Non-verbal communication: What are we really saying?

When we talk about SciComm and public speaking, we often focus on what we say, how we say it and avoiding jargon. These are all supremely important to giving a good presentation. But what about all the communication that goes on before you even open your mouth?

You’ve probably heard the saying ‘you only get one chance to make a first impression’. As soon as people see you, they make judgements on who you are. You might not like to think this, but it’s unavoidable. I’ve been thrown out of academic staff rooms because other people thought I was a student sneaking in to use the photocopier (I’m small and young-looking) and I’m always getting the ‘you don’t look like a scientist’ comment. I’m aware that it’s inevitable, but what can we do about this? Well, next time you communicate, how about making sure that those non-verbal cues are deliberate.

What do I mean? Well, a few weeks ago I attended a public engagement workshop at my research institution. As part of the day we discussed non-verbal communication and ‘openings’ so I though I’d share what we uncovered.

In the workshop I wanted to present my work on treating inflammation by targeting leukocytes. Leaukocytes are the inflammatory white cells that literally ‘roll’ down your blood vessel walls before being recruited into the tissue, there’s a great video showing the process here, particularly at 59 s. The only non-verbal way I felt I could introduce this topic was by entering the room as a leukocyte – you can check out my epic performance below, complete with foot-rolling (which has a non-verbal sign of nerves, apparently.)

I know that this is quite a ridiculous way to enter most public speaking events but it does give you an idea of that all important ‘entrance’. You don’t have to enter a museum event all ‘jazz-hands and high-kicks’ (although I would love to see this) but you can give a bit more thought to your entrance as a part of your presentation.

I recently hosted a guestpost by @dr_fi and you can see her non-verbal entrance at the start of her FutureSmash entry at the Science Museum (we went to the same class) – it helped to relax the crowd and get us all interested in what the hell she was going to say after crawling to the microphone (it was a story about a future run by bacteria…) .

You can always use a more physical entrance for informal crowds and keep it formal, but confident, when it’s for a more serious audience. But, remember, if you enter with your head hung low, looking uncertain, then people don’t feel confident in you and your knowledge – You’ll spend the first part of your talk just trying to win them around when you really want them to be engaged in what you’re telling them.

What sort of message do you think you give out before you talk to strangers? Is it deliberate?

Will you consider your non-verbal communication from now on?

Fred Humphreys

Scientist at University of Portsmouth
I'm a research scientist based in Portsmouth in the United Kingdom. My passions include biology, gardening and walking.

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