She was a confident, high-powered marketing executive with a multi-national company — and well used to speaking publicly.
Then she attended a workshop on effective communication where she was recorded making a short speech.
When the presenter played back the clip, the executive was initially satisfied with her performance.
But when they watched the clip with the sound muted, it was a different story. The executive noticed that she shifted her weight uncomfortably as she stood. She saw how her eyes darted around, how she continually squinted, how she appeared to be struggling to recall what she wanted to say — and that her mouth was tight and pinched throughout the presentation.
In fact the only time she smiled was at the end.
The moral of the story is clear.
Not only do we need to focus on what we say, says Gina London, an Emmy award-winning veteran CNN correspondent and international communications expert, we need to focus on how we say it.
And body language, explains London, is an integral part of that equation.
Now based in Cork, where her husband is studying for a PhD in theatre at UCC, London spends much of her time travelling the globe teaching people how to communicate properly. She makes a good living from it because most of us don’t have the first clue how to get our message across. And the reason for that is that we usually don’t even bother to try.
London, who has consulted and conducted seminars around the world for hundreds of high-profile clients including Wells Fargo, Deloitte, Daimler and the US Department of State, declares: “People all take communication too much for granted.”
By this, she says, she means that we generally only turn our ‘communication-conscious brains’ on for what we consider to be the big communication events.
Don’t, she cautions, make the mistake of assuming you naturally communicate well in casual situations.
If you don’t believe this have someone record you speaking at your next meeting, says London.
Then watch it — with and without sound. You’ll learn a lot about yourself she says, because we generally don’t acknowledge how much of our communication is done through eyes, gesture and posture.
So what are we doing wrong?
“Many people in pressure situations will rock on one foot or shift their weight from side to side,” she says, adding that one strategy is to simply consciously plant your feet solidly and be comfortable standing.
“This is challenging for many people, as many people will either stand like a statue and then uncomfortably begin to rock or they will go from side to side — so stand solidly, putting weight on one foot or the other. Be aware of your posture.”
Don’t, says London.
“People will think you’re feeling nervous or defensive and if you’re speaking to someone in authority you’re sending out a negative message.” You might simply find this position comfortable — but don’t do it, she advises.
Instead, lean in slightly to indicate interest, and nod or gesture in agreement with what the person is saying.
“In an initial meeting situation, make eye contact, but don’t stare.
“Look at the person, shake their hand and remember their name.
“All too often, peoples’ eyes are darting around the room looking either for someone they know or for someone more interesting. Be conscious of this and don’t do it.” We smile — but forget to engage our eyes. Don’t forget, warns London.
It all takes practise, but it can be learned, she says.
“Remember, your body is not just a vehicle to move your head from room to room!” Communication, she believes, is a three-legged stool — you must be conscious, firstly, of the words you use; secondly, of the para-language (pacing, pitch, volume and tone) in which you deliver them and thirdly, of the body language which accompanies them (gestures, posture and facial expression). “All too often we forget about numbers two and three,” says London, who explains that being aware of all three elements of communication can help you read what somebody else is — or isn’t — saying.
“You cannot single out one factor when you are reading someone’s body language.” Look at the “whole bundle of information,” she advises.
“If a person is nodding but giving terse answers and has their arms crossed, then you look at two and three and understand that this person is blowing you off a bit.” How do you deal with this? You ask them if they have something on their mind, or whether they are in agreement with you, or understand what you are saying, she explains.
Then be “nimble enough” to correct your course mid-stream.
“It’s all about gauging the feelings of another person. The only indicator we have of what is going on inside a person is what they are doing on the outside.” Some of the things we should be doing include nodding and smiling — we tend to mirror each other, and if you have a pleasant expression while you are speaking, your audience will tend to mirror you.
Broaden your smile she counsels — your endorphins kick in so smiling relaxes you and makes you feel more at ease.
Start practising now and in inconsequential situations — and then you’ll be geared up for the next big communications crunch.
Remember, says London: “Every skill we learn starts out in a deliberate part of our brain and with practise moves into the intuitive part of our brain.”
On Wednesday, October 7, Gina London will give an interactive workshop on communications at Fota Island Resort, Cork. The workshop, which takes place at the Golf Club, is free to members of Network Cork. A limited number of places will be available to members of the public at a cost of €25 per person. To book a place for the event visit www.networkcork.com