One’s visual image has a much bigger impact on the audience than his or her words because it creates a much greater recall for one’s message (Reiman 101). That is why a brand with inconsistent visuals seeking market may not be as successful as that with consistent visuals.
Nowadays, the media covers more than just campaigns as it used to do in the past. Instead, it has turned out to be a forum of en acting these campaigns. Body language plays a pivotal role in the enactment of these campaigns. Presidential candidates face the humiliation of being patronized by media interviewers.
Media houses expose these candidates’ verbal and non-verbal communication cues. Moreover, journalists never lack awkward questions to put to candidates. On their part, these candidates have come to the realization that hasty and imprudent replies to any question may end up haunting them for many months. The same may be said of inappropriate body language b y these candidates.
Many candidates are distinguished by their non-verbal cues, such as fist thumbs and finger pointing. In the last election, Hillary Clinton was well-known for her hand gestures (Karinch & Hartley 6). She could be seen ‘hammering’ the air with her fists clenched so as to stress on a particular point such as healthcare.
She also used smoothing motions with her palms down as if practicing the backstroke. Whenever she enumerated her opponents’ flaws, she would use a crooked finger and at the same time use an admonitory gesture.
Clinton often animated her speeches with numerous waves and nods (Karinch & Hartley 6). She seemed to understand how powerful one’s body language is in winning the electorate. She could therefore be seen using appropriate postures, facial gestures and hand motions in order to enhance her campaign message and shape the public’s opinion of her. She would also use these non-verbal cues to influence her potential voters.
Hillary Clinton seemed to have realized how important a sly smirk and the practiced smile are in today’s media market place (Karinch & Hartley 6). She often used the thumbs-up gesture as a sign of triumph; this is equivalent to product packaging in the real marketplace (Wallis 1).
It is not possible to absorb someone’s position on a given policy in just two seconds. However, one can have an instinctual reaction to this position. Hilary Clinton seemed to be fully aware that this can only be achieved through a non-conscious and non-verbal basis (Karinch & Hartley 6). This is what she took advantage of in her campaigns.
Most candidates seemed to have realized that there is absolutely no better forum for them to sway the undecided voters than the unscripted presidential debates (Wallis 1). However, whenever they turned to the details of their healthcare policies or any such topic, their audiences usually tuned out.
This is a clear indication that visual communication is very important, especially when auditory attention wanes. Hillary Clinton took full advantage of this and reached out to many undecided voters (Wallis 1).
In the previous elections, one candidate known to use non-verbal communication effectively was Bill Clinton. Clinton strategically used body language to persuade his audience (Karinch & Hartley 6). For example, in 1992’s debate, he portrayed himself as very respectful as compared to his closest opponent, George H W Bush. Whenever he spoke to crowds, he would, lean forward as if listening to all their words. This was very instrumental in winning independent voters (Wallis 1).
Most media trainers are of the view that candidates should avoid distracting behaviors like deep sighing (Reiman 101). They further argue that it is more important to avoid these deep sighs than to learn a new body language. This in effect means that body language in itself cannot achieve much unless one gets rid of his or her distracting behavior.
Unlike actors, politicians need more time to master new gestures, lest they coin off as insincere. Voters are more interested in voting for real people and not robots (Wallis 1). That is why it is important to avoid using ill-timed, inappropriate hand gestures, since they make them look more like robots than real people (Wallis 2).
Sometimes the audience may wrongly interpret one’s body language (such as pointing). However, it may be very difficult to suppress one’s body language, especially if it is ingrained. In situations like this, it is much better to edit such language (Reiman 101). Sometimes it is important candidates to tone down their body language (Wallis 2).
For instance, there is no need for one to use full body movements when speaking to just ten people. This can be used when speaking to large crowds of about 100,000 people (Wallis 2).
A number of public-speaking consultants agree that candidates should confine gestures to their power zone (Cook 204). The power zone refers to the area inside their shoulders. They argue that any gestures outside this zone may be seen as lacking in authority. Politicians must therefore appear like they are capable of carrying the weight of their electorates’ needs (Wallis 1).
Body language is very important if one hopes to succeed in any business or social endeavors (Reiman 101). For instance, in 2004, a number of political consultants declared Howard Dean as lacking a Presidential body language. True to their observation, Dean emerged third in the 2004 Iowa caucuses. His furious fist thumbs and red face put emphasis on his high pitch. This made him look hotheaded, a character flaw that his opponents had repeatedly drawn attention to, especially when branding him as unstable.
Hillary Clinton was fortunate not to go the Howard Dean’s way. However, she had an inconsistent body language that really hurt her candidacy. She was also weighed down by what was referred to as a blind ambition.
Clinton’s gestures confirmed the wide belief that she could try anything possible so as to get elected. One day she could be seen at ease with a smile and her body relaxed (Wallis 3). The next day she could be seen very angry with her fists curled and her arms pounding in the air.
Hillary Clinton portrayed her capability of enlivening a debate or speech with effective gesturing (Karinch & Hartley 7). For instance, during the February 12 debate held in Austin, Clinton displayed over 16 different hand and facial gestures in just about three minutes. At this debate, she spoke with passion about how she had met wounded soldiers.
During this debate, Clinton lightly slapped on the desk in emphasis of her respect for her rival, Barack Obama. She was in a prayer-like posture when she articulated her concerns for the people of America (Wallis 3). This was highly lauded by friends and foes alike, with some referring to it as ‘namaste gesture’. It is also among her campaign’s most heartfelt moments.
Hillary Clinton’s competitors, be they past, present or future, also have their fair share of flaws in body language (Kuhnke 201). For instance, Barack Obama has been faulted as having a slouching posture. This posture brands him as a commanding and vibrant figure, and badly hurts this brand whenever he leans (Wallis 1).
During the campaigns, Barack Obama had a signature gesture that often matched his conciliator image. He would routinely emphasize points using stump speeches. He would also form some sort of a circle using the tip of his index finger (Wallis 1). At the same time, his middle, ring and pinkie fingers would all curve together below this circle.
On his inauguration day, Obama’s face displayed numerous feelings (Morgan 1). In addition, he looked very tired; that must have been as a result of the rigors that come with a presidential inauguration. Obama’s body language betrayed his grief and sadness (Morgan 1). Obama tried his best not to show his grief; it seems this is key part of his personality. Unlike what many expected of a triumphant presidential-elect, Obama lacked the triumphant glee (Morgan 1).
Obama’s body language easily moved his audience; thousands at the inauguration venue and millions glued to their television screens. What moved many was how easily he made his family and that of his running mate Joe Biden share the stage. He easily melted into them; he put aside his individual ego (Morgan 1).
Any communication involves two conversations-body language and the content. Aligning these two makes the communicator charismatic and powerful. Failure to align these two communication elements makes the audience believe only the non-verbal element of the communication (Morgan 1).
All through the campaign and the inauguration, Obama’s posture was that of a leader. He would stride to the podium upright and confident, just like someone in command (Morgan 1). He would wave to the audience like a leader acknowledging the masses.
One other striking feature with Obama’s body language was stillness and confidence. He would appear relaxed without shifting his weight from one side to the other like many other novice speakers (Morgan 1). He would fold and unfold them in a protective and constrained whenever he began speaking (Morgan 1).
As Obama went on with his speech, he would start using more of hand gestures. For instance, he would overlap his hands whenever he talked about the overlapping views between Christians and Muslims (Morgan 1). He often used his characteristic thumb-fore-finger gesture (Morgan 1). Compared to the raised forefinger gesture, this is less admonishing although it may put off the audience (Morgan 1). This was part and parcel of Obama’s speech all through his speeches.
Obama’s non-verbal communication was often half-closed and careful, although his words were more open. For instance, Obama would use a loaf of bread to explain the need for unity (Morgan 1). The loaf showed how whatever divides people is very small compared to what brings them together. Similarly, whenever Obama talked of the need for equal justice for all people, he would fold his hands in a parade rest manner (Morgan 1).
Barack Obama proved to be an extra-ordinary, persuasive, powerful and polished speaker. His command of pacing, confident voice, and posture contributed to an effective delivery of his messages (Morgan 1). However, Obama still needs to work on his hand gestures to match his powerful words. In general, he radiates dignity and confidence and these gestures will even enhance his message (Morgan 1).
John McCain occasionally had awkward hand movements during speeches and debates (Angel 17). This could be attributed to the shoulder injuries he suffered during the Vietnam War. In McCain’s campaigns, he could be seen clenching his jaws, twitching and full of facial flickers.
McCain’s gestures were regarded as forceful (Angel 17) and ended up like a double-edged non-verbal kind of sword. First, an economically-struggling nation in an unpopular war did not need a military man as its president. McCain did little to shed off his military appearance. He looked more like a general and not the CEO he was supposed to be. Since the economy was the main issue, McCain faced a very big difficulty in winning the voters (Wallis 3).
On the other hand, McCain conveyed authority and vigor, and appeared to roar in his speeches. His gestures contrasted heavily with those of Mitt Romney. For instance, Romney would defend himself verbally whenever attacked, with his hands on the table.
As a result, Mitt Romney did not appear to be defending himself at all. His words were very strong, but the same cannot be said of his body language. This is a clear indication that the body movement of leaders is capable of moving voters (Wallis 3). It has been widely agreed that it is easier to derive meaning from a blend of verbal and non-verbal communication as opposed to verbal communication alone.
Gestures better activate the mirror neuron system of the brain, causing the audience to feel the emotions being acted by others (Zull 60). For instance, it is not uncommon to find one fist pumping on seeing someone else fist-pump. This means that gestures create a contagious emotion that is automatic and unconscious (Wallis 1). That is why the voters connect to the politicians’ actions even when they do not trust their words.
In her campaigns, Sarah Palin mainly used winking as her non-verbal body language cue. For instance, she winked more than six times during the vice-presidential debate that had attracted over 70 million viewers. On the other hand, Palin’s rival Joe Biden’s most notable form of non-verbal communication was grinning (Fiore E1). This is a very passive form of non-verbal communication and did not have much of an impact on the audience.
Sarah Palin’s winking echoed all over the United States, leaving many voters besotted while others confused. Palin’s wink, just like all winks, was rich and full of intriguing signals impossible to ignore (Fiore E1).
The wink signifies something playful, suave, flirtatious and knowing, although this mainly depends on the person doing the winking and the context of the wink (Fiore E1). Winking signifies sexual invitation in Latin America. In Nigeria, parents use it to tell children to get out of the room, probably so that they could have a private talk without them. The Chinese consider this form of non-verbal communication very rude (Fiore E1).
Sarah Palin’s winking attracted a diverse audience and made her the most watched candidate for vice president (Fiore E1). Those who liked her already were charmed while those who did not like her were repelled (Fiore E1). Palin seems to be the greatest winker of all the candidates in the last presidential election. There were occasional winks by George Bush, John McCain, Barack Obama and Joe Biden (Fiore E1). However, none of these even edged close to Sarah Palin’s.
George W Bush is also a frequent winker (Haviland 98). For instance, he winked a lot at a news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister. He also winked when he inadvertently suggested that Queen Elizabeth existed in 1776, and the queen was not amused (Fiore E1).
There is absolutely no doubt that non-verbal cues are just as important as words (Borg 13). This was realized after Richard Nixon was defeated in the presidential defeat of 1960, because he mopped his sweaty brow (Fiore E1).
For this reason, campaign managers and political parties use lots of money on hiring media coaches and consultants (Pease 8). For instance, Barack Obama always appeared relaxed, with his arms folded (Leanne 14), and putting on a pleasant expression. This went a long way in winning voters, leading to his victory.
In conclusion, body language works hand in hand with verbal communication to enhance the communicator’s message for the audience. Many of the candidates in the last presidential election seem to have realized this. Some were better at it than others; Obama used his posture, Palin her winking, Hillary her hand gestures and McCain his tone. It is clear that whatever they achieved would not have been possible with verbal communication alone.
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Borg, James. Body Language. FT Press, 2009.
Cook, Jeff S. The elements of speechwriting and public speaking. New York: Macmillan, 1989, p 204.
Fiore, Faye. “Controversy in wink of an eye; Sarah Palin’s little flickers set pundits and the Web buzzing. What do they mean?” Los Angeles Times. 2008, p E1.
Haviland, William. Cultural anthropology Harcourt College Publishers, 2001, p 98.
Karinch, Maryann & Hartley, Gregory. I can read you like a book: how to spot the messages and emotions people are really sending with their body language. Career Press, 2007, pp 6-7.
Kuhnke, Elizabeth. Body Language for Dummies. For Dummies, 2007, p 201.
Leanne, Shelly. Say it Like Obama: The Power of Speaking with Purpose and Vision. New York: McGraw-Hill Professional, 2008, p 14.
Morgan, Nick. Did Obama’s Body Language Match His Rhetoric? 2009. Web.
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Wallis, David “Body Politics.” Media Week Vol 18, Issue 13, 2008.
Zull, James E. The art of changing the brain: enriching teaching by exploring the biology of learning. Stylus Publishing, LLC. 2002.