Communication — it's a tool we use every day. Effective leaders communicate effectively. Through formal education, we all learned the value of thorough research and effective writing. We were taught thorough research produced a valid hypothesis that could be translated into organizational action. But how many of us have delivered what we believed to be the most well-thought-out, eloquent presentation, only to see our audience respond in an unanticipated way? So how can the most articulate and well-researched presentation not move an audience to action? Maybe they missed the point.
Effective communication is almost always more than just articulate and eloquent speech. Some researchers believe non-verbal communication comprises up to 80% of all communication. One academician, Albert Mehrabian, completed groundbreaking research resulting in his “7/38/55 rule.” This rule postulates that up to 93% of communication is non-verbal. Mehrabian found that 7% of communication comes from spoken words, 38% from voice tonality and 55% from body language.
Still doubt the importance of non-verbal communication? For those of us with a few gray hairs who remember Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's infamous Cold War-era United Nations speech, what were his words and what were his actions? Need a second, more contemporary illustration? Who can doubt what Danica Patrick was thinking (and intending to say) as she deliberately strode along pit row toward Ryan Briscoe following a race-ending collision at this year's Indianapolis 500? Briscoe should appreciate the track's security efforts that prevented her intended “communication.” As a chief officer serving volunteer or combination departments, your effectiveness with communication ultimately may determine organizational success or failure.
Non-verbal communication goes two directions. It applies to those who are receiving communication as well as to those who are delivering it. As a speaker, the more you can do to observe and decipher non-verbal signals from your audience, the better you can adjust your verbal message. What body language signals should you look for as indicators of successful communication?
Because eyes communicate more than any other part of human anatomy, maintaining eye contact with an audience can demonstrate a speaker is trustworthy and sincere. Speakers with relaxed yet attentive eye movements are seen as being honest. Staring or gazing at others in the room may create pressure and tension. In addition, shifty eyes or frequent blinking may communicate deception, and lowered eyebrows or squinting may indicate skepticism.
Put the audience at ease. Smiles signal that your audience appreciates and understands your words. There are more than 50 types of human smiles that use over 80 facial muscles. Analyzing use of facial muscles in smiling listeners can determine if the message is hitting home. Look for a skin crinkle at the middle, outside corner of the eyes. If it is not present, the smile is probably insincere. Authentic, heart-felt smiles build rapidly from a static expression and to a full facial expression that communicates sincerity and acceptance.
This often is telling of an audience's thoughts. An overly tilted head may be a sign of sympathy or acceptance of the message. A cocked head may mean confusion or, depending on eye, mouth and eyebrow gestures, may indicate a forthcoming challenge. A lowered head usually indicates a reason to hide something.
These can be the most reliable of all non-verbal signals. This is because most people generally have less conscious control over body movements than other types of body language. Most important is posture. Check arms and legs. If they are open and leaning forward, the audience is interested and receptive to the message. If arms are rested behind the neck, listeners are probably relaxed, open to your ideas and interested in hearing more. If they are crossed, it may signal the audience is bored, lost or not open to the message being presented. In a small group, check hand location. If they are in the pockets, the audience may be relaxed and probably in agreement with the message.
Be aware of nervous gestures. If people brush their hair back with their fingers, their thoughts are probably in conflict with yours. If combined with raised eyebrows you can be certain they disagree and you should prepare to defend your position. If they are playing, twisting or fiddling with hair, they may be feeling self-conscious or possibly uncomfortable. If someone bites their lip they may be anticipating something. If some or all of the audience is mirroring words or gestures, it is a genuine sign of acceptance.
English historians tell a tale of two 19th century politicians. After hearing William Gladstone expound on a subject, one would conclude he was the most intelligent and witty person in the country. After hearing Gladstone's peer, Benjamin Disraeli, that same person would conclude the listener was the most intelligent and witty person in the conversation. Disraeli, it would seem, was somewhat more skilled at paying attention to his audience.
It is important to pay attention to body language but it is even more important to pay attention to changes in body language. Communication is not a static event; it is dynamic and constantly changing with an ebb and flow. Skilled communicators pay attention to how a presentation progresses. Most presentations begin with an accepted level of credibility toward the presenter. Depending on the message and the audience, that acceptance may change very quickly. Strong non-verbal skills can build credibility and pave the way to acceptance of the primary message. Poor body language and non-verbal skills on the part of the presenter, however, quickly can turn the audience to stone no matter how important the message.
If, as the presentation progresses, many in the audience shift from an open body position and forward lean to folded arms, crossed legs and backward lean in their chairs, they may be placing and unconscious barrier between you and your message. If you are making eye contact with the audience and you find them gazing off into the distance, you may need to take note and make adjustments to your own body language or vocal inflection. Even worse, when you observe someone with their head resting in hands, eyes downcast or drumming their fingers, they probably have been lost to boredom and disinterest.
There is no specific, by-the-numbers advice on learning to efficiently use body language. Non-verbal skills can be interpreted differently depending on the audience. Most chief officers will use one set of body language skills with their boss and quite another with their customers or members. There are some commonalities that may be appropriate for all audiences, however. Keep in mind that to change body language, you must be aware of your body language first.
Take notice of how you stand, how you use your hands and legs, and what you do while talking to someone. If body language is a foreign concept to you, practice in front of a mirror. Just as listening to your voice on a recording tells you how others perceive your vocal inflection, tone and emotion, watching yourself communicate in a mirror will demonstrate how others perceive your body language.
You also should become a student of those who communicate well. Intently observe and learn from skilled public speakers, politicians and entertainment icons. Observe what they do that you don't. Adopt useful bits and pieces from those who are successful.
Even though some of these tips may have been mentioned earlier, here are some techniques to adopt into everyday communication:
Don't cross arms and legs
Keep your body open and attentive.
Make eye contact but don't stare
If you are talking to several people, make eye contact with all of them during the presentation. Make a connection with each person in the audience while ensuring the others still are paying attention to the message.
Don't be afraid to take up some space
Take up space by keeping arms and legs open and shoulders wide. This communicates self-confidence and comfort with the audience and message.
Don't slouch of slump over
Sit or stand straight without being too tense. Be relaxed but demonstrate interest.
Nod when your listeners are speaking
Occasionally nodding in agreement indicates you are listening to their responses.
Show interest in what your listener is saying by leaning slightly forward. Lean slightly backward to demonstrate self-confidence.
Smile and laugh
Lighten up and don't take yourself too seriously. Relax, smile and laugh when someone says something funny. Your audience will be more inclined to listen if you respond positively to their comments. Smile with sincerity when introduced to someone new.
Don't touch your face
It may make you appear nervous and may prove distracting.
Keep your head up
Don't look toward the ground unless it is intended to make a point. Keep your head up and gazing toward the audience.
Slow down a bit
Slow the pace of your speech. If walking, be more deliberate. Walking slowly exudes confidence and reduces stress. Make arm, neck and head movements slower and less intense.
Nervous ticks, finger tapping and leg shaking make your audience nervous and can interfere with the message.
Use hands confidently
Use hands to help illustrate your message or add weight to an important point.
Lower objects in your hands
Don't hold a glass or any other object in front of your chest. Holding anything in front of your heart will communicate distance or guarding.
Don't stand too close
Generally, if you stand closer than arm's reach, you are invading the other person's personal space. Most people passionately guard that personal space. Moving too close without express permission encourages defensive posturing and may close listeners to your message.
Usually, when people are connecting they begin to unconsciously mirror behavior. You even may want to encourage mirroring by being proactive. Mirroring body language is one of the most positive signs of successful communication.
Keep a positive attitude
Remain open, upbeat and relaxed. It's amazing how contagious a positive attitude can be.
That's a long list of things you can do to improve body language skills. If all 16 need improvement, however, it can become overwhelming quickly. Remembering to keep your head up after thousands of days staring at your shoes might prove difficult. Standing or sitting erect following years of slouching often is problematic, and remaining upbeat and optimistic may be downright impossible after decades in the fire service. Work on the list one point at a time. Take your time and master one technique before moving on to another. By doing so, it won't be long before your body language is in sync with your verbal skills.
Above all else, remember that a smile is universal. Dale Carnegie once wrote, “[A smile] costs nothing but creates much. It enriches those who receive, without impoverishing those who give. It happens in a flash and the memory of it lasts forever. None are so rich they can get along without it, and none so poor but are richer for its benefits. It creates happiness in the home, fosters goodwill in a business, and is the countersign of friends. It is rest to the weary, daylight to the discouraged, sunshine to the sad, and nature's best antidote for trouble. Yet it cannot be bought, begged, borrowed or stolen, for it is something that is no earthly good to anyone til it is given away. And if in the hurly-burly bustle of today's business world, some of the people you meet should be too tired to give you a smile, may we ask you to leave one of yours? For nobody needs a smile so much as those who have none left to give.”
As chief officers, we all communicate with numerous individuals and groups on a daily basis. The effort ranges from formal presentations before elected officials at public meetings to one-on-one conversations with volunteer members. All are important. All contribute directly to both organizational and interpersonal success. Effective communication is a total package. It must be a perfect combination of body language, positive vocal inflection and eloquent, meaningful words delivered with a sincere smile.
Jim Wilson is fire chief of Mariposa County (Calif.) Fire Department and a 36-year veteran of the volunteer and combination fire service. He has founded two successful business ventures including a book publishing company specializing in America's national parks and approaches fire service issues with an entrepreneurial outlook. Wilson is also a graduate of National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program and is on the board of directors of' Volunteer and Combination Officers Section.