Nonverbal Communication: What it is and How to do it Better

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Nonverbal communication: What it is and how to do it better, using nonverbal communication

Nonverbal Communication. What is that?

The first thing anyone with a cell phone or computer handy will do when they want to find out what something means is to “Google it.”   So right off the bat, I’ll tell you that Wikipedia defines nonverbal communication as “communication through sending and receiving wordless clues. It includes the use of visual cues such as body language (kinesics), distance (proxemics) and physical environments/appearance, of voice (paralanguage) and of touch (haptics).” It’s the way we furrow our brow, pull on our ear, tap our feet, pace the floor, smile, frown, dress . . . any method we communicate with others in face to face situations. I once heard that in face to face communication, over 50% of meaning is the result of nonverbal cues.

In many instances, what comes out of your mouth and what you communicate through your body language are two totally different things. Just think back to the last time your spouse told you that they were mad, “not because of what you said, but how you said it.” When faced with these mixed signals, the listener is left to choose between believing your verbal or nonverbal message. Normally, listeners are going to choose the nonverbal message because it’s a natural, unconscious language that broadcasts your true feelings and intentions.

Every gesture, facial expression, and movement can contain a message. The way we sit, how fast or how loud we talk, how close we stand, and the amount of eye contact we make all send strong messages. But the meaning that is conveyed and the meaning that is interpreted may be two different things.

Think about this situation:

You are in a meeting and are giving your side of a debate about the office budget. The meeting facilitator yawns and stares off into space. What does that tell you? Is she bored? Does she disrespect you or the message you are vocalizing? Is she distracted by personal situations going through her mind? Or maybe she is just tired from staying up to late last night. How does that make you feel as you explain your position?

You have to keep yourself from jumping to conclusions when interpreting her nonverbal cues. But she also should be aware of what her nonverbal might be telling others in the room.


Nonverbal communication: What it is and how to do it better, using nonverbal communication

How to Use Nonverbals More Effectively

Nonverbal communication is inevitable. As a public speaker, whether in front of a crowd of hundreds or a group of under a half dozen, you need to be aware of the nonverbal communication you are transmitting. Your body is using a combination of many methods of transmitting meaning; body gestures, voice inflections, use of personal space combine to tell far more than your words can. Our emotions are almost completely transmitted nonverbally.

You can’t control all of the signals you’re constantly sending off. The harder you try, the more unnatural your signals are likely to come across. But there are some things you can do to minimize the conflict between your verbal and nonverbal messages.

Be ever conscious that you are giving signals.

You can’t begin to use them effectively until you acknowledge what your body is saying. Pay attention to your posture or your facial expression.  Pay attention to how others are reacting to what you are not saying.

Look for ways in which your noverbal messages detract from your messaging, and practice changing habits.

For example, if you always clench your hands when you speak, put something (a note card, a piece of hard candy, a paperclip) in one hand.  Practice smiling at regular intervals if you have a tendency to scowl or frown during presentations.  If you tend to be an eye-roller practice focusing on your audience instead.

Begin to practice using nonverbals strategically.

As you prepare and practice a speech, decide on some nonverbal cues that will help accentuate the meaning behind your words. Practice using them intentionally until they fit your script naturally.  Intentionality of action will ensure that the message you intend to give is the message that your audience receives.  Practice your nonverbal cues just as diligently as you practice the spoken words of your speech.

Adapt to your situation.

Be aware of your audience. If your audience is from a different culture than your own, avoid gestures and mannerisms that could be misconstrued.  For example, many cultures interpret pointing as an insult.  Some audiences could interpret a loud voice as excitement where others could see it as threatening.  Make sure that your nonverbal cues are appropriate not only to the message but to the receiver of the message.

And remember that eye contact usually trumps other nonverbal.

Think of the elevator. There is an unspoken agreement that you can invade my personal space if you do not make eye contact—everyone faces the door.  On the other hand when in front of a group of people, many other nonverbal mistakes can be forgiven or forgotten if you make eye contact with your audience.  Eye contact tells someone that your message is for them specifically.  Make sure that the person that you make eye contact with is the person that you want to receive your message.  On the opposite side of the coin make sure that the person that you want to receive your message gets eye contact.


Sometimes what you don’t say speaks louder than your words.  This nonverbal communication can either enhance your presentation or completely derail it.  As a communicator (and regardless of whether we are giving a formal presentation, we are ALL communicators) it is important to understand what our nonverbal cues are telling our audience.  Learning to recognize and effectively manage what you are saying when you are not speaking ensure that people listen better to what you say when you Are speaking.

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