What did the Presidential Debates teach us about nonverbal communication?

A great deal. Love them or hate them, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have shown us a wealth of good and bad communication technique over the course of three Presidential Debates—the most watched, ever (http://www.adweek.com/news/television/presidential-debates-set-ratings-records-2016-does-format-need-change-174205). One of the most fascinating elements is not what they’ve said, but how they’ve said it. So let’s draw some lessons from the candidates’ nonverbal communication.

1. Movement. Whether it was Clinton’s “shimmy” of delight during the first debate, Trump’s “stalking” of her in the second debate, Clinton uncomfortably shifting from one foot to the other in the third debate, or Trump’s masterful use of his arms and, yes, hands to make himself appear confident in every debate—movement played a key role in audience perception of the candidates. We all communicate our comfort and confidence, or our nervousness and fear through movement. Each of us needs to ask a confidant, a colleague, or a coach to tell us what we do well, and less well. As a general rule, avoid crossing your arms and hands. Keep your hands and arms “talking” in step with your message. Respect others’ personal space on stage. And avoid shuffling, shifting, and leaning one way or another. Stand strong, and appear more confident.

2. Facial expression. Eye rolling (a la Al Gore in a debate valtrex cost with George W. Bush), scowling, pursing lips, baring teeth, consistently looking down and breaking eye contact while talking with the American people through the camera—all of these behaviors (which we saw from both candidates at times) weaken the connection with the audience. In your communication engagements, remember, from the moment you appear in front of an audience, that audience is assessing you. Before you say anything, they begin to form an opinion of you. So be aware of your facial expressions. Keep them aligned with your message. And when you hear someone else saying something you don’t like, or you’re facing tough questions, keep your expression neutral and interested. Anything else can be perceived as defensive, angry, disrespectful, or downright repulsive.

3. Voice. So many times, it’s not the words we use, but how they sound that matters. Be aware of your vocal “tells,” and, if you can, seek professional counsel about improvement. Clinton is an example of someone who sounds vocally strident (high pitch, overemphasis) when she’s uncomfortable. Trump is an example of someone who sounds vocally over-modulated when he’s rattled (overemphasis, loud breathing) when he’s uncomfortable. There are exercises and techniques to improve vocal “tells” and shortcomings. As with most things, the key to success is awareness—and practice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *