Lesson 27: Body Language
By Gerard Braud
What you don’t say is often as important or more important than what you do say, when you are talking to a reporter. How you stand, how you act, how you fidget, how you move, how you stutter, how you sit, and where you look, all says a lot about you.
The easiest thing for a reporter to determine in an interview is that you are nervous. When I started my journalism career at the age of 20, I was five-feet-six-and-a-half-inches tall and 124 pounds soaking wet. I did not consider myself intimidating in the least. So why is it that learned people, such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and elected officials got so nervous? Why did they fidget so much? Why did the sweat on their brow line and on their upper lip?
Actions such as sweating are harder to control because they are a result of nervousness. However, if you follow all of the advise in this book, if you hire a good media training coach and if you practice on a regular basis, then your confidence will go up and your nervousness will go down.
Folding and crossing your arms across your chest in an interview is almost always a sign that you are hiding something. If you are crossing your arms because you are cold, a better alternative is to wear warmer clothing. Sales people have long known that a customer with crossed arms will not buy anything form you. In the world of journalism, crossed arms means you are closed off to the premise of the reporter’s question and that you likely are not going to volunteer any information. Your body language may cause the reporter to probe even deeper because they can tell you are trying to hide something. If you are on television, the audience at home will also see this body language and may judge you harshly or relish in your discomfort. Many at home will sense that the reporter has “gotcha.”
Your eyes are the proverbial window to your soul. I suggest that in daily life you get in the habit of looking people directly in the eye and maintaining an appropriate level of honest eye contact. Traditionally we’re taught that looking someone in the eye is a sign of honestly. Conversely, someone with high anxiety caused by not telling the truth usually has difficulty looking another person in the eye. You’ve likely heard people called “shifty-eyed.” When your eyes shift from side to side it is an obvious sign of anxiety, discomfort, and begins to make the journalist think that you have something to hide. Behavior like this is a perfect example of why role playing with a video camera is so important during media training. You may shift your eyes all the time and never realize it until you see yourself on camera. Reviewing your interview on camera lets you observe the behavior, then lets you work to correct the behavior.
Whether you look up or down and whether you look left or right also says a lot about you and what you are verbalizing, including whether you are “making it up” as you go.
If a right handed person looks up to the right while answering a question, they are generally being creative in crafting their answer and it may be perceived as a lie. If that same right handed person looks up and to their left when answering your question, it is generally perceived that they are recalling actual facts and telling the truth. Looking up is generally associated with questions about things that actually happened, things you saw or people you know.
Looking to the side has some of the same perceptions and generally applies to questions about sounds and things you have heard. Looking down to the left and right is a great deal less about telling a lie and more about feelings and recalling things such as a smell, touch or taste.
A left handed person performs these acts in the opposite direction of a right handed person. One of the classic case studies is former President Bill Clinton, who is left handed. As he made his infamous statement, “I did not have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he looked up and to the left, an indication that this lefty was a liar.
Other body language for lying includes touching your face, the tip of your nose, rubbing your eyes and covering your mouth. Essentially, these are all telltale signs that you are trying to hide something and hide, perhaps, behind your hand. Covering your mouth, for example, subtly says you don’t want me to see you tell a lie.
How you sit tells us a lot as well. As a rule, never sit in a chair that rocks and swivels. If you do, when you become nervous or uncomfortable, you will likely rock or swivel.
Never do an interview while sitting behind your desk. This is usually a place that is too comfortable and very intimate to you. As a result, you may speak perhaps too bluntly and openly because this is your comfort zone. You need to be honest, but being behind your desk may cause you to let your guard down. Instead of sitting behind your desk, pick two chairs in front of your desk.
Your posture while sitting says a lot. If you cup your hands behind your head, as well as if you lean back while doing this, it indicates that you perhaps feel superior to the person interviewing you. Akin to this, slouching in a chair during an interview could be an indication that you are cavalier, arrogant or feel superior to the interviewer. Many people who are described as “cocky” sit slouched or leaned back in their chairs. During my days on television, we affectionately called these people “cigar smokers” because they looked like the fat-cat, cigar smoking corporate executive made infamous in the black and white movies of the 1940s.
The position of your legs while you sit also says a lot. Women and men tend to have different sitting postures. Women who have been through some degree of etiquette training have been taught to place their feet on the floor and to cross one ankle behind the other. This is always a polished looked. Most women, when crossing their legs cross at the knee. The most common way women cross their legs might be called a scissors cross or inverted V cross, with the left foot pointed right and the right leg pointed left. From the knee, a woman’s feet spread like an inverted letter V. This cross is also generally accepted, but when nervous, most women begin to twist the ankle of the foot that is suspended above the floor. Some may even swing the suspended portion of the leg from their knee to their foot. The more nervous a woman is, the more the leg takes on the appearance of kicking.
Some women cross their legs at the knee, then wrap the upper foot behind their calf. This is a certain sign of being timid, embarrassed or lacking self-confidence. This is never an acceptable posture.
Somewhere between the ankle cross and the inverted V cross, is when a woman crosses her legs at the knees, but tilts both legs in the same direction. For example, if the upper leg is the right leg with the foot pointed toward the left, then the lower leg, which would be the left leg, would also have the foot to the left. In the world of etiquette, this type of leg cross is thought to be the more acceptable of the two ways women generally cross their legs, although etiquette purists say a woman should never cross her legs.
Also, when crossing their legs, women must also consider whether they are wearing pants or a skirt. If a skirt is worn, then the woman must also determine whether she is sending a message of sex appeal or sexiness. Some actresses and news anchors intentionally wear short skirts and sit in a posture designed to exude sex appeal. In the world of television and entertainment, sex sells and sexiness equals ratings, because most women secretly have a desire to be attractive like the woman on television, while most men are attracted to a woman that is more visually appealing. But while sexy may be right for the television anchor or actress, it is not the right look for a female corporate executive.
For men, sitting styles include feet close to one another on the floor with knees spread slightly, feet on the floor with knees spread wider than the feet, one leg on the floor with the ankle of the other leg placed on the knee, and sitting with knees crossed in the same way as described above as the women’s scissors or inverted V style.
The most offensive of these four male seating types is the legs spread wide open, essentially making his genitals the focal point of his posture. Many athletes tend to sit like this in interviews. While such posture might be fine in the locker room, it never works in an interview. The male sitting with his legs wide open sends a message of overconfidence and high superiority. And while that may intentionally or subliminally be the message the male is trying to send, a reporter or television audience may also interpret it as a sign of ignorance or stupidity.
A man crossing one ankle over his knee, almost in the shape of a number 4, is the most common posture for men and is often acceptable in interviews, but it is not without its problems. The exposed sole of your shoe could prove to be an embarrassment, especially if it turns out that a hole has started to develop on the shoe sole below the ball of your foot. Other times, you may have stepped in gum, which leaves a mark on the shoe sole. There are also multi-cultural considerations when a man sits like this. In many Asian and Muslim cultures, exposing the sole of your shoe is a great insult, so think carefully about your audience before sitting like this.
Men older than 40 tend to be more likely to cross their legs at the knee, in the inverted V style, than younger men. From a body language perspective, many people perceive this seating style to be more feminine, especially in younger men, even to the point of being stereotyped as being homosexual. For younger men, such posture may even be perceived as a sign of weakness. For older men, there is sometimes a degree of maturity or wisdom associated with this type of leg crossing. A key indicator of whether this type of leg crossing has a feminine or masculine appearance depends upon how far out and how high up the raised foot is. The closer the raised foot is to the low leg, the more feminine the appearance. The more raised the foot is in relation to the lower leg, the more masculine the appearance. This more raised approach is really a cross between the number 4 style and the inverted V style. One advantage this has to the pure number 4 style is that it points the shoe sole to the floor, shielding under-shoe blemishes and eliminating cultural insensitivity.
For both men and women, the best posture for sitting is to bring your back slightly away from the back of the chair, which also pushes your posterior slightly forward on the seat of the chair. With your body weight shifted forward, it virtually forces your feet to the floor, rather than having your legs crossed. Once your feet are comfortably on the floor, men generally slide one foot slightly more forward than the other. Women will do the same in some cases, but in most cases will now find it more comfortable to cross one foot behind the other. When attempting this style, you should not be sitting on the edge of the chair, but just slightly away from the back of the chair.
This slightly forward seating posture also makes it more possible for you to talk with your hands during an interview. Talking with your hands, especially with your palms in an upward position, is a sign of openness and honesty. It lets you gesture with palms up to the interviewer when directing outward expressions, while gesturing with palms up toward yourself for personal stories or to demonstrate personal accountability.
Among the things never to do with your hands in an interview is to flail them or pass them in front of your face. You should also avoid crossing your hands on your lap. Flailing is an indication that you are somewhat sporadic and lack focus. Crossing your hands over your lap and genitals indicates weakness for men and women. For men, having their hands crossed over their genitals is a big sign of feeling vulnerable.
Not only is crossing your hands over your genitals an incorrect posture when you are sitting, it is also incorrect when standing. Commonly referred to as the fig leaf position, hands over the genitals for a male, again, is a sign of weakness and vulnerability, as well as weakness for a woman. Many people instinctively cross their hands over their genitals when standing because this is the way they have taken so many group photos from the time they were in grade school. As an adult, it is time for you to learn that this is an old trick used by photographers to get children to stand still and keep their hands to themselves long enough for the photographer to snap the exposure. The trick kept Billy from punching Bobby on the arm while the children were positioned as a group. And from a photo perspective, crossed hands is never good photography.
Also while standing, you should avoid swaying back and forth. This demonstrates the same type of nervousness as swaying or swiveling in a chair. The preferred posture when standing is to have your feet spread slightly or to place your weight on your dominant leg.
Many people are also confused about what to do with their hands during an interview when they are standing. In addition to avoiding the fig leaf position, you should never put your hands in your pockets. Placing your hands on your hips comes naturally for some people, but from a body language perspective it is perceived as a sign of arrogance or superiority. Generally the best default position is to have your hands at your side then raise them between your waist and chest for gesturing. When not gesturing, a good standby position is you have your hands lying one inside the other just above the waist, waiting for the next opportunity to talk with your hands and gesture.
To wrap things up, your words will always be important, but whether the reporter or his audience believes you will depend in part on your body language.
In our next lesson, we’ll answer that age old question, should you speak off the record?
I’ll tell you if you promise not to tell anyone.
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