November 18, 2020
The Importance of Body Language in Communication
When it comes to message interpretation, more than half of what is perceived has more to do with what is seen rather than what is heard. That means body language is at least as important to how a message is received as the content of the message. So, if that’s the case, how should a communicator carry themselves so that their body language supports and complements their message? Here are a few suggestions to consider.
When standing, exude a casual, comfortable confidence by maintaining good posture and keeping your hands at your sides with no more than one hand in your pocket at any given time. Both hands in the pockets is too casual and can appear closed off. Place one foot slightly in front of the other to maintain balance without swaying.
In informal interpersonal conversation, maintain appropriate distance for the message. Don’t loom. Stay back far enough to be heard comfortably, while also maintaining a distance that doesn’t invite people to walk through the conversation.
Many people habitually “talk” with their hands, and this is fine in moderation. In fact, in some instances and cultures, it’s expected. That said, when gesturing, keep your hands mostly in front of you and avoid expansive gestures unless intentionally trying to over-emphasize a point for effect. In general, though, less is more. Small, slower gestures tend to be more well received than sudden, jerky movements.
Managing facial expressions so that they emphasize and complement the message is a skill that needs practice to develop. Many people assume this will come easily, but for most people it takes time and discipline to get in sync. As with gestures, when it comes to facial expressions, less is more. That said, one dynamic that takes some getting used to is the shift from facial expression during in-person communication versus on-camera. On the screen, an expression that might appear neutral or calm can read as unpleasant or even angry when the camera is on. The same is true for a smile. While a slight to medium expression is fine for face-to-face communication, those expressions will be amplified on camera. For facial expressions, both on and off camera, mirror practice is a must.
When seated, sit up, but not “Marine at attention” straight. Lean slightly forward, toward the person conducting the interview in order to show engagement and attention. Leaning back telegraphs disinterest or casualness on the verge of rudeness. Speak at an audible volume, using modulation and tonal cues for emphasis. In addition to avoiding leaning back, make sure to avoid tapping or other signs of discomfort or nervousness. Keep hands relaxed, not clenched, and feet still.
While these body language tips are not universal – nonverbal communication shifts from culture to culture and context to context – the most important takeaway here is that nonverbal communication, including body language, is vitally important to how a message will be perceived.