The Silent Language Of Leaders: How To Engage An Audience

Linda Clemons, body language expert and CEO of Sisterpreneur, says it’s a good idea to go into a meeting before it starts and start greeting people. ‘You never know who the stakeholders are,’ she says. ‘Just because someone may appear as an extrovert, and if you are an extrovert, you may prejudge and say that‘s the individual that makes decisions. But you may not know that the introvert is taking all the information in. Be careful who you ignore.’

How To Be A Better Leader And Presenter

Communication is so much more than words, said Linda Clemons, CEO of Indianapolis-based Sisterpreneur, who has been showing people how to succeed in sales and take advantage of nonverbal communications for over 40 years.

Clemons, a body language expert trained and certified in analytics interviewing and statement analysis, has a client list that list includes Southwest Airlines, the National Urban League, Nestle, MGM, Major League Baseball, Wells Fargo and the FBI. She used her keynote presentation at the XChange+ Virtual Experience event to show how important it is to take advantage of body language to engage an audience, whether it is team members or sales prospects.

Clemons, in a conversation with Robert DeMarzo, senior vice president of event content and strategy for The Channel Company, which is also the parent company of CRN and the presenter of the XChange events, showed how to read an audience to find the key people and outlined easy ways to overcome the ever-more-common distraction of audience members with their heads down checking mobile devices.

Keeping an audience engaged in a presentation is not difficult, as Clemons showed. Here are a few easy tips.

Words Are Cool, But ...

Words account for only about 7 percent of communication between people, according to Clemons. “The words are either powerful or powerless,” she said. ”Either potent or passionate.”

About 30 percent of communication comes from the tonality of the speaker, Clemons said. “So if you think about what‘s left, our body language is the majority of our communication,” she said. ”So it’s not what you say. It’s how you say it. ... You can say one thing, but your nonverbal will say something else.”

People generally believe that actions speak louder than words, she said. “So for all of you who are leaders in the making, or are currently leaders, you want to make sure that your words and your tone are congruent with your nonverbal,” she said.

Three Moves Any Leader Can Bank On

There are three moves that everyone can apply in their business and their personal lives to improve their communications, Clemons said.

The first move is to be open, which Clemons said refers to having an open mind that then lets the body be open.

For instance, talking to someone while one‘s arms are folded across one’s chest could be interpreted in several ways. “Number one, I could be cold,” she said. ”Number two, I could be holding onto my preconceived notions and thoughts. Or I could just be closed off to what you’re saying.”

Folded arms is actually closing the heart area, Clemons said. “It‘s like, ’Back up, I’m not letting you in the door,’” she said. ”So, one move that you can make is to be open. Be open in your facial expressions. Be open with your heart. And when you’re open with your heart, you’re expanding it.”

The second is to use one‘s hands to be expressive and to move with purpose. “When I say ’move with purpose,’ allow your words to punctuate what it is you’re saying with your hands,” she said.

To be truly open as a leader and be seen as open and honest, Clemons said it is important to gesture with one‘s palms when speaking.

“Studies have shown deception rises when people are not showing their palms,” she said. ”As a matter of fact, unless you are a psychopath or someone who is exceptionally good at lying all the time, a person who is lying or being deceptive cannot show their palms for a long period of time. That‘s a little tip. Now don’t go home, or leave the conference, or don’t turn around to someone in your office [and say] I want to talk to you only if your palms are showing.”

The third move is learning how to be present in another person‘s presence. And that, Clemons said, means leaning in to show interest in what someone else is saying. “When you’re interested, you lean towards things that you have an interest in or are curious about,” she said. ”Then when you’re not, you lean back. Like, whoa, I don’t believe that, or whoa, we’ve tried that before.”

And The Flip Side: How To Bankrupt Communications

For men, a big giveaway that the listener is closed to communication is buttoning up a suit jacket or leaning back and unconsciously placing their hands on their thighs, Clemons said. Both moves show the listener is not interested in hearing what the speaker or presenter is saying.

Clemons said a leader who responds with sharp words such saying, “Go ahead” or who waves his or her hands while saying ”Come here, come here” risks giving the impression that he or she does not want to listen. Furthermore, she said, waving hands in a fast ”come here” fashion can also be interpreted as a dismissal.

“How many times have you leaders out there, and I know you‘re working on deadlines, and you call an employee into the office, and they say, ’Can I talk to you?’ and you’re busy. ... You say, ’Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, come on in.’ Take the sound out, and that’s dismissal,” she said.

The last thing that can disrupt listening is how one uses his or her “power zones,” which Clemons defined as the throat, the heart and the belly button.

“If you ever see your client or your customer turn to the side, they‘re breaking the connection. The first connection we have to another human being is through the umbilical cord,“ she said. ”Wow. So when you turn away, you are breaking that connection.”

Those moves can bankrupt communication, Clemons said. “If I were you, and are in a negotiation, I‘m automatically thinking, ’Oh, he wants to leave.’ ’Oh, she wants to leave,’” she said. ”Because the body is turning away, that’s the heart and the belly button that’s turned away. And those moves can bankrupt you.”

How To Salvage A Meeting

Should someone show signs of not wishing to communicate, it can be critical to re-engage him or her because that person might just happen to be the influencer, Clemson said.

“If the one you lost is the influencer, you‘re in trouble because that individual, when you leave the presentation, there’s another meeting that’s taking place,” she said.

To overcome the situation, it is important to immediately recognize the problem and remedy it without being so obvious as to point out that they turned away, she said.

Instead, she said, simply ask a question. “‘So, Robert, what are your thoughts?,’” she said. ”The tone has to be right. The tonality is 38 percent. Body language is 55 [percent]. So the tone has to be right. ’So, Robert, can I get your thoughts? What are your thoughts on this? Your ideas?’ Now I’m bringing you back in, as opposed to saying, putting you on the defense, ’Robert, I kind of noticed that when I [talked], you turned away.’”

This brings the listener back into the conversation and acknowledges his or her presence, she said.

Look Out For Personal Biases

Bringing someone back into a conversation is critical because any leader or presenter goes into a meeting with his or her own biases, Clemons said.

For example, she said, a leader may unconsciously have confirmation bias. “Confirmation bias is, unconsciously, ‘I like you because you agree with the way I think,’” she said.

Another is the halo effect bias, where someone unconsciously feels he or she likes certain people and dismisses others because of how they look, Clemons said.

“I put a bias on you because you must be good, because there‘s a characteristic,” she said. ”But here’s what happens: I react towards that way. So I’m seeing you and viewing you with a different lens.”

The third is the negativity bias, Clemons said. That happens when someone goes into a meeting specifically looking for something negative, she said.

Speed Read The Room

Clemons said a good habit to develop is to go into a room before a meeting starts and start greeting people.

“You never know who the stakeholders are,” she said. ”Just because someone may appear as an extrovert, and if you are an extrovert, you may prejudge and say that‘s the individual that makes decisions. But you may not know that the introvert is taking all the information in. Be careful who you ignore.”

Clemons suggested doing what she termed the “power touch,” which may be a handshake in normal times, or a fist bump or elbow bump during the current pandemic.

“The reason this is critical is, when we shake hands, did you know there‘s a chemical that’s released from the hands that automatically gives you that instant connection with another human being that it would take you three hours of meeting face-to-face to get?” she said.

What About The Virtual World?

When the environment has changed significantly, such as during the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, it is even more critical that team members feel a sense of security and leadership, Clemons said. Key to that, she said, is making sure the environment is congruent to the message.

Taking video meetings while in pajamas or from a room which does convey a sense of purpose for the meeting should be avoided, Clemons said.

“Now I know you want people to see you in your natural state,” she said. ”But understand, we judge everything, even the colors that we wear. So when you‘re doing your presentation, people want to see a point or center of calm. And if you’re the leader, and with everything that’s going on, [you don’t want them] to look at you and think, ’Oh, man, we’re in trouble. Looks like he’s going through something, too.’ Or, ’He or she looks like death warmed over.’”

During a presentation, speak in a conversational tone, Clemons said. “As if you‘re talking to them, rather than speaking down at them or preaching to them,” she said. ”Have an engaging conversation so that they can feel like, ’Wow, I feel like I’m in his or her presence.’”

Conversational tone, being relaxed, and a clean environment are all important, Clemons said. “[They show] that, ‘Hey, we‘ve got it, we’re still in control, we can do this together, I’m aware of what’s going on, but I can take the higher road,’” she said. ”People want to come out better out of whatever situation, and not bitter. And if you are the leader, they want you to lead in a time as critical as this.”

Handling Distractions

To help keep people at a meeting or presentation from looking at their mobile devices, the key is to get their attention from the first “hello,” Clemons said.

“I‘m one of those speakers, they come in, we’ve got music, so I’m stimulating the auditories out there,” she said. ”I’m moving, and [people are thinking,] ’Oh my gosh, she’s dancing on stage.’ And I’m getting them engaged.”

It‘s important to get people engaged, whether they volunteer to engage or are called on by the presenter, Clemons said.

“It keeps them on their feet,” she said. ”It gets them excited. Their heart is racing like something‘s about to take place. And here’s what they’re thinking: ’I don’t know if she’s gonna call me next.’ It’s like back in the day when we were in elementary school [where] the teacher would call on you when you weren’t paying attention. So I’m moving around and getting them involved. When there’s movement, motion creates emotion. If you are standing up there and doing a presentation, and you don’t get them at ’hello,’ you won’t have them at the close.”

To move away from the distraction, it is important to focus on the impact, Clemons said.

“If you take them from distract, you can impact, but you have to have the message to be able to do it,” she said. ”And if you‘ve got the right words, the right message, you can take them from information as a speaker to transformation. And that’s what’s good. So when people walk out of the room and they ask, ’What just happened? OMG. I’ve learned this, and I’ve learned this.’ And now you’ve got water cooler talk.”

Clemons' Secret Tip To Holding Attention

Clemons, who was talking to DeMarzo during her presentation, said that often when she shares a story, it shows how powerful the mind is.

“And there is, one of my favorite actors, oh my gosh, he was in, oh, gosh, I‘m drawing a blank,” she said. ”He was in the movie Silence of the Lambs and Meet Joe Black. ...”

“Anthony Hopkins,” DeMarzo said.

“Yes,” she said. ”If he‘s my favorite actor, don’t you think I know who it is? The audience will do what you just did. They’ll yell out, ’Anthony Hopkins!’ So guess what I just did. I shared with the audience and allowed them to know, ’She’s not perfect. She’s just like us. She’s got some valuable information, but she’s just like us.’ And they were excited to be able to help the speaker. Look, Bob, you smiled when you said ’Anthony Hopkins. ...’ So now we became instant friends.”