One of the most important concepts in the study of body
language is that of non-verbal leakage. This
occurs when we say one thing but our body language gestures give a
most obvious of these are hand-to-face gestures. The best way to understand these is to think how you
you were a small child.What did you do then if you saw something
frightening? You put your hands over your eyes, because in a toddler’s
mind, if you can’t see it, it’s not
Imagine your national football team is playing in the World Cup Final. One minute into extra time and your main striker steps up to take a penalty that will hand your team the World Cup. He shoots ...... and the opposition goalkeeper tips the ball around the post, putting the game into extra time. What would most of the fans do?
As one, millions of fans would raise both hands to their faces and slap them to their foreheads or eyes while wailing in despair (virtually every fan in the crowd has used very similar gestures in the image below). They'd do this unselfconsciously because of the emotion of the moment. Indeed, it’s very likely that the striker himself would use the exact same gesture.
Watch an audience watching a horror movie in the cinema. When the females scream at a moment of high tension, it is often accompanied by the placing of both hans on the cheeks or over the mouth or eyes (the more deep throated male scream is reserved almost exclusively for pain). Afterwards, they may watch the rest of the movie throught heir fingers. Thinki about this for a second. If you don't want to watch something, there's a much easier way to do that than putting your hand over your eyes. How about CLOSING them? That's much simpler. Yet subconsciously, we still create a barrier with our hands rather than do that.
in everyday, mundane situations such reactions would be seen as
‘overkill’, so when you see or hear something you don’t like, your hand
flicks automatically towards your face and then at the last moment,
realising you are going to look foolish, you give it an ‘excuse’ to be
there by doing something with it.
significance of this to your public speaking is that at times you're
going to have to deliver a message you are uncomfortable with. You may
simply not like what you have to say. You could be required to exaggerate
or put a gloss on something or deliver a ‘sanitised’ version for some
reason. Events could force you to deliberately omit some facts or even
tell an outright lie.
Or you may just be uncomfortable with what is being said to you during a question & answer session.
you aren’t aware of non-verbal leakage, your body language will scream out
to your audience that something is wrong. They won’t necessarily know
exactly what that is, but they will subconsciously pick up the incongruity
between your verbal and non-verbal messages, and that you are
uncomfortable in some way about what you are saying.
Therefore you need to know the telltale signs of leakage so you can avoid making
them and rehearse your delivery showing open, confident body language
So, what do people do when they see, hear or have to say something they are uncomfortable with?
Hand To Eyes
The hand(s) move to cover the eyes and then at
the last moment rubs one of them instead, or pulls at its corner.Or it
rubs the forehead or smoothes a fringe. In the photo below, Jesse
Jackson (pictured at the Michael Jackson child molestation trial) is
almost watching proceedings through his fingers like he's watching a scary
Hand To Eyes
same thing occurs, but the hand wipes the mouth, scratches the face or
strokes the chin. This is especially common when politicians are listening to other people speak, as
they are chomping at the bit to reply but have to literally hold the words
This gesture can be
mistaken for interest and deep thought, but when this occurs the hand
tends to be lower and holds or strokes the chin without touching the
mouth. It is the fingers covering the mouth that makes all the difference. Look at the photo below of Bill Clinton; he looks genuinely thoughtful about what is being said. In the photos above, the politicians all look like they are dying to interrupt whoever is speaking.
This is especially
important when you are handling Q&As. Even if you think the question
being asked is the most puerile, ridiculous, trite thing you’ve ever
heard, it is essential that none of this shows in your demeanour or facial
often people can be long-winded and you will know what you are going to
say in reply long before they have finished speaking. If this happens and
you are waiting for the person to finish, you may unconsciously use a hand
to mouth gesture. This is literally an attempt to hold your words in and
prevent them from erupting out and interrupting the
The trouble is, it is seen
as that by the audience. It is even worse when you take your fingers taken
away from your mouth for a second and then replace them. That is seen as
an obvious attempt at interruption.
So the golden rule
during Q&As is: Keep your hands away from your
The hand may also go to the throat, but this an effeminate gesture and is normally carried out by women, often disguised by touching a necklace.
Hand To Eyes
same, but the hand tugs at the ear lobe. Women can do this completely
naturally by touching an earring.
Similar to above, but
the hand scratches or strokes the nose. Who can forget Bill Clinton
stroking his nose every time he said, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" (Eatin' ain't cheatin' eh, Bill?)?
We all know the story of how
Pinnochio's nose grew and grew when he told a lie. Perhaps hand to nose
gestures were the inspiration for that part of the story - who
knows (no pun intended)?
This gesture is also common when someone has been asked a
difficult question and they are thinking about how to reply. It may be
accompanied by statements like, "That's a good question . . . "
Of course, it could always be that the person has an itchy nose, but when
someone scratches an itch it tends to be with a vigorous motion using the
fingernail. The hand to nose gesture is slower and uses the knuckle or
fingertip to scratch, or pinches the bridge of the