Our body talks. The proof is that you can give away your feelings without even saying a word, especially when standing up and talking in public. Lack of eye contact, trembling voice and irregular breathing. We refer to this as non-verbal communication. But what is it? What does it say about us? How do we control it? Here are the answers to all these questions.
Speaking in public isn’t easy for anyone. Why? A plausible explanation lies in our evolutionary history. Research into ethology* has shown that in the animal kingdom, including primates, the “stare” – looking at another animal with an unbroken gaze – is reserved for two types of situations. Between two members of different species, it is used by predators to concentrate on their prey. Whereas, between two members of the same species, it is a sign of aggression or a challenge. Generally, this insistent gaze is brief as one of the protagonists will lower its eyes. Looking at it that way, it’s not hard to understand why having a whole room of people staring straight at you can be stressful. Let’s get to it and have a deeper look at our bodies response to this situation.
What is non-verbal communication?
Non-verbal communication refers, as its name suggests, to everything that we say without using words. It relies on two primary “media”: presence (everything an audience see) and voice (what they hear).
Concerning presence, information can come from our posture, attitude, gaze and facial expressions. Facial expressions, for example, are so rich in information that the American psychologist, Dr. Paul Ekman, has been studying them throughout his entire career.
Our voice, on the other hand, starts to expose us from the very first breath at the beginning of a speech. This is because along with the tone, volume, rhythm and speed of our speech, breathing and silence are also important.
What does our non-verbal communication reveal?
Non-verbal communication involves conscious and unconscious mechanisms, for both the person listening and the person talking. Indeed, the crowd will receive a multitude of visual and auditory signals – as well as speech – which are often difficult to interpret. Also, the speaker will be influenced by the way that his own body reacts.
To be aware of one’s own non-verbal communication is important when looking to achieve congruence. The dictionary defines this word as “agreement or harmony; compatibility”. In the world of communication, it means harmony between what is said using spoken language and the way it is said using non-verbal communication. For the public, congruence is achieved when all of the signals they are receiving are telling the same story and so reinforcing one another. Conversely, a lack of congruence weakens a speech.
How to control non-verbal communication?
Better control over your non-verbal communication is essential for effective communication. A few steps are required to improve.
Step 1: Being aware
To improve non-verbal communication, we must first be aware of its characteristics. If you are working on it alone, you can practise your talk in front of a mirror or even a camera. But how you see yourself is not really the goal here! Take it one step further by giving a talk in front of an audience and make sure to get feedback from different people watching, along with their thoughts.
Step 2: Exercises
Once you have identified the points to improve, nothing can beat hard work and practise to get better. There are plenty of exercises that specifically target improvement in breathing, diction, gaze and silences. Lots of different techniques to try out in order to give a good performance!
How to feel more comfortable when speaking in public.
To inspire confidence in others, you must first have confidence in yourself. For that, you need to know your presentation like the back of your hands! Before a deadline, we advise you to practise your speech several times out loud.
Another point that makes a difference: understand the content of your speech. If you are not sure of what you are saying or if it goes against your convictions, your non-verbal signals could create an audible or visible discordance with your verbal communication.
In conclusion, follow this advice from Richard Oliver and Nicholas Janni in their book Peak Performance Presentations, “be present”. Don’t think about what could happen next, don’t focus on what just happened, just be present in what you are saying and doing. Your presentation will then be alive!
*Ethology: a branch of biology, which studies animal and human behaviour.
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