Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find a video clip on youtube that shows it, but if you saw the TV coverage of the press coverage announcing the bipartisan immigration plan, you’ll have seen every example of nervous body language that could possibly have been displayed. And a lot of it came from a very confident speaker.
When freshman GOP Senator Marco Rubio started speaking, he was his usual fluent, confident self and he spoke positively in a strong voice with good eye contact, gesturing with his hands. As you’d expect, for he’s a very good speaker. Watching him speak, nobody would guess that he was nervous.
But the tell-tale signals were there. All you had to do watch him before he took his place at the podium, as he waited for Bob Menendez to finish speaking. If you did so, the signs were obvious. And understandably so, as he was about to go on record and formally support the dreaded immigration ‘amnesty’ that is anathema to so many Republican primary voters. He was about to put his head in the lion’s mouth.
First he clasps his hands in front of him in a barrier signal known as a ‘groin hold’ or ‘fig leaf’ (for more on barrier signals, see The power of posture), changes his mind and puts them behind him, then changes his mind again and puts them back in front. He pokes his tongue into his cheek, clenches his jaw, and licks his lips. He fiddles with his suit-jacket button once, then again, then a third time. He rubs his fingers together, then interlocks them in another fig leaf. The photo above even shows him rubbing his hand briefly over his face as if to blot out what was to come (see Giving away your thoughts: non-verbal leakage). And when his turn came and he stepped behind the podium, he briefly gripped it in a death-like vice as if he’d fall over if it wasn’t there.
When you’re sharing a speaking platform with other people, you normally don’t think about what our body language is saying when one of the others is speaking. You assume that all of the attention is on her. But it isn’t. People are still looking at you.
You still feel the same nervousness as whoever is speaking. Perhaps more so, because you’re in the spotlight (in the above case, dozens of press photographers) but don’t have the business of speaking to distract you or give an outlet to the adrenalin coursing through your body. What do you do with your hands, for example?
What most people do is adopt the above-mentioned ‘fig leaf’ or groin hold’. Subconsciously, you’d like to fold your arms and create a barrier. But you know this would look too defensive, so you go half-way and clasp your hands in front of your groin instead. It’s a kind of ‘armsfold-lite.’
Just look at John McCain, Bob Menendez and Dick Durbin. They’re all doing a version of it. The above was taken while Sen. Menendez was waiting for his turn to speak; as soon as he’d done so and the pressure was off he became much more relaxed, and stood confidently, with his hands behind his back.
So, remember …… if you’re sharing a platform with other people, don’t think your body language doesn’t matter when you’re not speaking. people are still watching you. And the body language you exhibit will be the number one thing that influences the audience’s perception of your confidence. Both in yourself … and your message.