Persuasive communication - Presentations

The “Unfairness” of Body Language

Years ago, FedEx ran this commercial which poked fun at the fact that someone could steal another’s idea just by expressing it more forcefully. The lower ranking team member makes a sensible suggestion, which is ignored. Seconds later, the offending executive repeats the idea, but with a strong knife-hand gesture, and all but gets a standing ovation.

The video is funny and instructive, but for me, what is most revealing is reading the comments. They are almost all negative, and they lambaste the “blowhard” who steals the idea. It’s obvious that they think it’s totally unfair that something as superficial as one’s body language could determine the acceptance of an idea. They have no doubt had a lot of experience in the real world seeing people move ahead in the organization and develop greater influence just because of the confidence in their talk and their walk.

There are countless studies that verify this unfairness. Ideas expressed in a confident manner do carry greater weight—and good-looking people get their way more often. It’s a superficial world we live in, and shrinking attention spans are probably making the problem even worse, as nobody takes the time to dig beneath surface appearances.

But is it really unfair? I’ve written often enough about how important critical thinking and sound content are to ethical and effective persuasion efforts, so I should be adding my voice to the chorus of complainers.

But look at it this way: If you are blessed with a high IQ, you want to derive the most advantage you can from it. If you’re blessed with good looks and a confident demeanor, you also have a right to try to derive the most advantage you can from that. In fact, it’s much easier for a smart person to learn how to use confident body language than it is for a good-looking person to learn how to be smarter. So, where is the unfairness? We’re all born with strengths and weaknesses, and we all have the opportunity to work hard to correct weaknesses and develop strengths. Nothing unfair there.

That said, it’s important to keep in mind that the confident person got credit for a good idea. If he had received credit for a bad idea, that would have been unfair. But there is nothing unfair or wrong about using better body language to improve the perception of your ideas or proposals. It’s reality. We are hard-wired to consider the forcefulness and confidence of someone as one of the factors in assessing what they tell us. People don’t decide solely on the logical content of our ideas, so if you want to be persuasive, it’s incumbent on you to use all available means to get your point across.

If you’re one of those people who refuse to adjust your approach or presentation style to make sure your ideas are presented in the best possible light, kudos for sticking to your principles, but good luck with that. It’s your choice, you can whine about it, or you can learn how to use your body language to help you instead of holding you back. I suggest starting with the knife-hand.


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