Body language is the sign language of the stage.
So much has been made of this form of communication, as if nothing the mouth says gets heard unless augmented by the appropriate bodily movements.
Grand gestures for soaring oratory. Sweeping arm movements for the speaker’s expansive vision.
Politicians standing at the lectern, punching thumbs or bent fingers at the air to punctuate their policies and punch holes in the opposition’s agenda. Motivational speakers jumping, spinning, gesticulating.
It’s as if another more important language is being spoken. Don’t listen to me – watch me!
Let’s explore the topic from its extremes, as practiced by two great speakers.
One, Leo Buscaglia, the so-called Dr. Love, was extremely animated in his presentations. The other, President Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, used virtually no body language yet still expressed a full range of emotions from the podium.
Let’s compare their vastly different styles by viewing a pair of videos, starting with Buscaglia’s Speaking of Love presentation for public television stations. Buscaglia – the university professor, motivational speaker and author of bestselling books such as Living, Loving & Learning, and Personhood: The Art of Being Fully Human – is about as physically expressive a speaker as you will find.
He is spasmodic in his movements, acting out much of the powerful and emotional words that flow from his throat. The man uses gestures to act out the stories he tells.
Here’s the incongruity. Notice during the more distant camera shots what a barricade the lectern and flanking potted plants create between Buscaglia and his audience. This is especially unusual for a man who is so clearly reaching out to his audience physically and emotionally. As animated and vocally explosive as Buscaglia is, it seems odd that he didn’t rid himself of such trappings by roaming the stage with a lapel mic that left his hands free for unrestrained gestures.
While Buscaglia would have benefitted from an open stage, one can hardly imagine President Reagan not standing behind a podium. He was a man perfectly suited to the formality of the podium, yet he always managed to close the distance between himself and his audience with his warm voice, smile and twinkling eyes.
Whatever you think of Reagan politics, (personally, I’m a registered independent and have never belonged to the democratic or republic parties), it is indisputable that he was one of the best public speakers of our time.
What’s striking about this Reagan video is how much passion and emotion the former President conveys without using gestures. Facial expressions and head movements are the extent of Reagan’s body language. One of the lessons he taught public speakers is the vast amount of content that could be communicated by voice and facial expressions alone.
He begins this highly political and religious speech to the National Association of Evangelicals with his telltale sense of humor and storytelling. Then things turn serious – as in steadfastly political and religious. The speech ranges from religion-based social conservatism to his opposition to the Soviet Union’s expansionist ambitions. All the while, Reagan’s face and voice exudes his signature kindness.
Even though he is speaking with the use of Teleprompters and a paper script, his delivery has a naturalness no other President has ever achieved.
So what is the lesson from these two excellent public speakers of starkly different styles? This much for sure: The power of body language is real, though often overblown.
Buscaglia’s fiery arm movements tell stories and underscore his words. But most of us would be hard pressed to emulate him without looking foolish or maudlin.
Reagan’s minimalist body language shows how much emotional content can be delivered by earnest displays of passion using nothing more than head cocks and facial expressions. But very few have Reagan’s natural talent for Technicolor communication.
Our best advice is to do what comes naturally to while on stage. The fact that these two men used such different styles to achieve fame should encourage us. They have demonstrated that there is a broad range of personas that can achieve proficiency – and even greatness.