Scientific tactics that boost nonverbal communication and body language – Part 2

  • nonverbal communication

Welcome to our Part 2 of the science of body language and nonverbal communication. You can find part 1 here.

In Part 1, we talked about the face, emotional expressions, and the breath. Here, we’ll go into the specifics of posture and gestures. You’ll learn how even the subtlest of body, arm, and hand movements can influence communication. Being a good communicator is as much about what you do with your body as it is about the words you speak.

In this post we’ll talk about things like where to stand and how to position your body when interacting with another person, and what you should be doing with your hands and arms during conversation in order to have the greatest impact. We’ll also give you personality-specific advice of how you should be gesturing depending on whether you’re more extroverted or introverted.

Who would have thought what you do with your body and hand movements matters so much? Well it does! And after reading this post, we think you’ll agree.

All the information contained in the post is fully backed by leading academic research. Our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have sifted through hundreds of papers, selecting only those which demonstrate the highest quality of scientific rigor. This way you can have the fullest confidence in the recommended

The Four’s of Body Language (“May the Fours Be With You”)

Continuing from Post 1, let’s round out the Four’s of Body Language and talk about 1) gestures and 2) body posture.

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Article 1 (Done!)

  1. Eyes and face
  2. Breathing

Article 2 (Right now!)

  1. Body posture
  2. Gestures

1. Body posture

For thousands of years, people believed that the mind and body were separate. This philosophy called “dualism”, which originated with the Ancient Greek philosophers and later passed to the French thinker Rene Descartes, makes the argument that the mind is a non-physical entity and therefore separate from the body.

The ancient philosophers were smart, sure. But they were flat-out wrong about this one.

We now know that the mind actually is rooted in a physical substance: the brain. Why the brief philosophy lesson? Well, because what we do with our body is intimately connected to the mind. This means that all forms of communication – verbal and nonverbal – begin with the mind/brain.

In other words, body posture can say a lot about you and how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking at any given moment. Knowing this is key for being an effective communicator. With this in mind, let’s get to some tools for you to use.

1a. Stand in front of a person

If you’re standing around someone, never stand behind them or out of sight. You obviously wouldn’t need to worry about this if you’re having an actual conversation (yes, facing a person during conversation might be the most obvious piece of advice in this post), but it’s something to think about for when you’re standing with another person without conversing, like when you’re with a stranger or acquaintance while waiting for an elevator.

In these situations, even though you’re not speaking or interacting with a person, make sure you stand in their line of sight, ideally in front and at a slight angle (not head on either). A simple rule to follow: Don’t do what Donald Trump does.

face the person you're communicating with

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The reason is because of a trick the brain plays. If you stand behind someone and they become aware, the anxiety centers in their brain begin to fire and signal “danger!” to the person (even though 99.9% of the time there is no danger). This sensitive threat response is the caveman brain in us that is stuck in the ancient past, in a time when strangers standing behind us actually was a threat. So remember, stand at a slight angle of a person to ease their caveman brain.

This also brings up an important lesson related to communication in general:

Lesson no. 1a: Communication is happening all the time, whether you know it or not…  

Lesson no. 1b: So it’s always better to know when communication is happening … that way you can have more control over it.

Honing this skill means improving your overall focus and awareness. If you’re interested in doing this, check out a proven formula to improve concentration and focus.

Now, if you are conversing with another person, standing directly in front of them is fine. And also, be careful with the distance set between the two of you. Studies show that the ideal distance is around 3 feet (1 meter). Anything less and a person feels like their personal space is being invaded; anything more and the conversation will feel distant and cold.

1b. Get your lean on

You can use your posture and body lean to “tell” others how you’re feeling or what you’re thinking. Often times it’s paired with verbal communication (more on this below). For now, here’s a list of different postural positions to consider:

  • lean forward to show interest and to show you’re engaged in a topic of conversation (in times when you’re the listener)
  • lean forward to show you’re motivated to get something done (in times when you’re the speaker)
  • be “big” with your body and take up more physical space if you want to be more directive and authoritative
  • be “small” with your body and take up less physical space if you want to be accommodating and friendly

lean back with an open position to show you’re receptive to another person’s idea (pair this with an emotion expression on your face that is a combination of slight surprise and happy; see Post 1 for more information on expressions)

lean in to indicate interest

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2. Gestures

Gesturing is a natural and universal behavior. Underpinned by a primitive system in the brain, gesturing is by far the most ancient communication system, one that we humans share with many other animal species.

In fact, the early life gestures observed in human babies look identical to those of apes and monkeys. All communication begins with gestures, so it’s important to include it whenever you can.


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2a. Match your gestures to the words you’re saying

Most of us do this naturally without thinking about it. But doing it consciously and with purpose can enhance your communication ability and help you stand out among the rest.

Here’s a simple example for matching gestures to speech: Let’s say you’re explaining a concept related to new interface system. As you say, “the pages turn over with each screen swipe and eventually takes the user up to the top of the page,” gesture with your hands a turning over action followed by a moving up action.

gesture icons

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Some other simple examples include:

  • indicating the number of fingers when listing off items
  • large versus small hand movements for explanations of size
  • moving hands/arms up and on an angle to indicate growth (like when you’re showing possible investors the business’s compounded annual growth)
  • fingers moving along when describing things as moving or running
  • hands pointing at yourself or to others when saying “you” or “me”
  • hands going over a hump when explaining how you avoided a loss or got over something

Check out this site where you can search a word or phrase and observe the corresponding American Sign Language movement. If you have a few phrases or words that you use regularly, insert the corresponding sign to boost your communication. Using these little gestural gems to complement your speech will make you more influential.

The reason this matching tactic works is because the (listener’s) brain loves to receive clear and unambiguous information. As noted by famous psychologists Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor, we are cognitive misers: Our brain avoids unnecessary extra work whenever it can.

When the two signals of communication – one being verbal the other nonverbal – are aligned, the brain computes the information more easily than it would if the two signals were mismatched.

happy brain

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By saying, for example, “We went up …” while gesturing with your hands in downward motion, your listener’s brain is receiving mixed signals. It doesn’t like this because now it has to work harder to figure out what exactly is being communicated. An unhappy brain is an unhappy listener.

Bonus benefit: There’s now research showing that effective gesturing benefits the speaker as well – that means you!

Just as it is with listener’s brain, when you gesture, you make your brain happy too. By gesturing, you become stronger thinker. It makes thinking easier by lessening the “cognitive burden” of representing an idea because now the idea is represented not only in speech but in movement as well.

Try it out for yourself: Explain a difficult concept without gesturing. You’ll notice your ability to think becomes muddled. The reason is because all your brain power is dedicated solely to vocalizing speech.


2b. Keep the gesture subtle

Gesturing is most powerful when it flies under the radar. Remember these helpful tips:

  • don’t be intense in your gesturing (one study found that interview candidates showing more intense gesturing were rated as less competent and less ambitious compared to those with more moderate gesturing)
  • mix up your gestures (one study found that using multiple forms of gestures, as opposed to singular ones, makes a person seem more friendly and trustworthy)
  • don’t gesture all the time; instead take intermittent breaks here and there
  • keep your hands in the torso region, with elbows bent; don’t go above the shoulders or below the waist, and don’t fully extend the arms
hand gesture

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Why is this the case? The answer lies in … you guessed it! The brain. We subconsciously process another person’s gestures in the old part of our brain. So much, that all this “old brain” needs is a few seconds of observing gestures to form a lasting opinion of a person.

Gestures that are over-the-top creep into your listener’s conscious perception, which means their “new brain” (the outer cortical regions, aka the human brain) kicks in as it tries to make sense of your overblown hand movements. This means their brain is forced to work harder than it has to, and remember, a hard-working brain is an unhappy brain, which of course, means an unhappy listener.

Lesson no. 2: Subtle gestures allow the old brain to do its thing quickly and efficiently, and without much added effort or deliberation from the new brain.


2c. Match your gesture style to your personality

There are extroverted people, and there are introverted people. Different gestures benefit these different personalities. Some people think the key to communication is about being extroverted and gregarious all the time. It’s not. It’s about communicating in the way that aligns with who you are, and your personality.

So you need to first figure out your personality. Take this quick online test. These questions are a shortened version of what’s called the Big Five Personality Dimensions – the most robust, reliable, and valid personality assessment in all of psychology.

nonverbal communication for extroverts vs introverts

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So what should you be doing then?

Extroverts, you should gesture:

  • at a higher rate
  • with your legs and head as well
  • with more fluent and smooth movements
  • with expansive and outwards movements
  • with less repetition

Introverts, you should gesture:

  • at a lower rate
  • with just your hands/arms
  • with more jittered movements
  • with inward and self-directed movements
  • more repetition

It’s critical to stick to your personality type, as there’s research (and now popular books) suggesting that people who pretend to be extroverted if they’re more introverted, or people who pretend to be introverted if they’re more extroverted, end up being unhappier, performing worse at work, and showing poor health indicators like suppressed immune functioning.


Recap and the final word

Let’s recap what we learned in our second post on improving body language. We had a number of valuable lessons:

Lesson no. 1a: Communication is happening all the time, whether you know it or not…

Lesson no. 1b: So it’s always better to know when communication is happening … that way you can have more control over it.

Lesson no. 2: Subtle gestures allow the old brain to do its thing quickly and efficiently, and without much added effort or deliberation from the new brain.

And we had specific tactics and tools related to the body, posture, stance, and gestures:

  • stand in front of a person, at a slight angle
  • aim for 3 feet of distance during conversation
  • choose the direction of your lean depending on what message you want to convey
  • match your gestures to the words you’re saying
  • keep your gestures subtle
  • match your gesture style to your personality

With those in mind, let’s round out the discussion with our final piece of advice:

Watch others’ body language carefully.

Often the best way to learn is to watch others. As you begin to build your arsenal of communication tactics, you can look at others’ behaviors to see how they are utilizing their body language and nonverbal communication.

Observe people who are doing it well. But perhaps more importantly, observe people who are doing it poorly. Both will be important in helping you become a better communicator.

As you begin to hone your observational abilities, you’ll be amazed (and shocked) by the behaviors of others. In every little interaction there’s something to be learned. And remember, communication is happening around you all the time – make sure you’re on the look-out for it!