The senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company is speaking at a leadership conference in New York. He's a polished presenter with an impressive selection of organizational “war stories” delivered with a charming, self-deprecating sense of humor. The audience likes him. They like him a lot.
Then, as he finishes his comments, he folds his arms across his chest and says, “I'm open for questions. Please, ask me anything.”
At this point, there is a noticeable shift of energy in the room—from engagement to uncertainty. The audience that was so attentive only moments ago is now somehow unable to think of anything to ask.
I was at that event. As one of the speakers scheduled to follow the executive, I was seated at a table onstage with a clear view of the entire room. And the minute I saw that single gesture, I knew exactly how the audience would react.
Later I talked with the speaker (who didn't realize he'd crossed his arms) and interviewed members of the audience (none of whom recalled the arm movement, but all of whom remembered struggling to come up with a question).
So what happened? How could a simple gesture that none of the participants were even aware of have had such a potent impact? This chapter will answer that question, first by explaining two things: (1) how the human brain processes verbal and nonverbal communication, and (2) how the early origins of body language “wired” us for certain predictable ...