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How Body Language Complements Verbal Communication

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  • 0:03 What Is Body Language?
  • 1:28 Body Language in…
  • 3:21 Body Language & Intent
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David White
When used properly, body language can be a great way to complement your verbal communication and make your words more memorable. Through this lesson, you will explore some of the ways that body language can help or hurt your abilities as a communicator.

What Is Body Language?

Imagine that you're on vacation in Italy and you've gotten lost. When you stop someone to ask for directions, you're dismayed to find that they don't speak much English and you don't speak much Italian. You manage to communicate that you're looking for your hotel, and they nod their head emphatically and say 'Yes! Hotel!'. They point down the street and tell you '2 miles', and then make a sweeping gesture with their hand to the left. After thanking them you walk 2 miles, turn left, and find your hotel.

This is a somewhat dramatic example, but it highlights the way that body language aids in our communication with others. Body language is the gestures, facial expressions, and positions that we use to communicate with others. Sometimes our body language says it all without having to speak a word. An eye roll, for example, tells the other person that we think something is ridiculous or frustrating. There are other times, however, when our body language can accentuate and complement our verbal communication, making us more effective communicators.

Let's return to the previous example of asking for directions. In this case, verbal communication was somewhat helpful, but you were ultimately able to find your hotel because of a combination of spoken words and body language. Without the other person's pointing, you wouldn't have known in which direction you should walk 2 miles. And without a sweeping hand gesture, you wouldn't have known to turn left once you had walked 2 miles.

Body Language in Public Speaking

We all use body language when we speak, whether we know it or not. Yet there are few situations where body language is more important than with public speaking. Imagine that you're going to watch a presentation on the economic benefits of prison reform. This is a hotly debated issue and one in which you're particularly interested. Unfortunately, rather than engaging the audience and making a persuasive argument, the speaker stood perfectly still behind the podium, looking down at his notes and droning on for forty-five minutes. The speaker may have used evidence to make a solid case, but none of that mattered because the presentation was so boring.

In this case, the speaker did a few things poorly. First, by looking down at his notes the whole time, he failed to make eye contact with the audience. Using eye contact when speaking is a great way to engage the audience, but it can also emphasize the content of your speech by reflecting empathy or underscoring the seriousness of what you're saying. Moreover, making frequent eye contact with the audience is a sign of confidence that helps the speaker be perceived as an expert on the subject.

Making eye contact helps, but there's still the problem of standing perfectly still behind the podium. Sometimes a podium is necessary, particularly if you need to have something to prop up a microphone or notes. Nevertheless, like a person crossing their arms, it puts a barrier between the speaker and the audience and can easily become something to hide behind. A better option would be to move around the space, using hand gestures and body position to emphasize or draw attention to certain points or questions.

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