Trump, American voters have had a crash course on the importance of body language in communication this election year.
With the televised debates behind us and the voting process underway, it is a good time to look at how nonverbal communication conveys just as much – or even more – about us as our words.
Two often quoted research studies by Albert Mehrabian suggest that 55 percent of our communication is through body language (facial expressions, posture and gestures), 38 percent is through vocal elements (pitch, tone and volume) and only 7 percent is the actual words we speak.
The scary part of other research on non-verbal cues is that people make judgments based on within minutes of meeting us.
For example, a Princeton University study by Alexander Todorov and Janine Willis found that it took as little as one-tenth of a second for study participants to form a first impression of someone they met.
Follow-up studies revealed that those first impressions did not change after spending more time with that person. In fact, the majority of the 245 undergraduate study participants reported that their initial impressions only strengthened with more time.
No matter what your profession, your body language is a powerful part of the message you convey to others. Do you know what non-verbal messages you are sending to clients and colleagues?
The three main areas to keep in mind to convey confidence and approachability are movement, gestures and eye contact.
1. Movement. After the third presidential debate, political observers commented on how Trump stood behind Clinton several times while she talked. In an interview with The New York Times Ruth Sherman, a public speaking expert, theorized that Trump was trying to exert dominance over Clinton by standing close to her.
“This was a conscious assertion of power,” Sherman said. “He was very distracting while she was speaking — walking around, fidgeting, swaying, leaning on his chair.”
On the other hand, after Trump brought up Clinton’s missing emails, the secretary of state broke into a smile, then shook her head and lowered her gaze.
Looking down can give a message of a lack of confidence, according to Sherman.
“It’s something people do when they’re thinking, but I think it conveyed a bit of defensiveness,” she explained.
The way you stand and the way you move reveals a lot about you. You can convey confidence – even when you don’t feel confident — with good posture and relaxed, steady movements.
When you hold your head high, you show an attitude of authority. Conversely, poor posture can demonstrate low energy or even low self-esteem.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy believes that “power posing” can have an impact on how we see ourselves and how others perceive us. It also can improve our chances for success.
In a one-on-one conversation, try tilting in slightly toward your listener. A small “lean-in” offers that you are open and interested in what he or she has to say.
Don’t move just for the sake of moving, however. Repetitive movements such as shifting your weight from one foot to the other or tapping a pencil can take the focus off what you are saying.
2. Gestures. What do your hands do while you are speaking? Do you clench them together or do you let them move naturally?
In her analysis of the last presidential debate, Sherman commented that Clinton clenched her thumb against her forefinger, which may have been a sign of stress. She noted that at one point, Trump “paced around the stage, clenching his microphone, before finally returning to stand behind his chair.”
Gestures are part of the message you give others. Aim to let your hands move naturally as you talk. Use your hands to emphasize your points, but avoid pointing or using a chopping motion. They can give a negative message.
Instead, try gesturing with an open hand with your palm up to show friendliness and approachability.
3. Eye contact. Let’s face it — we all like to be looked at. In business conversation, make a point of looking at the speaker.
If you are speaking in front of an audience, aim to engage the entire group with your eye contact. Look at specific individuals, holding their attention briefly before moving on to others in different part of the room. In a large setting, strive to address people sitting in each area of the space.
How do you know how much eye contact is enough and how much is too much? In her book What Your Body Says (And How to Master the Message), Sharon Sayler writes that eye contact should be “a series of long glances instead of intense stares.”
She suggests that in a business situation, it can be helpful to imagine a triangle made up of an imaginary line just below your associate’s eyes with the peak at the mid-forehead. Now aim to keep your gaze in the middle of that triangle when speaking to that individual.
We tend to blink more when we are under stress, Sayler says. However, she says we can learn to control our blink rate to add to our credibility.
It may sound trite, but one of the most important aspects of body language is the smile. A study from Penn State University found that people who smile are generally perceived as more likeable and even more competent than people who don’t smile.
Smiling can stimulate your own sense of wellbeing, and what’s more is that smiling is contagious. Researchers at Sweden’s Uppsala University found that frowning while looking at someone who is smiling is possible, but it is difficult.
I don’t know about the 55-38-7 rule of nonverbal communication. As someone who cares about words, I have difficulty swallowing the idea that what we actually say is worth only 7 percent. However, the point that we speak volumes with our body language is a valuable one.
What language are you speaking? Make sure it is the right one.