German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s eye roll at the G20 Summit became an instant online sensation. It also is a reminder that how you look can speak volumes and is more likely what people will remember rather than what you say. That’s especially true in crisis situations.
Merkel rolled her eyes while Russian President Vladimir Putin was mansplaning some topic with his finger. Merkel’s reaction was absolutely clear without uttering a word. That shows the power of body language.
Communications coaches focus on key messages, elocution and clarity. They also encourage good posture and eye contact to convey confidence. That may not be enough.
Unintended or inappropriate expressions can undo whatever message you intend to deliver. Smiling while announcing job layoffs sends the wrong message. Folding your arms while someone asks a tough question is a sign of defensiveness. Speaking without expression about a damaging environmental spill seems cold and unfeeling.
Well-conceived media training that includes video-taped simulated interviews gives speakers a chance to take a long and often painful look in the mirror. That long look can reveal annoying ticks, slumping shoulders, wandering eye contact and fidgety hands. With training and practice, speakers can cure those faults. However, it’s harder to identify and mediate impromptu expressions.
There is no magic wand or secret alchemy to ensure engaging, respectful and appropriate reactions for every kind of situation. Good speakers recognize the need to train themselves to be ready for the unexpected. Like actors, they understand what their body actions say is as important as the words they speak. Like actors, they train their bodies as well as their voices.
Actors generally don’t have to deal with interruptions, except for an occasional cell phone ring or someone with a loud, persistent cough. Stand-up comics, on the hand, have to deal with hecklers. The best comics learn how to turn heckling into laughs. The late Don Rickles relied on insult humor. Jim Gaffigan uses deadpan expression. In both cases, their body language matched their words, underscoring the comic effect. It’s worth paying attention to comedians to take a few pages from their acts on how to train to respond with the intended effect.
Performing in public, whether as an actor, speaker or spokesperson, demands discipline, practice and confidence. That can mean overriding your natural tendencies and substituting a studied response. Think of a politician being pummeled by angry constituents at a town hall meeting. There is little upside for a politician to show visible frustration or anger. They can’t really deflate the tension with humor, so they have to maintain an engaged, sincere visage and do their best to answer questions and ease anxieties.
Experienced speakers learn how to use facial expressions to underscore a point and sustain rapport with their audience. Sometimes an effusive smile, a wink or a positive gesture can say what words can’t.
The omnipresence of cell phones that can capture unguarded moments ups the ante on solid preparation. When you speak, you are literally on camera, whether you know it or not. Don’t let an eye roll turn into a viral sensation by accident, only by design. Spend as much time practicing how you look giving a speech as the words you will speak. Your expressions, like Merkel’s eye roll, may be all that people remember and share.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.