Like many Americans, my husband and I watched President Obama’s third State of the Union address this week.
As someone who observes communication styles, I would say that Obama came across as presidential. He had a focused message, used expansive gestures to emphasize his points, and positioned himself as open to ideas. He also frequently lowered his voice to almost a whisper as if his words were intended for close friends.
Yet, if you watched closely, Obama was not necessarily the star of his own show. He was silently and repeatedly upstaged by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner, who were sitting directly behind him on each side. Boehner appeared annoyed, irritated, uninterested and even though he politely clapped from time to time, he looked like he was asleep with his eyes open.
Yet, Boehner was not really the problem. Like a high-stakes football game, posturing from the opponent is to be expected. What’s unexpected is a potentially costly blunder from a key player on your own team. Enter the VP. Before I constructively criticize his performance, let me make it clear that I like and respect Joe Biden, but I’m sorry to say he needs a few pointers in public presentation.
Instead of reinforcing the Chief’s message, Biden acted more like a squirmy third grader who couldn’t wait to get out of his chair and play. As the President launched into his remarks, Biden fidgeted with his pocket, scratched his ear, touched his hair and smoothed his shirt. When he did remain still and clapped for Obama, it seemed as if his applause came a beat too soon before the President had completed a thought.
What can we learn from this? Consider these three simple tips to help you use body language to your advantage even when you are simply a spectator.
- Eye contact spells confidence. Confident people hold your gaze. Even though the Vice President was behind the President, he should have fixed his gaze on Obama and kept it there. Looking up, away or off to the side can subtly suggest distraction to those who are watching.
- When the President first started speaking, Biden repeatedly seemed to be fishing for something in his pocket. He kept looking down and then wiped his nose with a tissue. First words and impressions are critical as they set the tone and frame your talk. Biden may have diverted attention away from the President’s first words by not sitting still and keeping his head upright. He also continuously leaned into the President’s camera shot.
- Scratching, hair playing, ear tugging and fidgeting can indicate that you are restless, nervous or perhaps thinking about something else. If you want to have presence, then you must be fully present. That means giving the speaker the attention he or she deserves.
As a reporter, I had to watch myself on video in order to write and edit a story for the evening news. I learned to turn the sound down so I could see but not hear myself to better assess what nonverbal signals I was giving off. Were my gestures too small or too big? Did they match the tone of the story? Did I appear attentive when listening to an interviewee? Was I smiling or frowning? Did I lean a little bit into the conversation to keep it personal or had I stepped back indicating distance?
These same questions apply in boardrooms, hearings, presentations and everyday business interactions. We are our message and what we don’t say can be as powerful as what we do say. Think about where you want attention focused and what you want your audience to see the next time you speak. While it’s protocol for the Speaker and Vice President to sit at the Speaker’s desk throughout the address, I’d urge the Obama administration to change the rules to limit distraction. But given the state of this union and that it would likely take an act of Congress to agree to change, it’s doubtful that will happen anytime soon.