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How to read your audience's body language

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People sometimes say to me that one of the most annoying things when giving a presentation is when the audience is impassive, and gives you no feedback. The reality is that your audience is constantly giving you feedback. It’s just that most presenters are too engrossed in what they are doing and saying themselves to notice it.

1. Hand-to-face gestures

Child covering face

sports fan covering face with hands

Also known as 'non-verbal leakage', I've written about this elsewhere (see Giving away your thoughts: non-verbal 'leakage') so I won't dwell on it at length here. Suffice it to say that when people feel tense or uncomfortable about something, they tend to touch their face. This is actually a subconscious desire to completely cover the face or ears, as we do when we're children and we see or hear something we don't like . Except that we know that it would be overkill as adults (except in situations of high emotion such as watching a sports game), so we change it at the last second to be something innocuous like a nose scratch.

So if you're coming to a part of your presentation that you know might be contentious, watch for the audience touching their faces somehow. If they suddenly start to rub an eye, scratch a nose or tug an earlobe, you've said something they feel uncomfortable about.

OR ... you could notice an absence of hand-to-face gestures when there should be some. For example, let's say you're giving a sales presentation and when you tell them the price, the customer tells you (as they normally do) that it's a bit on the steep side. If this is true, you'd normally expect some kind of non-verbal leakage. But if they don't display any, you can probably assume they're actually comfortable with the price and it's just a negotiation ploy. Read Giving away your thoughts: non-verbal leakage to learn more about this.

Biden hand to forehead Hilary Clinto hand to forehead Obama hand to eye Romney hand to face Boehner hand to mouth

2. Steepling

John Kerry steepling Vladmir Putin steepling Gordon Brown steeplingJohn Kerry, Vladmir Putin and Gordon Brown 'steepling'

When people use a 'steepling' gesture (almost as if they are praying, as demonstrated by John Kerry, Vladmir Putin and Gordon Brown left), it often means they've made their mind up about something. so if you've been picking up nice, open body language from the decision maker and then she suddenly steeples, ask for the sale (or whatever it is that you want) because you'll probably get a 'yes.'

On the other hand, if the steepling follows closed, negative body language (hand-to-face gestures, folded arms, chin on chest, barrier signals, etc.- see The power of posture) don't ask for it. You'll probably about to get a rejection. Instead, try to open up a discussion and find out what they don't like. Say something like, "Lisa - you look like you wanted to add something ...?" and let her open up.

3. Evaluation Gestures

When people are in the process of evaluating what is being said, the most common gesture is to stroke the chin with one hand, sometimes with one finger pointing upwards. Sometimes it can just be a single finger resting on the chin or cheekbone.

Obama evaluation Condoleeza Rice evaluation Cameron evaluation Bill Clinton evaluation Tony Blair evaluation

This is a gesture chat show hosts use when they want to look like they’re listening intently to what their guests are saying (as opposed to waiting until they pause for breath so they can leap in with their next ‘spontaneous’ witticism). So if you see this in your audience, so far, so good. BUT there are two things to look out for.

When someone becomes bored, they’ll often feign an evaluation gesture to mask their disinterest. However, the tell-tale sign is that the hand will begin to support the head as their alertness drops. So is the hand touching the face or supporting it? You should look for two things. Is the head resting on the hand, as in Paul Ryan's photo below, or is the weight resting on the raised finger? In the photos of Vladmir Putin and Gordon Brown, you can clearly see the wrinkle of skin caused by the finger supporting the head as opposed to merely resting on the face.

Paul Ryan bored Putin bored Gordon Brwon bored


Cameron hand to mouth Obama hand to mouth

The second thing to look for is hand to mouth gestures. This is still evaluation, but it’s negative. If you’re giving a sales presentation and your audience have their hands over their mouths, they don’t like what you’re saying. Rather than press on, you'd be better to find out what is on their minds, by saying something like, “You look like you’re about to say something Jane …” as recommended above under 'Steepling.'



Take a look at the three photos of Bill Clinton below. An inexperienced body watcher might not be able to see the difference between them. Hopefully you now can.

Clinton evaluation gestures

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