As a career writer with a passion for my craft I have long been intrigued by communication in all its forms and although I’m very focused on creating outstanding written documents, most experts agree that non-verbal communication expresses as much as 93% of our message. This is especially important for the public speakers who hire me to create speeches for them – tonality and body positioning can help or hinder the meaning of their communication and I often find myself adding the title “Speech Coach” to my role as Speech Writer.
What we need to keep in mind is that most of our communication is non-verbal and it passes below the radar of conscious awareness. Congruence between our body and our words is critically important if we are to deliver a convincing message our audience will embrace.
If you’ve ever winked at someone to convey co-conspiracy or rolled your eyes to express disbelief, then you yourself have “spoken” body language. These are intentional uses of non-verbal communication. Some body language movements are automatic: we might cover our mouth or slap our forehead when we hear shocking news or realize we left the dog outside before we left for work. In the context of communicating with others, researchers have shown that most of our communicative movements tend to be unconscious – we do them without even noticing what we’re doing.
As public speakers, the goal is to bring as much conscious awareness to our body movements as possible so we can use only the movements that support our message. Great actors are especially adept at this – we believe them, not because they say believable words so much as because their movements are completely aligned with their dialogue.
Human beings are endowed with a highly sophisticated tracking system that is seated in the reptilian area of our brain and you will probably know it as the “fight or flight” response. Actually there is a third component to “fight or flight” and that is “freeze,” which is also one of the behaviours we might exhibit when in danger. This tracking system was originally useful in ensuring survival in a physically dangerous environment and thousands of years of evolution have kept it intact. We can’t turn this tracking system off – it’s embedded deep within our neurology and it is key to our survival.
What it means is that audience members are automatically and efficiently filtering everything a speaker does and says, assessing trustworthiness all the while. They don’t necessarily know they’re doing this and along the way they’re picking up reams of subtle information that may or may not be relevant.
This is a huge topic area and it’s endlessly fascinating. Although I recommend speakers move with intent while in front of an audience, I caution against being too contrived in one’s actions. Members of an audience generally know if they are being manipulated and the aim is not to manipulate – it is to embrace. We’re aiming at authenticity in its most virtuous sense and becoming consciously aware of what you’re doing with your body and how that might be perceived by your audience is an important step in supporting that aim.