Speaking Body Language

by Dahlia Miller
February 2008

“I speak two languages, Body and English.”
Mae West (1892-1980)

Did you know that 55% of what people hear when you speak is your body language? It turns out, in communication, people take your body and tone of voice into account more than the words you are saying. According to research, 7% of communication is words, 35% is tone of voice and a whopping 55% is body language. So, how you present yourself physically and the gestures you use are very important in communication. Learning to interpret body language can help anyone to listen and communicate more effectively.

For students, hoping to express confidence or show an active interest in what is being taught, learning the language of the body can come in quite handy. Yes, body language can give away your subconscious feelings, but it can also be used consciously. This means that you can choose to use gestures and postures to convey a message. You can even reverse your own state of mind through body language. For example, if you feel unhappy, smiling naturally sends “I’m happy” signals to your brain which in turn sends out “I’m happy” endorphins to the body and improves the mood.

Try this:

Wrap your arms around yourself lightly across your chest, with your shoulders gently brought in toward your chest and your back rounded; tilt your head about 45 degrees to the right; tilt you chin moderately in toward your chest; frown lightly; look toward the floor.

How do you feel? Submissive? Uncertain? Self-protective?

Now, in that same position, say, “I can do it.” Do you feel convinced or convincing?
When you are speaking, what you really communicate is the sum total of your words, your tone of voice and your body language and gestures. If you want to appear interested, learn the body language that conveys the message, “I’m interested.” People see and respond to body language on conscious and sub-conscious levels.
Teachers give marks for participation and attention; in giving grades for presentations, teachers watch for relaxation and a sense of competency and familiarity with the topic; job-interviewers assess people on confidence; students pay closest attention to a teacher they find engaging; and parents respond best when they feel they are being heard. Let’s review some key messages that students may want to portray through body language to maximize their communication with teachers, employers parents and peers.

Positive Body Language Messages

Keep in mind that body language is most accurately read in clusters – most body language experts favour the Rule of Four, which means look for at least four signals suggesting the same thing before totally believing it.


Straight spine; slight forward lean; body turned toward the speaker; slight smile or slightly parted lips; eyes open fairly wide and focussed on the speaker; hands open or poised to write; perhaps a slight cocking of the head to suggest intense listening.


Shoulders relaxed and centered; straight spine; if standing, feet are shoulder-width apart; arms hanging gently with hands open; if sitting, feet flat on the floor with legs slightly apart, palms open or with finger-tips of both hands gently touching; light smile; chin raised, tilting head very slightly back; looking forward with relaxed eyes and mouth; breathe deeply, expanding your belly as you inhale; move slowly and with intention.

Openness to ideas; Willing to Listen

Shoulders relaxed and resting on upright spine; arms and legs uncrossed; body turned toward the speaker; hands unclenched and relaxed; hands and arms may be held in a welcoming gesture (almost like inviting a hug); slight smile; relaxed eyes; gentle nodding of head.

Thinking or Concentration

Straight spine; forward or backward lean with a finger touching the chin, eyebrow or forehead; eyes focussed on speaker, down or up to the left or right; head slightly tilted; gentle nodding of the head; lips pressed lightly together; soft “hmm” sound as breathing out.

Supportiveness and Encouragement

Straight spine; forward lean; eyes on speaker; chin raised up, head tilted slightly back; moderate smile on face, lips parted or together; moderate nodding of head; head possibly tilted slightly to one side; gentle “mm,” “yeah” or “ah” sounds as breathing out.


Upright, relaxed spine; slight forward lean; head leaning in toward speaker; slight smile; arms and legs uncrossed; both feet flat on the floor or up on toes slightly (as if ready to run toward the speaker); pencil in hand and poised to write; gentle nodding of head; regular eye contact with speaker.


One way to show interest or connection with someone is to mirror the body language of the person you are speaking with. If the person shifts positions, wait for about 30 seconds to a minute and then, subtly, change your position to mirror theirs. Don’t match a person’s posture 100% or they might feel confronted. Also, if the person is responding with nervous body language, you may want to change yours to a more confident or open pose to help set the person at ease again.

Negative Body Language Messages


Shoulders dropped in toward chest; turned away from speaker slightly; head tilted at a 45-60% angle; eyes move around the room without focusing for long on the speaker; foot or finger taps or hands in pockets with shoulders raised up toward the ears slightly; perhaps a hand comes up to cover part of the face, or fingers curl close to neck or touch hair; clear the throat or swallow repeatedly.


Body tilted away from speaker; spine slouched slightly; eyes focused up or down and away from the speaker; one shoulder dropped slightly and weight shifted to one side; head brought down to meet hand (perhaps with the head or chin resting in the hand) or one or both hands in pockets; legs crossed (especially at the knees); gentle kicking of the resting foot; arms crossed or fingers drum on thigh or desk; sigh lightly.


Body or legs turned away from the speaker; head tilted slightly, chin slightly up and away from speaker; eyebrows raised slightly; eyes scan room for other activity or watch door; fingers tap against side of face or fidget.


Body tilted away from speaker; eyebrows raised to wrinkle forehead; chin tilted toward chest; one hand scratches the top of the head, touches the nose, or rubs an eye; breath moves in or out in short bursts; head shakes moderately from side to side; eyes roll slightly or look down to the floor.


Shoulders pull back; either the body turns away from speaker or leans forward toward speaker; eyes narrow; forehead wrinkles; lips tighten; arms cross, both hands on hips, or hands held tightly behind the back; jabbing gestures made with hands or feet (pointing a finger, flicking the fingers, or kicking the floor with the toe, for example).