Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Importance of Body Language

Language is one of the gifts of being human. It lets us share our experiences, helps us learn from others, and allows us to communicate across time—by preserving thoughts and ideas that later generations can share. But language is only one of the ways we communicate, and while it separates us from our fellow creatures on Earth, it ranks surprisingly low on our list of ways to gather information from our surroundings. In fact, in some respects our primary means of understanding each other are two things we have in common with the rest of the animal world: our eyes and our bodies.

Limits of the Spoken Word
Studies have shown that humans gain only 7% of their understanding by the spoken word. Of far greater importance is the speaker’s tone of voice—accounting for about 38%. But both fade in comparison with visual communication, such as eye contact and body language. While it is tempting to overlook it, we can easily see this at work when dealing with people who do not speak our language. Gestures, pointing, facial expressions, and the like can all communicate basic information and meaning, even if the words themselves are unintelligible.

Beyond this, though, we all have the common experience of watching or listening to speakers who were less than riveting. People with poor diction and poor posture, whose bodies suggested timidity or disinterest. No matter how interesting their ideas, or how critical their information, their message may well have been lost because their voice and body sent a message different than the one coming from their brain.

Gifted Communicators
On the other hand, we have also seen or heard people who have the ability to make an immediate connection with others. On the political stage, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan both had the unique gift of radiating confidence and power while putting others at ease. And on a personal level, we all know people who, somehow, always seem to make a positive impression on everyone in a room. If we pass beyond our mere reaction to what we commonly call “charisma,” though, we see that many effective leaders share similar skills in communicating to others. They
employ frequent eye contact with others in the room, animate their words with their bodies by gesturing with their hands as well as their face, and keep their heads up and their backs straight, to give an aura of command to what they are saying.

Some of this is instinctive; some people enjoy gifts that others do not, and connecting with other human beings comes more naturally to some than to others. But much of it is practice, and can be learned with time and effort. It starts with a basic understanding of human nature, and lessons every mother has tried to teach since humans started living in towns instead of caves: stand up tall, look people in the eye, and don’t mumble when you talk. For the rest, start with those good personal habits your parents tried to teach you, and work on projecting confidence to those around you. You may not become a talk-show host overnight, but even a small effort in improving your awareness of non-verbal communication can pay big dividends, by increasing your ability to persuade and influence those around you.

JEFFREY CAMINSKY, a veteran public prosecutor in Detroit, Michigan, specializes in the appellate practice of criminal law and writes on a wide range of topics. His books include the science fiction adventure novel The Star Dancers, the exciting second volume in the Guardians of Peace-tm series, The Sonnets of William Shakespeare, and the acclaimed The Referee’s Survival Guide, a book on soccer officiating. All are published by New Alexandria Press, and are available on Amazon, as well as directly from the publisher.

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