Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Why is it important to you?

Communication skills are so important that they have the power to make or break your career!


Roland has really proven himself in his current role – he is hardworking, committed, and he has a good track record of delivering. He certainly has the technical skills we need. Unfortunately, he does not have the communication skills and personal presence to operate and influence at a more senior level. Unless he can somehow step up in this respect, it will not be possible to promote him to higher level of management.

In roughly 80 per cent of personal development coaching assignments, a director or HR manager has specified body language as a particular area for improvement. They say things like ‘While Joe’s technical skills are excellent, he/she needs to project greater confidence and people skills before he/she can be considered for promotion.’ This explains why executive coaches commonly work with executives who would have found it very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the next level in their organisations without developing their communication skills, personal presence, leadership image and ‘gravitas’.

These same skills are needed and must be applied as appropriate in almost every other area of business and in every industry. Communication between people is what makes things happen; it’s as simple as that. When communication works, things are great, but when communication is difficult or even counter-productive – well, you know the problems, frustrations and stress this can cause, both practically and emotionally.

So why isn’t nonverbal communication taught as part of one’s university, technical or professional education? A good question! For most people, this is something they either learn as they go along (and hopefully they have good role models!) or, if they are fortunate, they are invited to attend some kind of sponsored work-related training or other programme that covers communication skills in a meaningful way.

One of the things we can do to help ourselves communicate effectively is to ensure we understand and correctly apply certain principles of nonverbal communication.

A large part of face-to-face communication is based on nonverbal signals (depending on the circumstances). This includes visual impact as well as vocal elements, such as volume, expression or tone, and pace. Words and phraseology can also have a huge impact, making our communication seem, for example, either more positive or negative (or decisive as opposed to doubtful or noncommittal). In communication, all three aspects must be taken carefully into account for greatest effectiveness.

Albert Mehrabian established a classic statistic for the effectiveness of spoken communications. This has since been misinterpreted or badly applied on a regular basis, since the studies this theory relates to were based on interpersonal communication between people who knew each other intimately, and were only using words related to feelings and attitude. With this proviso, Mehrabian showed that

  • 7 per cent of meaning is in the words that are spoken
  • 38 per cent of meaning is paralinguistic (the way that the words are said)
  • 55 per cent of meaning is in facial expression or other physiology.

The theory is particularly useful in explaining the importance of perceived meaning, as distinct from words. Other work by Mehrabian showed that if there is an apparent mismatch between the words used and the body language and tonality, most listeners will trust the non-verbal ‘message’.

It is important not to apply these statistics in an overly-simplistic manner, or generalise them to all communications (which is often wrongly done), so remember that context is a huge factor – as always in communication.

In this topic we will focus on nonverbal communication – specifically, body language (but note that it is not useful only to address one aspect of communication while ignoring others).

How do others see you?

Body language communicates important messages to others about who you are and your mental attitude at a given moment. It therefore affects people’s perceptions of you. Your body language can indicate whether you are either more confident or less so, more or less interested, more powerful/authoritative or less so, more positive or less so, more energetic or less so.

How people perceive you in turn affects their mental attitudes towards you – and in fact their entire relationship with you. (It even determines whether there is a relationship with you!). In the professional world, your body language can affect the level of confidence senior management have in your ability to do certain types of job; most notably, this includes jobs that represent the organisation and/or are responsible for generating and/or cultivating business.

If your aim is to become a better communicator, you need to become fluent in body language. This topic is designed to help you to separate fact from myth and, most of all, to become more aware of nonverbal communication – yours and that of others – so that your overall communication both to and with others is affected in a positive way.

... upon inquiring of the boy by what means he effected the thorough identification in which his success consisted, I received an answer as follows: ‘When I wish to find out how wise, or how stupid, or how good, or how wicked is any one, or what are his thoughts at the moment, I fashion the expression of my face, as accurately as possible, in accordance with the expression of his, and then wait to see what thoughts or sentiments arise in my mind or heart, as if to match or correspond with the expression.’

Edgar Allan Poe, The Purloined Letter, where an 8-year-old boy is asked how he became so proficient at a guessing game called ‘even and odd’