Nonverbal communication is the universal language that we speak, interpret, and react to each and every day, whether we know it or not. Whether giving a presentation or having a casual conversation with a friend, having a deep understanding of how body language portrays emotions and ideas can either be a huge asset or a glaring weakness. Manipulating one’s stance and using animated hand gestures can make the difference between effectively delivering an important message to the audience and letting the opportunity slip between your fingers as members of the audience glance at the clock and check their PDA for messages. Being able to recognize cues from body language in others is an equally important skill. Understanding in an instant if someone is confused, angry, or impatient based on a furrow of the brow or shift of balance allows adjustments to be made on the fly. Presenting material is made much easier and more efficient when feedback on how the information is being received is being constantly received. The intent of this article is to explore how to interpret and react to different forms of nonverbal communication, as well as apply this knowledge to enhance presentation skills by manipulating body language.

Theory, Background, and Other Explanation as Required


One of the most important skills to develop, often overlooked in many curriculums, is the ability to effectively communicate Good communication skills go a long way toward success in the professional and academic world. The ability to effectively communicate with another person goes well beyond the dialogue. Some experts believe that communication predominately transcends the spoken word. Albert Mehrabian, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at UCLA, devised a theory based on his research that is often referred to as ‘3 V’s of Communication’ (1981). The 3 V’s of Communication are verbal, vocal, and visual. Mehrabian believes that each mode of communication caries a different weight; verbal accounts for 7% of the communicated message, 38% from vocal, and 55% from visual cues. Mehrabian believes that if an incongruence exists between what is said and what is being communicated vocally and visually, the audience tends to trust the visual and vocal cues. Posture, facial expressions, vocal cues, and body movements are all examples of nonverbal communication; when used correctly, nonverbal communication can be used to reinforce what is said. Poor use of nonverbal communication may convey emotions that contradict what was said, or distract from it. Having the knowledge to control what emotions are conveyed via nonverbal communication and being able to correctly interpret the nonverbal communication from others can aid in delivering effective presentations and developing successful personal or professional relationships.

Understanding the Nature and History of Nonverbal Communication

Darwinian Explanation of Nonverbal Communication

Understanding how body language and facial expressions can be used effectively requires knowledge of the history and nature of nonverbal communication.  An important area of study in nonverbal communication is emotions that are universally understood, and what constitutes a physical equivalent of a certain emotion. One of two widely respected theories for the development of nonverbal communication is a Darwinian based theory. This theory states that nonverbal cues for specific emotions can be traced as far back as the first humans and can be seen in some closely related animal species. According to this theory, nonverbal communication is a product of evolution and many generations of interpreting emotions through non-spoken means. This would also suggest that unique facial contortions or precise body movements universally represent a certain emotion. Psychologists have studied animals that are genetically similar to humans to help support this hypothesis. Sauter and Snowdon observed macaques, members of the most widespread primate genus besides that of humans, and discovered many of the same modes of nonverbal communication observed in humans. Macaques will let out shrill, high frequency shrieks when they encounter a predator, similar to a scream of fear. They will also utter a cry when they find a ripe source of fruit, which can be likened to a human vocal burst of pleasure (Jenkins, J.M. et al., p. 99). Another study that promotes the Darwinian theory was one performed by Tracey & Matsumoto (2008), who observed 20 blind and sighted Olympic athletes following a judo competition. Their goal was to observe how the participants reacted to victory or defeat, which encapsulates feelings of pride or shame. They found that the blind athletes displayed many of the same signs of pride such as chest swelling, smiles, and jubilant arm movements, as the sighted athletes. This would suggest that the way in which human emotions are conveyed non-verbally has evolutionary roots.

Contextual Theory of Nonverbal Communication

The second theory to explain the origin of nonverbal communication is that nonverbal communication is mostly contextual, much like spoken language. Studies done to test whether common facial expressions and vocal tones in one culture are easily recognized in other cultures provide evidence for this theory. The results were mixed; Ekman, who is a leader in research related to emotions and facial expressions, suggests that facial contortions used to express some emotions, like anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, and contempt, can be universally recognized (2003). Other emotions, such as anger and fear, require a cultural precedent of how a unique emotion is conveyed non-verbally to be understood. Ekman drew these conclusions in part from an experiment he conducted in Papua, New Guinea. The subjects of his experiment were local residents that had no prior exposure to American culture. His experiment involved reciting a narrative to a local citizen that would elicit a particular emotion. The research team would then show the subject three different photographs of Americans clearly expressing a particular emotion, one of which was the target emotion. Based on the success rate of the subjects identifying certain emotions, Ekman was able to conclude which emotions were easily identifiable across major cultural boundaries, and which were not. The contextual and Darwinian theories for the origin of nonverbal communication are built on strong evidence, so both theories must be considered when utilizing and diagnosing nonverbal cues.

Examples and Implementation

Using Body Language to Your Advantage

The difference between good presenters, those who inform listeners in a clear and succinct way, and bad presenters, those who distract listeners and fail to convey the important messages, is often defined by his or her use of nonverbal communication. Some of the defining characteristics of a good presenter are very subtle, so much so that the speaker may not be able to identify them. Bad presenters can improve drastically if they understand how the audience interprets the nonverbal cues that permeate their presentation. The goal in using nonverbal communication to facilitate a presentation is to always keep the audience engaged, to project confidence, and to deliver the information in a way that aids the audience’s understanding of what is being presented. Finally, it is the speaker’s job to ensure that the audience comes away with the important and necessary information. Therefore, reacting to the nonverbal communication of the audience can be a good tool to improve the effectiveness of the presentation.

Video 1

Secrets of Body Language. Source: History Channel website.

What is Being Said Through Unspoken Words

Projecting confidence when delivering a presentation is important because an audience is much more likely to respect and trust the judgment of a confident speaker. Many of the greatest speakers in history have relied on confidence to gain the trust of audiences, and use this trust to deliver his or her message. Presenters should always try to avoid self-conscious emotions, like embarrassment and shame, which often results in listeners having some level of doubt in what the speaker is saying. Keltner (1995, pp. 441-454), performed a study, built on the information gained from previous studies by Miller & Tangney (1996) and Edelmann & Hampson (1982), to elicit self-conscious emotions in participants in order to study nonverbal cues that result from these emotions. The results were very conclusive and are relevant to effective presentation skills; most participants who admitted to having self-conscious emotions gazed at the floor, turned his or her head from side to side, and returned to gaze at the floor, this time touching his or her face. To combat unintentional signs of a lack of confidence, the speaker should always remained focused on maintaining eye contact with the audience and never use hand or arm movements that are strictly distracting, like touching the face or swaying from side to side. Not all arm movements are distracting, and some arm movements can actually be very effective. In fact, Tracy and Robins (2004;2007) observed that expansive posture, such as head movements and extensive arm gesticulations, is a universally recognized sign of confidence. Sharp and deliberate gestures, notes Jean-Luc Doumont, both projects confidence and can help deliver an important point with more enthusiasm (p. 111). A stable, upright posture, steady vocal delivery, and a sensible speed and pitch create an air of confidence that are interpreted by the audience as confidence and poise.

Holding the Audience’s Attention When Presenting

Maintaining the audience’s attention is the first goal of delivering a presentation, because no matter how clear and succinct the message is, without the audience’s attention it will not be received. Posture is very important when demanding an audience’s attention. A strong posture often leads to an attentive audience, and this can be achieved with a straight spine, both feet firmly planted on the ground, and always keeping hips, shoulders, and feet pointed at the audience (p. 111). Keeping your feet pointing slightly open can help when faced with a larger crowd because it allows the presenter to easily pivot and address the entire audience. Eye contact is crucial to keeping an audience engaged. A very common but disastrous tendency of presenters is to look at the ground, either when thinking intently or because of nerves. Eye contact makes a member of the audience feel as if they are being personally addressed, and this can go a long way in keeping that person’s attention. Looking at the ground, slides, or cue cards can distract the audience or make them less inclined to be fully attentive. By nature, everyone has a different tone, pitch, and volume with which they speak. Certain speech characteristics are more engaging and will naturally attract more attention, but those with softer voices who tend to speak quickly can modify how they speak in order to grab the audiences’ attention. Anxiety, commonly felt in individuals who are about to present to an audience, can also alter one’s rate of speech, tone, and volume in a way that is detrimental. One common sign of anxiety is tightening of the muscles around the lungs, which can restrict changes in pitch. This creates monotone, dull speech that is prone to losing listeners’ attention. To manage anxiety and deliver an effective presentation, Doumont suggests eliminating as many unknown variables as possible. Prepare and rehearse the presentation, become familiar with the environment that the presentation will take place in, and take two deep breaths just prior to the presentation to relieve restlessness (Doumont, p. 115). Changing tone and pitch will emphasize important messages or pivotal points in the presentation. Not only will the audience realize that these are important ideas they should remember, but it also keeps them focused and engaged on the main ideas surrounding the presentation. In addition, it is always best to be too loud than too quiet when addressing an audience for obvious reasons, although being too loud can also be detrimental at times. If a member of the audience is not entirely engaged, it is often not hard to detect by examining nonverbal communication cues. Signs that a member of the audience is not attentive include, but is not limited to, slouched posture, wandering eyesight, crossed arms or legs, and continual movement. When any of these characteristics are detected in many members of the audience, it is a sign that the presenter is probably not using nonverbal communication effectively to keep the audience’s attention.

Common Mistakes

Nonverbal communication can play a role in whether or not the audience receives the important messages from the presentation as intended by the presenter. Certain actions by the presenter can create a lot of ‘noise’ that distract the audience from the important points. One very common example of this is repeated use of the ‘um’ sound or phrases like ‘you know’. These expressions are sometimes referred to as vocal bursts when the utterance is not an actual word. Vocal bursts are detrimental because they convey no information, yet they take time and distract the audience when the time could have been spent introspectively analyzing what the speaker has just said. Silence during a presentation often makes a presenter uncomfortable when in fact, if used correctly and for the right duration, can allow the audience time to ponder the information given to them. This technique is often most useful when information presented is either obscure or extensive. Use of vocal bursts like ‘um’ conveys uncertainty and distracts the audience, and should be avoided at all costs. Facial expressions can also be a good tool to use in order to lead an audience to draw certain conclusions. Raising eyebrows, tilting one’s head, smiling, and other such facial expressions assure members of the audience that the last piece of information delivered is in fact surprising or obvious. Using facial expressions can be tricky because just like most types of nonverbal communication, overuse of facial expressions can cause noise that distracts the audience. Vocal pitch, tone, and volume can be used to enforce certain ideas in addition to engaging the audience. Presenters will often increase volume and pitch with the intent of accentuating what they are saying at that point. As long as it is not overused and is done in a consistent manner, vocal cues are very important in communicating to the audience what information is vital to understanding the message of the presentation and what material is supporting.

Video 2

Seven Things to Avoid While Presenting. Source: Hussain Shafei Channel on YouTube.com.

Beyond Presenting

The value of nonverbal communication goes far beyond presentation skills. Nonverbal communication is essential in the relationships we build in every facet of life. Both in personal and professional relationships, it is important to convey emotions that are consistent with what is being said and felt. The inability to convey the proper emotions can result in appearing insincere, making others uncomfortable, and disastrous misunderstandings. Using the skills described earlier to control emotions expressed through physical means can increase the chances of building mutually trusting, respectful relationships. Another key to building and maintaining successful relationships is to monitor the nonverbal communication in others. Knowing when others are confused, sad, or uncomfortable is the first step to building and conveying the appropriate emotional response.


Nonverbal communication is a vital skill because it is ubiquitous in human interactions. Because it is present in every conversation or presentation, the speaker can either use this as a tool to reinforce what is being said, or it can be left to distract or contradict what is being said. The aspect of nonverbal communication that makes it so valuable in today’s world is that it often transcends cultural boundaries, as shown by the Darwinian theory. It supersedes the spoken word in that it can be used and understood with a comparatively higher success rate. Careful attention to the use of nonverbal communication can go a long way in developing professional relationships, personal relationships, and delivering a successful presentation.

Cited References

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