Winning Body Language

By: Mark Bowden



Introduction: Communication Is More than Words

Have you ever had the unfortunate experience of seeing a speaker who was clearly nervous and having a really difficult time? Of course you have. Think about that experience for a few seconds - how did it make you feel? You probably remember feeling tense and anxious yourself, and couldn’t wait for the experience to be over. There are two important things to look at here.

First, this nervousness most likely had to do with what the presenter was doing with their body - they probably brought their arms down by their side, had their stomach scrunched in and were slightly hunched over. All of which conspired to cut off the flow of oxygen to the brain, make them tense up even more, and cause their voice to be shallow and quiet. More often than not, it’s physiology that gets in the way, not psychology.

Secondly, notice that whatever the speaker or presenter was feeling got transferred to you. You probably found yourself tensing up and almost holding your breath as you waited for this torture to be over. Remember, the words that were coming out of his mouth may have been brilliant, but you certainly won’t remember them that way.

There is a part of the brain that is free from the constraints of rational thought and relies strictly on emotion. We not only have more faith in what we see, we also have more faith in what we feel.

Of course, communication isn’t about choosing the right words, it’s about being understood by your audience. And here’s a newsflash for you - the message occurs in the audience’s head. Study after study proves that we are predominantly visual beings, and we’ll place more trust in what we see over anything else.

Side note: there are evolutionary reasons why we react like this that are insanely fascinating. We don’t have time to cover them here, but if you want the background on this I highly suggest you read the book.

You’ve likely heard and forgot a hundred times before, your body language alone accounts for 55 percent of how your audience understands your message. The next 38 percent is accounted for by the tone of your voice, and a measly 7 percent can be attributed to the words you choose.

So why, if our non-verbal cues are 10 times more important than the words we choose, do we continue to focus so much of our attention on pretending like we are Shakespeare? Probably because nobody has ever given us actionable advice on what to do with that 93%. You can rest easy, because those days are over.

Showing us that the body and voice are inextricably linked, Mark Bowden shows exactly how we can use body language in order to get the desired effect from any communication we deliver, wherever it is.

It doesn’t matter if you are delivering a speech in front of 5,000 people, or talking to a customer over the telephone - Winning Body Language will show you how to be more effective in getting whatever it is you want to get out of your communication.

Let’s take a journey to see what our nervous friend could have done differently to get his message across.. We are going to start with one of the most powerful and overlooked tool you have in communication - what you do with your hands.

1. What to do with your hands.

The first thing we would have told this presenter is that they should never drop their hands below their mid-section. This is what Mark Bowden calls the Grotesque Plane. For evolutionary reasons, your subconscious mind will wonder why you’ve made yourself a static target - your voice will get dull and you’ll have a lifeless look in your eyes.

Quite literally, your subconscious mind will be forcing you to “play dead”. Think about the most passionate and persuasive communicator you’ve ever met - how often do you see their hands down by their sides? So, first things first, keep your hands above your waist.

The second thing we would have told the presenter is the one secret that great communicators know that the rest of us don’t - that getting your audience (whether it’s 1 or 1,000) to trust you starts with the “TruthPlane”.

If you’ve ever watched an evening news personality or watched Ryan Seacrest on American Idol, you’ve seen it in action. The TruthPlane is the area in and around the height of our belly buttons. Keeping your hands along that plane while you are talking gives you the feeling of being centred, controlled, collected, composed and calm. This is a great place to start from.

However, it also gives you the physical sensation of levelheadedness, balance and abundant energy. Most importantly, the people receiving your communication will feel energised and calm as well, which is the perfect state to receive a message. Communicate as much as possible in this plane.

Sometimes, however, you’ll want take it up a notch like Emeril Legasse and energise your audience with a passionate message. You’ll need to display inspired, trustworthy and passionate business body language. For this you’ll want to employ what Mark calls the PassionPlane.

This is the horizontal plane of gesture that lies just a couple of inches sternum. When you place your hands in this plane, your heart rate and your breathing rate will automatically increase. It also quickly creates a much higher level of energy and excitement in your communication.

Think of a time where you say somebody incredibly passionate giving a speech, and you’ll probably remember somebody who gestured in this plane quite a bit. Everybody loves to see somebody passionate about a topic, and just life in general. But if you let the energy level get out of control and gesture frenetically in this plane, you’ll often come off more like a raving lunatic than a passionate communicator. Be careful.

So, when should you use the Truth Plane and when should you use the Passion Plane? Essentially, use the PassionPlane when you want the content to be exciting and energetic, and use the TruthPlane when you want the content to be factual, honest and sincere.

For instance, let’s say you are giving a business presentation where you have some reports to talk about. If you wanted to create a sense of excitement about the report, you’d hold it up at chest height. If you wanted them to be perceived at trustworthy, you’d hold it at belly button height.

The last thing you need to be aware of around the use of your hands is symmetry. According to may psychological studies, symmetry has a lot to do with how we are attracted to form. With all due respect to John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, keeping right hand and left hand symmetrically aligned when you are gesturing will create a much more believable communication style. If that’s not enough for you, there’s actually evidence to show that you’ll also be perceived as better looking. Just saying.

2 - What to do with your breath

Now that you know what to do with your hands, let’s talk about what to do with your breath. Well, I already know what to do, you might be thinking - it’s in and out, right? Yes, smarty pants, it’s in and out. However, think about the difference between that in and out. When you want to “take a deep breath”, or get a “breath of fresh air”, which is the part that creates the positive sensation in your body - the in or the out? Do it right now - take a big breath in with me.

It’s the in breath, right? Unfortunately, most of us talk on predominantly the “out breath”, which causes us to create an experience that’s less vibrant, narrower, and pessimistic. Why? Because your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, to think at a very high level, that’s why. However, you literally feel more “full of life” when you are on the in breath. One of the other great benefits to feeling this way is that you are more open to new ideas.

We’ve already covered the fact that your audience will naturally copy your physical frame. So if YOU are modelling the in breath, THEY will do the same and fall into a frame of mind where they are open to new ideas. Your ideas.

That sounds great, but if you’ve ever tried to talk while sucking in air, you’ll realise that it’s a pretty hard task. Fear not, we have some good news. There’s a way to be on the in breath without going in for an operation. Here’s what I want you to do.

Stand up and begin expanding yourself upwards, gently straightening out your spine. Act like somebody is pulling a string attached to the top of your head. At the same time, don’t let you heels come off the ground. Just notice how you feel when you do this. You’ll probably feel like your lungs are more full of air than they usually are, and also tend to feel lighter and more energetic than a couple of seconds ago. Now for the interesting part - start talking to somebody who is sitting next to you in this stage.

After about 30 seconds, switch back to your normal state where you are a little more hunched over and breathing less deeply. If you are like most people you’ll actually find that it’s harder to think and form sentences in your original state than it was on the in-breath.

Quite simply, make sure you’ve got great posture and make sure to remember to actually take deep breaths throughout your communication. You’ll appear more confident, relaxed, and your thoughts will flow more freely.

3. What to do with your head and face

Facial expressions - you’ve got about 5,000 of them in your repertoire, and they play a very large role in how we relate to one another face to face. Here are some tips to help you communicate more effectively.

First, a gentle smile helps in creating a feeling of warmth. The sides of your lips need to be upturned a bit, but the muscles around the eyes need to mirror the smile. In other words - smiles are great, but fake smiles will create a feeling of unease. Don’t do that. A great way to create a natural smile, even when you don’t feel so smiley, is to take a nice big in-breath.

Second, you can use your eyebrows to your advantage. When your eyebrows rise up a bit very quickly, we create a sense of acceptance.

Third, you can tilt your head slightly to one side, which will give the audience the signal that “I’m listening to you” even when you are the one doing the talking. It creates a sense of empathy that the audience will mirror.

4. How to make others feel like you accept them.

Communication is also a two way street. Unless you are up on a stage giving a presentation, there’s a pretty good chance that somebody is going to talk back to you. Here’s three powerful tools that will allow you to create a sense of acceptance with anybody you meet, which, when you think about it, is what we’ve all been after from the moment we were born.

What we first need to do, as Mark points out, is incredibly simple yet powerful - it’s using the “YesState”. By getting into a nonverbal state of acceptance, you’ll be displaying a positive message to an audience of any size. How do you do it? Simple - just review as much positive vocabulary as you can.

Yes/good/agreed/certainly/sure/true/yeah/by all means are all good examples. Whenever you are in a communication with somebody - whether you are getting praised by the boss or scolded by an angry customer, say these positive words in your head, and accept whatever communication comes your way. As your body literally gets into a state of acceptance, the other person can’t help but do the same. You can use this method to diffuse a nasty situation in a jiffy.

Secondly, there’s a simple gesture you can make in both the TruthPlane and the PassionPlane that will literally bring people closer to you - and that’s to make the gesture of pulling something towards you.

Lastly, and related to #2, there’s a secret handshake that will make everybody you meet feel like a million bucks. The next time you shake hands with somebody, turn their hand slightly over yours, and pull their hand slightly closer to you stomach area. Note, I said stomach area.

What this does is allow the other person to have a feeling of acceptance as you bring them closer, with a pinch of dominance thrown in for good measure as their hand slightly dominates yours. We won’t get into the evolutionary factors as to why this works, but just try it the next time you are meeting somebody and see if they don’t smile when you do it.

In essence, the more you accept others, the more they are inclined to accept you and act in your favour.

5 - Putting it all together

To wrap things, here’s how you put everything together.

Make a choice, make it bigger, and keep it tidy.

For instance, if your choice is to get your audience excited about your topic, you need to get excited yourself. However, don’t get just a little bit excited, get VERY excited - and stay in the PassionPlane the entire time. And keep it tidy by not adding in a hint of irony or an apathetic twist.

The bottom line on all communication is this - be clear with your actions and minds will follow.