What Are You Saying When You Haven’t Said a Word?

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell cites research that says in as little as two seconds we make numerous snap judgments about who someone is based on nonverbal clues such as age, gender, ethnicity. These first impressions can work for or against us. Reality is we have no control over some of them, but lots of control over others.

Nonverbal language, similar to nonverbal clues, speaks loudly and often drowns out our words.  If you’re like most people, when planning for an important event such as a formal presentation or a meeting with new clients you spend lots of time thinking about what words you’ll use to get your message across.  Makes a lot of sense, you want to be sure you are saying exactly what needs to be said.  However, from numerous research studies we know people perceive what we’re saying in part on the words we use, but also in part on the tone and engagement of our voice, and our body language.  Seems like it makes good sense to fine-tune how our voice and our body language can support our carefully chosen words.

(The often cited Albert Mehrabian’s research at UCLA said that when we are trying to determine our feelings about someone we rely 7% on the words used, 38% on voice, and 55% on nonverbal language.  Please note this research is not applicable to all types of communications, but it does make the point that the perception of what is being said is not based equally on words, voice, and body language.)

Before focusing on some best practices for effective nonverbal language and voice, it’s important for each of us to clarify how we want to be perceived. Are you high energy, approachable, in-charge, calm, credible, engaged, committed, accountable, quiet, thoughtful? Is your nonverbal language and the tone of your voice communicating this?

Nonverbal language is everything else we communicate before and while we speak, including appearance (this may seem superficial, but people often link what something looks like on the outside with what’s on the inside), posture, hand gestures, facial expressions, and eye contact.  There are no set rules regarding appearance, and this isn’t about being the best dressed or most attractive.  The key is to be clear how you want to be perceived and then ensure that your appearance is in sync with that.  If you want to be perceived as a strong leader your body language needs to say that – your posture needs to be straight and strong, your hand gestures comfortable, measured, and confident, and your facial expression and eye contact engaging.

Voice perception is based on our ability to make our voice interesting to our listener.  At the most basic level, we need to have vocal variety to keep others engaged and open to listening to us.  We often want our voices to project credibility, professionalism, approachability.

Remember, you get to determine what you’re communicating by ensuring you’re clear on how you want to be perceived and then consistently syncing your nonverbal actions, and your words, to that perception.  There are lots of best practices to grow your nonverbal skills. My favorite is to regularly videotape myself and then turn down the volume and see what I hear.  What else have you tried?

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