A New Paradigm on Body Language and its Impact on The Public Presentational Dynamic.
“What We Achieve Inwardly, Will Change Our Outer Reality.” – Plutarch
The greatest statistical fear for most people isn’t death. It’s public speaking! If you consider that factoid, take a guess at how many fit into that category who may find themselves in a position to have to speak publicly at SOME point in their lives. They look at those who have a knack for it and see someone they could never be. And naturally, they tend to think that they have to look and sound like THOSE people, before deserving to give a talk. Speaking from their hearts is impossible because the perspective from which they approach presenting, is fraught with fear that they’re not enough to begin with or that they have to be someone else instead of who they are. Further compromising their possibilities is the fact that most presentational trainings focus on questionable, empirical studies on body language thinking that by changing one “undesirable” body position for the another “accepted” one, they’re solving the problems their clients face. But when they deal with it from the outside, they ignore the organic origins of that body language, thinking the audience won’t detect what’s underneath it. They never consider that the audience will “feel” it no matter what external wrapping they put on top of it.
Audiences absolutely read a speaker’s priorities energetically whether they consciously know it or not. And if they sense merely surviving your talk is what you’re prioritizing, they don’t want to be a witness to such an uncomfortable spectacle. No matter how alpha your shinny, new, externally-induced body language may look, your audience will sense your discomfort as a major distractor to your presentation. Conversely, they don’t want to watch self-aggrandizement or someone who’s obvious priority is trying to impress them if that’s what’s motivating a talk. Too much confidence isn’t a good thing either!….. But that’s for another blog posting….
The most popularly-viewed TED Talk, is one on body language by social psychologist, Amy Cuddy. In her presentation, she endorses the adoption of “favorable” body language in place of UN-favorable ones. And it’s true that there is also some basis in fact that externally-based “bio-energetic” exercises can produce some relatively small, internal changes. But it’s kind of like saying that if you’re in a rowboat and you lean over the front and dog-paddle, you’ll make some progress through the water. However, using a paddle, is a LOT more efficient if you want to get anywhere! There are far easier and more effective ways to do it through a simple but powerful shift in in the speaker’s perspective. And even more problematic for speakers is that attempting to mask what’s authentically going on inside them with some incongruous body pose, creates the barrier of cognitive dissonance between themselves and the audience. Something that just makes presenting increasingly difficult as more and more juggling of increasing numbers of priorities is required during the presentation. Especially those that conflict with one another. So I try to shrink that list of things to remember and prioritize, so the speaker’s intention becomes streamlined. And in the process, much more focused and efficient to their intention.
The older, established thinking also makes a huge mistake in assuming that such body-language is what largely makes up the 93% energetic component that a landmark UCLA study, showed most influences an audience during a presentation. And that everyone communicates body language or reads it the same way. But body language is actually generated internally and is indeed the external evidence of what’s actually going on inside. But here’s the dirty little secret not factored in to the situation. BODY LANGUAGE DOESN’T CONVEY THE SAME THING FOR EVERYONE! In spite of what the conventional “wisdom” says about that. Actually, it’s not body language but a speaker’s energy that the audience is reading and it’s different for every speaker depending on who they are. And so too, is the body positioning through which this energy expresses! You could be adopting a body position that is endorsed by the outdated ideology of what’s acceptable, and still convey fear and confusion to your audience! Likewise, you could be adopting one that’s discouraged, and be completely at ease and comfortable in your circumstances! In either case, what’s going on energetically inside-is what’s being conveyed to the audience. If you doubt it, imagine a blind person giving their impressions after a talk, bereft of any sight that might otherwise confuse what they heard and felt. It’s likely they’re going to come up with the most accurate impression of just what it is that the speaker managed to convey and what was going on internally for the speaker while doing it.
Dr. Paul Ekman is the world’s foremost authority on body language and facial expression and interpretation. He was the advisor behind the Fox Television series, “Lie To Me” starring Tim Roth that ran from 2009 to 2011. His research has appeared in most of the major magazines on psychology. In 2009, Dr. Ekman was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME Magazine. In 2014, he ranked fifteenth among the most influential psychologists of the 21st century. In an effort to determine which movements and facial clues were native to all humans and which were culturally-influenced, he travelled to New Guinea and studied a tribe of people who hadn’t had any previous contact with any other cultures outside of their own. What he found was that body-expression and reading of body language, was culturally-influenced and indeed not the same across cultural barriers. However, he found that micro facial expressions were the same when it came to the expression or more importantly, the suppression of emotions and the truth. And make no mistake-suppression is what takes place when one attempts to mask internal energies with incongruent external cues and body language! And it does indeed get conveyed to the audience.The only exception to this commonality of facial expressions during conflicted thoughts or deception, would be in the case of a sociopath who pathologically changes their internal truth to the one most useful to them as a survival mechanism. Many can even pass lie detector tests this way! But since this is an anomaly and makes up the only exception, it only bears a mention here for clarification.
Many people have mistakenly dealt with the valuable information in Eckman’s study, by espousing ways of attempting to mask or circumvent many of these “negative” external communication cues thinking the problem is solved merely by making sure the audience doesn’t see them. The fact that they can “feel” them isn’t dealt with at all and is tantamount to the effect of a small child covering their own eyes during a peek-a-boo game and then exclaiming, “You can’t see me!” But there’s an even more important reason why dealing with a speaker’s body language by pointing it out and then trying to changing it externally, is pointless and potentially even detrimental.
Any one of the thousands of experienced actors with whom I dealt as a film and television casting director can tell you, human beings express from an endogenous and not from an exogenous place. The etymology of these words comes from the Greek endo or inside, exo or outside and genous meaning “producing”. An actor’s training and exploration of character is done almost entirely from the inside out. Since we produce these facial clues from what’s going on inside us, it is extremely difficult to try to convincingly manipulate these internal expressions from an external place as I’ve already stated. It’s essentially placing the cart before the horse. And more importantly, it completely compromises the ability to communicate from the heart, in service which I believe is the place where a presenter truly goes into, “the zone.” And you just can’t gain admission there, using inauthentic body language superimposed over what’s REALLY going on inside you.
As I mentioned above, a speaker told that their body language is detrimental to their talk, finds themselves suddenly dealing with yet another ball to juggle in their presentation. And because of a phenomenon called “ironic effect”, trying NOT to do something or having resistance to it, actually causes it to grow. What’s more, if someone is subconsciously but authentically expressing themselves through a certain body position and is told to resist it, they start operating from the fear of doing it wrong instead of the infinitely more effective tactic of going in the direction of what they actually WANT…. or of a “love-based” direction. And everything that motivates us can be culled down to those two. Fear and Love! A case in point-many body-language-based technologies state that “arms folded in front” suggests an energetically closed demeanor on the part of the speaker.” Something typically considered alienating to an audience. But what do you do if you have a habit of folding your arms in front of you while you speak, whether it’s to your intimates at your own dinner table after a couple of glasses of wine… or to a large group? Well, I guess you’d have quite a challenge conforming to the straitjacketed thinking about body language espoused by the vast majority of current wisdoms on presenting based solely on universally-fixed, one-size-fits-all interpretations of body language positions.
And that’s where the biggest problems lie for many of the clients with whom I’ve worked. There’s some sort of belief that who they authentically are, is inherently just not enough for the task and that they have to learn to “pretend” they are. This completely compromises their authenticity and their ability to serve the audience because with so many things to try to aspire, it ends up becoming all about them, instead of their audience. Especially when the pretense of adding confident or open body language is perpetrated upon them. There are just too many ways to mess up for people like that. They typically see more road blocks than opportunities because they feel tied to these beliefs about who they are instead of endeavoring to be even MORE authentically themselves as a goal toward serving their audience. And if you try to super-impose one belief over another conflicting belief that you haven’t processed and cleared, then the one that has been there longer will usually win because you’ve had more time to create greater evidence that it’s true.
If a speaker’s first time publicly speaking was a traumatic or nervous experience, that can REALLY imprint limiting beliefs on them about their abilities as a presenter. But it doesn’t have to brand them beyond reclamation. New experiences can create a new beliefs but getting them to those new experiences using the older, established technologies and methods can be very difficult if not impossible. That’s because the standards to which speakers think they’re being held are almost never questioned. Especially within the context of that individual speaker’s authentic identity… or how their own unique skill set may actually be beneficial compared to the standard criterion most accepted by society and celebrated in most media platforms.
Most of us have a preexisting criteria of presentation based upon what we’ve been exposed to and what’s been judged to be effective in the old paradigm. Most training methodologies tend to take people’s natural speaking style and attempt to remove anything that doesn’t conform to those “accepted” standards presented by their trainings. I maintain this is the cart before the horse. Instead, what I help speakers essentially to do is to be more completely “themselves” when they speak so they can be even MORE of who they are instead of someone they think they should be when presenting! When fully embraced, this removes any cognitive dissonance from the speaker and streamlines their concentration on what they’re actually there to do. The very best way to do this, is to cultivate the intention to speak from the heart and reach for the heart of the audience as a form of sincere service. And NOT opportunism or ambition! And if they’re experiencing fear or anxiety or any other distraction from the task at hand, checking in to determine their internal experience is the most effective tool, regardless of what body language they’re displaying.
I’ve developed a number of techniques to accommodate the perspective shift that allows a speaker to reframe their circumstances and eliminate the sources and perceptions of fear they were previously experiencing. When they are free of those considerations, their energy is clean and streamline toward a single purpose to the exclusion of all others. And they become powerful in their focus and their delivery as a natural result. Not because they’re actually TRYING to be powerful or persuasive. And ESPECIALLY not because it’s EXTERNALLY induced to resemble or imitate other presenters who’ve already created their own unique stamp. And why should the rules of presenting be any different than the rules of life which don’t allow for us to be carbon copies of each other! It’s our authentic uniqueness that cultivates interest in an audience. That’s why audiences continue to see a diversity of actors take on iconic dramatic roles like Macbeth or Stanley Kowalski or to hear many conductors’ varying interpretations of oft-performed classics like Beethoven’s 5th or of Handel’s Messiah.
Audiences are always drawn to and trust authenticity. What we really should be talking about is the process of getting presenters to that place where they feel safe, dynamic, authentic and powerful while presenting so they can be streamlined in their focus and intent. Not to attain some carbon copy imitation of others who have been shown to be successful on THEIR particular path. When you combine this comfort level with the even more powerful dynamic of heart energy in true service to their audience, speakers have real power to communicate in a way that truly reaches people on an emotional, intellectual, physical and even spiritual level. They’ll be in ‘The Zone!” And that’s where public presentation actually becomes fun. I wish you this kind of fun in your presentations!