Fact & fiction about body language 2: Does it matter what you wear or where you stand?

This afternoon, I'll be appearing on a BBC Radio 4 'Word of Mouth' programme on body language. As the interview I did lasted for twice as long as the whole programme, it's inevitable that whatever I said will be heavily edited.

This, coupled with the fact that the main guest advertised in the BBC's advance publicity is a body language expert, means that there's a fair chance that my position on the subject won't get as full a hearing as I'd like.

So, to put the record straight, I've decided to post a series of extracts from Chapter 11 ('Body Language: Fact and Fiction') of my book
Lend Me Your Ears: All You Need to Know about Public Speaking and Presentation.

The first of these - Folded arms, defensiveness and the Mehrabian Myth - was posted yesterday, and the third extract on whether movement and gestures distract will be posted shortly.

1. Does it matter what you wear?
A few years ago, a delegate on one of my courses reported that, after failing to get promoted, he was told that one of the main reasons for being passed over was that he had worn a green suit at the interview. Unfortunately for him, there were members of the panel who had been informed by an image consultant to be wary of men who wear green suits to business meetings.

Albert Mehrabian may be uncomfortable about self-styled image consultants with very little psychological expertise, but the situation may be even worse than he thinks: some image consultants are quite willing to make definitive-sounding claims without being constrained at all by facts or research. The seriousness of the situation first came to my notice when I was invited to speak on a conference panel with an image consultant, whose company specialises in advising people what they should wear, and what colours suit them best. At a briefing meeting some weeks beforehand, it seemed a wise precaution to check on whether the clothes I was wearing would contradict any of the advice she was planning to present to the audience.

My suit was apparently fine, but my tie was “the tie of a man going nowhere”. Fearing that there might be some hidden reasons for concern about my career prospects, I asked what kind of tie I should be wearing. The answer was that it ought to be bright red with prominent patterns on it. By now, I was beginning to wonder if there were whole new reservoir of scientific data that I ought to know about, so I inquired about the knowledge base on which such claims were based. After a few moments hesitation, she answered “It’s loosely based on the Bauhaus movement in German art in the 1920s.”

When it came to the conference, I followed her professional advice by wearing a bright red tie with yellow arrows running up and down each side of it. On seeing it, the image consultant greeted me with the words, “That’s the tie of a man going somewhere -- but that belt you’re wearing should be buried.”

Ties, it turned out, were at the heart of her presentation, the gist of which was that patterns smaller than a five pence piece were “yesterday’s ties and should be binned.” However, if the pattern was bigger than a fifty pence piece, it was apparently “over the top” and should also not be worn. The key to success was therefore to wear a tie with a pattern somewhere in between the size of the two coins.

What fascinated me most about all this was that, at the end of the session, members of the audience (all of whom were highly qualified professionals) formed long queues to buy her publications on the subject. Some even started to make enquiries about the bringing her into their various companies to advise colleagues.

In effect, what consultants like this have done is to identify and tap into a market that seems to be based mainly on fear and anxiety. There are a lot of men who are so uninterested in fashion and so uncertain about what style of clothes to wear that they are prepared to pay for professional advice and reassurance. It’s a market that has probably also been stimulated by an increase in the number of professional women, who unlike men, have no obvious uniform to wear at work.

2. Appropriate dress
This is not to say that how we dress doesn’t matter at all. For example, after losing a legal dispute with Virgin Atlantic, Lord King, former chairman of British Airways is reputed to have said that he would have taken Virgin boss Richard Branson more seriously if he had worn a suit and tie rather than his customary sweater and open-necked shirt.

Many years ago, while I was being video-taped doing a lecture on a course for new university lecturers, the studio lights were so hot that I took my jacket off. At the feedback session, it became a matter for discussion: the tutor stopped the tape with the words, “Here’s a speaker who really means business.” Though nothing could have been further from the truth, the realisation that some people might see it that way has made jacket removal a routine prelude to almost every lecture I have ever given since then.

The point here is not that clothes don’t matter at all, but that we should not be drawn into thinking that there is some scientifically based recipe that is guaranteed to enable us to convey a favourable impression to every member of every audience, regardless of the particular circumstances of the occasion. In my experience, most people get away with it through a combination of common sense and trial and error. There will obviously be times when advice and reassurance will be needed, in which case family and colleagues are likely to be just as helpful as professional image consultants, and certainly a great deal cheaper.

3. Are Lecterns and Tables Barriers to Communication?
The claim that folded arms are ‘defensive’ (see previous post) is partly based on the idea that putting your forearms in front of your chest places a barrier between you and your audience. As such, it’s part of a more general theory to the effect that anything that can be construed as a barrier between speaker and audience is a bad thing.

I spent five of my teenage years at a school where daily attendance at a church service was compulsory. A lectern stood between the person reading the lesson and the congregation, but it never once occurred to me during all those years that it was a barrier, or that it was somehow reducing the effectiveness of the reader’s impact. As far as I know, I was not alone, as I never heard anyone else worrying about it either. Nor do I remember any of us ever complaining about our teachers’ desks being barriers that made it more difficult for them to communicate with us.

Many years later, more and more of those who read lessons in church have taken to standing next to the lectern in full view of the congregation. They then struggle to read the tiny print in the Bible they have brought with them. Often, this is made even more difficult by the fact that they are so nervous that they can’t hold it without it shaking in their hands.

A similar trend is evident in more secular settings, where more and more presenters are reluctant to stand behind tables and lecterns, preferring to move to one side or in front of them. Like readers in church, some of them also have trouble holding their notes in trembling hands, while those who leave them behind on the table have to keep turning awkwardly around to see what comes next, sometimes even losing their place altogether.

Whether or not audiences regard the lectern as a barrier, church architects have known for hundreds of years that it’s an extremely efficient device for making it as easy as possible to read from a text. It positions a Bible with large easy-to-read print at a height and an angle that suits most adults. Readers can glance up at the congregation and down to the text without even having to move their heads, and without fear of losing their place.

By comparison, tables are not such efficient resting places for notes or scripts, as they require speakers to glance up and down through an arc of nearly ninety degrees. But they are nonetheless extremely useful places for resting brief cases, computers, projectors and other paraphernalia associated with making a presentation.

All this raises the question of whether anyone would ever be in the least bit concerned about lecterns and tables if, like my generation of school children, they had never heard anyone describe them as ‘barriers’. The way delegates on courses raise the topic suggests that it’s not a particularly burning issue for them either. They are much more likely to ask generalised questions based on what they’ve heard -- are they really barriers, is it a serious problem? – than to complain that they personally experience lecterns as terrible obstacles to effective rapport between speaker and audience.

This suggests that lecterns and tables are much less of a problem for audiences than is suggested by much of the received wisdom on the subject. The most sensible approach is therefore not to avoid them altogether, but to balance their undoubted practical advantages against the possible risk of giving the audience a negative impression. For example, when speaking without notes, or from notes on cards that are stiff enough not to flap about in trembling hands, speakers have nothing to lose by deserting the lectern or table. At other times, however, the advantage of not losing one’s place while retaining eye contact with the audience will almost always outweigh any disadvantages that might arise from being seen to be standing behind the lectern or table.

If you do decide to use a lectern, it is important to be aware of an ever-present temptation that’s best avoided. Sometimes known as ‘white knuckle syndrome’, it involves speakers gripping on to the sides of the lectern so tightly that the rigidity of their posture, and the nervousness that lies behind it, become visible for all to see. And, once you are locked into this stiff and static stance, there’s almost certain to be a build-up of tension that will reduce the effectiveness of your delivery. This suggestion that immobility may have a negative impact on speakers and audiences runs counter to another modern myth about non-verbal communication, namely that you shouldn’t move about while speaking because it distracts the audience.

Other posts on body language & non-verbal communication:


  1. Hi Max

    Great stuff. Couldn't agree more. I always make the point that when presenting you should minimise distraction and, of course, what you're wearing can distract.

    If you wear what the audience would expect someone in your profession to wear the you can't go too far wrong.

    A red tie with yellow blotches might well be distracting, scruffy shoes certainly are and a tie tied too short (or long) points at things it really shouldn't point at! It's also a good idea to make sure that you have no "wardrobe malfunctions" (skirt tucked in knickers, flies undone - that sort of thing!)

    The best thing is to go "neutral" so the audience can focus on what you're saying and to wear something that you feel comfortable and confident in.

  2. Removing the jacket may work better in some parts of the world than in others. In parts of Asia, such as Malaysia, removing any item of clothing in public is seen as suggestive. I recently saw a visiting male speaker from America who started by removing his jacket and dropping it on the floor, which doubly disconcerted the audience, since the floor is assumed dirty and the idea that anyone might be wearing an item which had been dropped on the floor seems unpleasant. The initial impression might be summed up as 'rude and slovenly' - which was doubtless not the intention. Fortunately, much leeway is accorded to the eccentricities of foreigners!


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