The nonverbal conundrum

When you deliver a speech, you’re saying much more to your audience than you think. In fact, researchers have found that the nonverbal cues you send during a speech are at least as meaningful as the words you speak. Most speakers know this and, as a result, many methodically rehearse their facial expressions, gestures, and tone of voice.

But that’s where the potential for trouble starts. Think about your speech as a trip to the grocery store.

It’s Sunday afternoon. You’ve just driven past the grocery store you’re supposed to visit. But why?

You didn’t write down your grocery list because you thought you could remember it. You couldn’t, at least not easily, and your brain had to commit resources to helping you remember the list when they should have gone to getting you to the store.

It’s the same when you give a speech. The brain deals with tasks it doesn’t know well, just like it does with your mental grocery list. It will redirect resources from the essential task — speaking — to less familiar jobs like consciously keeping good posture or gesturing as you’ve rehearsed. In other words, focusing consciously on delivering nonverbal cues can hurt your performance and persuasiveness, unless the result is authentic. It likely won’t be, if you’ve rehearsed them.

Here’s the hard part. As many commentators have pointed out, you can’t rehearse authenticity. In fact, the best way to improve nonverbal communication is to not rehearse it at all. Instead, you should focus on improving one or more qualities of your delivery that will increase your authenticity and persuasiveness. Better nonverbal communication should follow.

Noted speaking coach and author Nick Morgan and others have described this phenomenon. Take passion. It is one of the handful of qualities that increases audience perceptions of authenticity. If you think passion is lacking in your delivery, practice your next speech or presentation while focusing on delivering it with more passion. Two things should happen. First, you will increase the passion in your delivery. Second, your nonverbal communication should naturally — and authentically — improve without your conscious thought.

Since these improved nonverbal cues, which have their origin in your increased passion, require no conscious thought, you substantially lower the chances that your audience will view them as inauthentic. In fact, this approach should make your delivery more authentic and persuasive.

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Connection with your audience is another key component of authenticity and persuasiveness. Better nonverbal communication can follow from improving it, too. A noted social psychologist who studies speakers says the best lead with warmth, and that warmth starts with likeability.  We can improve warmth and likeability, and their associated nonverbal functions, by stressing what we have in common with our audience — shared philosophies, interests, and views.

These commonalities typically can be researched in advance, written into the speech, and practiced with a focus on being more connected to and empathetic with the audience.  Just as with passion, improved nonverbal cues should follow naturally.

There is another variable that is important to mention. Your familiarity with your speech or presentation itself will grow with rehearsal, of course. This familiarity is important, too, and helps to drive improvements in nonverbal communication that should have a meaningful effect on your authenticity and persuasiveness.

At the heart of this approach is strengthening your nonverbal communication by letting it grow from improvements to your verbal delivery. If you can focus on the qualities of your delivery, rather than directly on your nonverbal cues, you can increase your authenticity and persuasiveness. Otherwise, you may keep driving past the grocery store.

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