The importance of non-verbal Cues (and NOT having a whimpy handshake)


By Benjamin Haslem

In a past life, the PR firm I was working for nearly lost a certain new client because a junior member of staff had a weak handshake.

The 'wet fish' wasn't the only problem. The potential client complained the young man was also ill-informed about the "latest trends in digital marketing", (not a problem as Wells Haslem!).

But leaving aside the junior's lack of knowledge (and the new client's penchant for the firm grip), this anecdote drives home the importance of body language in face-to-face communications.

As I stress in media training, a US Study some years ago found physiology or body language (how you sit, stand and gesture) makes up 55 per cent of the communication process. Tone and inflection, how you sound, 38 per cent. Actual content seven per cent.

Body language coach, Carol Kinsey Goman, says there are five key areas you should focus on:

Letting the audience see your passion - Allow your natural enthusiasm for what you do, your product or company come across in the tone of your voice and emphasis and your animated expressions. But don't go overboard; keep it in check by limiting most of your gestures to waist height and definitely not above the shoulders.

Look confident and warm - One non-verbal cue can convey status, authority, and confidence. Stand tall, hold your shoulders back, keep your head straight, speak clearly and in a lower vocal range. Then you need to use the other cue to convey warmth, empathy, and likeability: open palm gestures, lean slightly forward, give people eye contact when they talk, smile and mirror their posture/gestures. (If you find it difficult to look strangers in the eye, an old salesmans' trick is to look at the bridge of their nose.)

Make sure that your verbal and non-verbal messages are aligned - Most of us know that shaking your head while emphasising a point gives the impressions you don't actually believe what you're saying. Neuroscientists have actually identified brain waves that occur when we are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language (you may as well speak gibberish!). 

Watch the audience to gauge how you are being perceived - How your audience behaves  indicates interest, receptivity, or agreement while disengagement behaviors signal that a person is bored, angry, or defensive. 
Engagement signals include head nods or tilts (the universal sign of “giving someone your ear”), and open body postures. When people are engaged, they will face you directly, “pointing” at you with their whole body. However, the instant they feel uncomfortable, they may angle their upper body away – giving you “the cold shoulder.” And if they sit through your entire presentation with both arms and legs crossed, it’s unlikely you have their buy-in.

And finally, the handshake - Dr Goman writes: "Touch is the most primitive and powerful nonverbal cue. We are programmed to feel closer to someone who’s touched us. The person who touches also feels more connected. It’s a compelling force and even momentary touching can create a human bond".

I'm not a big fan of the wet fish and yes judge people (possibly wrongly) if they have one. But I am far more put off by someone who shakes my hand but looks away. 

Dr Gorman provides these handy tips:

  • Offer your hand with your palm facing sideways. When a person offers his hand with the palm faced upwards, it is considered to be a submissive gesture. Conversely, when someone offers his hand with the palm faced downwards (or twists his hand downward during the handshake) it sends a message of superiority. But people who offer a sideways hand to shake send a message of equality and confidence.
  • Don’t be a bone-crusher, but do shake hands firmly - especially if you are a female. Women with a firm handshake make a more favorable impression and are judged to be confident and assertive.
  • Look directly into the other person’s eyes. (A tip is to look at their eyes long enough to know what color they are.)
  • Smile.
  • Keep your body squared off to the other person – facing him or her fully.
  • Make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that the web of you hand touches the web of the other person’s. Research indicates that if people don’t get this full palm contact, they wonder what the other person is hiding.
  • Start talking before you let go: “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”