Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Energy and movement

Energy in communication begins with mental attitude and focus, the same as other aspects of nonverbal communication.

  • Avoid speaking too fast or too slowly; suit your pace to the subject and the occasion.
  • Walking with purpose and a spring in your step projects positive energy and confidence, whereas a slower gate can appear to be either ambling or plodding, neither of which is associated with power or authority.
  • Looking around and interacting somewhat with people as you walk confidently increases the impression of positive energy. For example, make a habit of meeting the eyes of those you pass and, as you do so, smile and/or nod or greet them briefly.
  • When gesturing, definite gestures are better than vague ones, and will produce better results, particularly if you wish to build your personal presence and make an impact, for example in management meetings.

Gestures

What matters with gesturing is not (only) what signals we think we are sending out, but what signals are being received.

Desmond Morris

Gestures come more naturally to us when we feel comfortable and are communicating from an open mental attitude. In these situations, say with friends or relatives, we gesticulate quite easily and often.

The different kinds of gesture (figurative, descriptive, cultural and expressive) that we use are based on our current mental attitude and thought processes.

Somehow, in many work situations we restrain our energy and passion and end up restraining the visible energy that is created by natural gestures to accompany our expression of ideas. As a result, our communication is more boring, both to ourselves and others. (Is this what we want?)

Top tips

What should you be aware of?

  • When gesturing for emphasis, use definite gestures. Vague, fluid gestures look less powerful and can lead the viewer to assume that the ideas behind them are equally vague. This applies both to public speaking and to meetings, such as management meetings, in which you wish to build your personal presence and make an impact.
  • Wider (although not uncontrolled) arm movements and open palms suggest greater power and confidence than small, repressed movements. These must, of course, be matched to the occasion and the size of the audience.
  • Gesturing with open hands helps the speaker appear more sincere.
  • Ensure your gestures and body language are open, rather than closed, to communicate most effectively. Closed body language (the arms-folded-across-the-chest look) not only robs you of impact and makes you less engaging, but it also causes a less positive reaction in others – if someone is perceived as closed or defensive, the other person usually responds to that, and the response tends to be more negative than positive.

Typically, for many people (particularly those who tend to restrain all movement when they speak), the best approach to using gestures more effectively is to practice ‘letting yourself go’. You can always moderate this later if you feel it’s too much or you are coming on too strong (although this usually isn’t the case). However, remember that unrestrained, ‘wild’ gesticulation can be associated with undisciplined, unclear thinking – so ensure your ideas are clear before speaking!

Presenting

When presenting, movement and gestures can add tremendously to your impact – but if uncontrolled, such as randomly walking backward and forward while speaking, or repeating the same gesture over and over, they can also detract significantly. An example of this would be shifting your weight from one foot to the other, repeatedly. Movement should look natural but be controlled – otherwise it’s just a random dissipation of energy that robs you of power. Remember, in theatre, actors only move when there is a reason to do so; the same principle should apply whenever you are in front of an audience.

For formal presentations, give some thought to your movements and body language in advance. (In other words, have a general idea of how you will use gestures and body language to enforce your message – though we’re not suggesting that you choreograph every detail!) Indeed, for any presentation, use gestures that are illustrative of your message and your meaning. For example, you can increase the impression of energy by being aware of your posture and moving at a slightly faster pace, both generally and while in front of an audience.

There is more on this in the topic on Presentations.