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Strategies for In-Person Engagements: Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication, including but not limited to body language, has a significant (often subconscious) influence on most in-person interactions. The way you sit or stand, your hand gestures, and your tone of voice all carry a message about your attitude and emotions.

Extensive psychological research suggests two main traits, warmth (e.g., friendliness, trustworthiness, kindness) and competence (e.g., intelligence, power, and skill), or the inverse, coldness and incompetence, have the greatest impact on our judgments of other people. We project these traits through our nonverbal behavior in nearly all social interactions (even online, through emoticons!).

Honing these behaviors in yourself and understanding them in others can greatly affect how much trust and respect you build with people, and how persuasive you are. Attending to the nonverbal elements of your communication can advance your public engagement with science goals, particularly those related to trust.

AAAS Communicating Science Workshop participants practicing their core messages on camera | Carla Schaffer, AAAS

One way to see what nonverbal cues you may be conveying is to film yourself while practicing a talk, using your phone or computer (while most people don’t enjoy watching themselves, many who have tried it report that it was worth it). What should you watch for and work on to help you more successfully engage your audience and deliver your message, beyond choosing the right words?

  • Stance and Presence: Stand comfortably and alert, with your shoulders back but not tense. If seated, sit up straight and slightly forward, while remaining relaxed. If you’re behind a desk, keep your hands above it. Whether you’re seated or standing, hold your limbs and body in an open, expansive position rather than a closed one. Don't tap the table or chair, or bounce your leg. Orienting your body toward someone and mirroring them slightly (i.e., positioning yourself in a similar way) also helps make you more relatable.
  • Tone and Pace: Make sure you aren't speaking too fast, or too slow (people associate a slightly quickened speaking rate with competence). The ‘right’ pace will vary with different audiences; if possible, listen to others to gauge your speed. Practicing your presentation in advance will help calm the jitters that may affect your normal speaking voice. Avoid ending your sentences with a higher, questioning note, and also avoid speaking in a monotone, which implies boredom and disinterest.
  • Eye contact: Eye contact, or lack thereof, can communicate many things, including interest, friendliness, hostility, or deceit. More frequent and longer eye contact with your audience increases your perceived credibility (and will also help you gauge audience reactions). Don't shift your eyes when answering questions, as this connotes avoidance of an issue or incompetence.
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    Example of smiling/warmth
    When giving a public presentation, use purposeful yet relaxed hand gestures. | Credit: Boston Atlantic Photography

    Smiling: Smiling conveys both competence and warmth, leading other people to feel more connected to you.

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    Communicating Science Workshop
    Communicating Science Workshop leader and participant communicate with hand gestures. | Credit: University of Maryland

    Gestures: Use purposeful yet relaxed hand gestures. Avoid tense and “intrusive” gestures, such as pointing. Avoid unintentionally touching your body (especially your neck or torso) or fidgeting with your hands, clothes, hair, or other objects. Pay attention to nodding your head—if you nod when listening to a question or another speaker, it may convey your agreement (although nodding can also convey warmth). There are other benefits of gesturing: studies show that gesturing while speaking improves the speaker’s ability to think, and improves listener attention and comprehension.

  • Clothes: Consider the formality of the event when deciding on your clothing. You want to strike a balance between showing respect for your audience and appearing too stiff. If you are doing a TV presentation, dark clothes look best; avoid patterns or other designs that can cause problems with color TV images. Avoid large, jangling, or reflective jewelry. For other detailed tips, check out AAAS TV and Radio Interview Tips.

Power Poses

Not only are people perceived as competent or incompetent through their postures and gestures, but we are also influenced by our own nonverbal behavior. Standing in a “power pose” (such as feet shoulder-distance apart and hands on hips) for just two minutes before a stressful event can change your hormone levels and improve your capacity for effective leadership, including your tolerance for risk and stress. For more on this, check out this TED talk by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard Business School.

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