Debunking myths of body language

By Martin Tothill

Martin lives to help and grow others to be the best leaders they can and in turn inspire a future generation of followers to do the very same.

Body language is full of irregular verbs. Time to correct a few typos.

In the 15 years I’ve spent coaching leaders to communicate, I’ve seen many presentations – some good, some great. I’ve also heard a lot of opinions about the role body language plays in delivering messages. To set the record straight I need to start with a confession.

What follows – I hope – is a new way to think about body language and communication, but one which also serves as a gentle apology to Dr Albert Mehrabian – the man behind an idea I so wantonly abused!

Many presenters often focus on the words they want to say – writing cue cards, notes or printing off PowerPoint slides - but in doing so, create blind spots in how they look and sound. Imagine how quickly purposeful words end up sounding dull and looking boring when left unchecked.

As a coach, helping to manage these blind spots, I would regularly turn to the work of Dr Mehrabian. For those of you new to these ideas, his work has been claimed to explain how much of a message is carried by the words, the voice and body language – 7%, 38%, 55%.

But, Dr Mehrabian has said that ever since his limited research study in the 1960s many people have continued to misinterpret his findings. (Phew, so not just me!) He simply found that when people express a message of emotional content, that message could be misconstrued if the speaker’s tone and body language were not congruent or consistent with the message.

I want to re-think ways to encourage others to use a positive blend of behaviours in their communication, deliver what they really mean and above all stop mythologising Dr Mehrabian’s work.

So I’m turning to crime!

Morgan Wright has 18 years of law enforcement experience with the CIA and FBI and undertook an extraordinary experiment in behavioural analysis attempting to uncover the role of body language in the interviewing of suspects. He studied over 300 recorded interviews and asked 3 groups of people to assess whether they believed the suspect to be telling the truth. Group 1 simply listened to the recordings, Group 2 watched the recording with no audio and Group 3 saw and heard the whole thing.

In Wright’s study Group 1 achieved a success rate of 55%, Group 2 achieved 65% and Group 3 achieved 85%. Wright also went on to discover that interviewers with background notes on suspects, as well as the full recordings, became 93% successful in their assessment. Imagine 93% of your audience totally getting your next big idea!

What Wright discovered tells us a lot about how messages are conveyed. Specifically, if you don’t believe in your message you cannot force your body to act as if it does. By achieving something Wright calls a “Command Presence” through a certain look and sound derived from a positive inner state, this can translate into congruent links between your words and actions. This ‘believability’ is often the number one goal for leaders and communicators alike and is well within the grasp of most. A more conscious selection of effective behaviours could make the difference between an average and a great delivery.

To help you, here’s a little Catseye wisdom …

  • Don’t believe all you hear and read
  • Achieving the right impact requires inner composure
  • Reflect on the motivations behind your message and bring those out
  • Poor vocal tone and body language can genuinely get you busted
  • Be deliberate and plan and practise your presentation style
  • Passion is contagious – don’t be afraid to share it

And here’s an added bonus. If you’re struggling to make an impact on conference calls be sure to read these top tips.


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