Beyond body language – the power of words

“Fake it ‘til you make it.” Forming the backbone of Amy Cuddy’s TED presentation on body language, this is both a commonly used and a widely misinterpreted expression.


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This is both a commonly used and a widely misinterpreted expression.

In its simplest sense, it means nothing more than ‘buy a disguise’. Copy the people around you. Learn to mimic them. To imitate the crowd. Blend in to avoid standing out. And sometimes this can work. Other times, particularly in the world of business, it calls for rather more chutzpah. A larger than life character, a convincing alter ego. A presence that convinces on face value. So, as long as you wear the right clothes, carry the right newspaper, take up the appropriate stance, learn the secret handshake; you’ll fit right in. Right?

But what if you need to interact with your audience? What if it’s not enough to believe whole-heartedly in who you’re imagining yourself to be? What if you need to engage, to respond, to lead? To showcase skills and expertise that can’t be worn, but might be seen through?

Body language – whether open, embarrassed, confident or hostile – can speak volumes about a person. But even in this, the most visually aware, time in history, looking the part is only really skin-deep. No matter how much you believe in the dream, like an optimistic glamour model, the risk of exposure is never far away.

This is because in reality, humans don’t read the underlying physical signals as much as we like to imagine. Not even when they’re right under our nose. Few of us understand the subtleties to begin with. (It’s why we don’t see a kiss coming; the punch being delivered; the theft or the heartbreak in advance.) And even when we do, being humans we prefer to focus on a more common form of anthropological communication: language.

Turn off the lights, pick up the phone, use email or Twitter, and even the most infinite understanding of body language is quickly lost.

Yes, it’s important to dress, look and manifest the appropriate physicality – all the more so in the customer-facing business environment. But none of these factors carry the same weight and scale of influence that we as humans attach to the power of words. The greater your understanding and activation of the appropriate linguistic elements – the buzz words, key phrases, corporate sound bites, industry lexicon and accepted terminology – the closer you’ll be to convincing your audience.

That’s not to say stuffing an email with corporate acronyms is the way to go either. Yes, it might get you accepted by the audience – but it’s just as likely to encourage them to switch off and ignore the essential messaging you’re trying to get across.

Applying the right tone and language for the target audience is vital. But you can only get this right once you’ve understood the world you’re seeking to affect.

The best professional actors learn very early never to try and fake their performance. Whether visual, verbal or both, they learn the essence of the message is its authenticity. And that can only be found through a greater understanding of the audience; their fears, hopes, desires and expectations. Craft your message and personality through these and your audience is far more likely to listen, to hear, to trust and to do as you say.

And in business that’s the best way to make it.

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