I’m a Body Language Expert. Here’s What I Saw During the Conventions.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden gave away more than they thought over the past two weeks.
I’ve been a specialist in nonverbal communication for nearly 50 years, 25 of them as an FBI agent. As the Democratic and Republican national conventions unfolded, I watched clips of their speakers on mute—Nancy Pelosi, Melania Trump, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rudy Giuliani and more—to observe what they were communicating outside of the words they were speaking. Then I turned the sound on to see if it matched, or conflicted.
These unspoken messages matter. As carefully as a speech may be written, what speakers communicate with their body language and physical appearance—from the waving of a hand to the twitch of a lip—often sticks with viewers even more so than any turn of phrase. Here’s what I noticed:
At the beginning of Joe Biden’s speech, we see the tension of the moment when he does what’s called a “hard swallow.” Even for a gifted speaker who is used to public speaking, this is still a tense moment, as he accepts the nomination. And, for a split second, in spite of his broad, friendly smile, it shows in that one small facial distortion. He compresses his lips after saying, “I’ll be proud to carry the banner of our party into the general election.” With the audio on, you can hear his voice crack slightly, again a result of the natural tension one would expect from such an event. It’s obvious that he takes seriously the gravity of what’s happening. He’s been preparing all his life for this moment. It’s not a stutter or age-related thing, just a subconscious behavior that speakers use to deal with a little bit of stress when we say something of emotional magnitude.
Notice here the squinting of his eyes and the finger pointing. He does this for emphasis, to demonstrate that what he is saying is important, it has gravitas. The furrowing of his glabella, the area between the eyes, conveys that what he is saying should be troubling. Even without sound, you know he’s serious about something. When I turn the sound on to see what he said, it’s: “The president still does not have a plan. Well I do.” He says these last three words with a firm, assertive voice that makes us pay attention.
We are trained to look at the glabella even as babies. You can do this as an experiment to see it in action: If you furrow your glabella and squint your eyes at a baby, they’ll react negatively, probably with crying. From a very young age, we’re primed to look at this section of the face to gauge whether everything is okay, and when we see this particular look, we recognize it as a “serious face.”
Notice how Senator Kamala Harris is compressing the lips on each corner of her mouth. This is indicative of disdain and, in this case, as I listened then to the video, for those who would harbor racists views. This is the moment where she says, “there is no vaccine for racism.” We pinch the corner of the mouth to say nonverbally, “I’m not satisfied.” The moment I saw it, I knew she was saying she was not happy with something. And it turned out I was right. When she talks about racism, she’s saying that it’s just not okay the same way a parent might convey a similar message to a misbehaved child.
When Nancy Pelosi is speaking, notice she arches her eyebrows. This is what I like to call “the human exclamation point.” It’s a gravity defying behavior: We only expend energy when we are passionate about something, and in this case, she’s describing how proud she is of the size of her caucus and how many women are in it. She wants the viewer to pay attention to her confidence, and by repeatedly arching her eyebrows, she says: Don’t just listen to my words, listen to my body language as well. She finishes her speech with a “steeple,” the finger points together, which is another sign of confidence.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was only given a very short segment in the DNC, but when it came to her nonverbal presentation, she was very effective. Without listening to what she’s saying, you can see that she’s a good speaker. Unlike Biden, her eyes are wide open and relaxed. What this tells the viewer is that she is confident and comfortable with what she is saying, and that’s really important in public speaking. What we look for as viewers without even knowing we’re looking for it is whether the speaker makes us comfortable. That’s often conveyed through body language. Ocasio-Cortez is clearly adept with this medium, and it shows in her body language.
Most importantly, she’s not overly dramatic; she’s not raising her voice—and you can tell even without the sound. Her comfort here should make viewers comfortable—and perhaps opponents uncomfortable.
As the camera follows Jill Biden in a classroom, we notice how comfortable she is in this setting, how fluidly she moves and speaks, as if she has done this all her life. Our brains react to movement with an orientation reflex that basically follows any movement, so her walking makes us pay attention to her. We can also appreciate that she comes from a working background, by the environment she has chosen. It humanizes her.
With the wave of a hand, she communicates “this is my realm.” It’s a welcoming gesture. In this particular moment, we also see that her thumbs are in the up position, which we do to let others know that we are speaking with confidence. She’s letting people know that she is confident that she fits right in and that we should be confident with her as a public figure.
Michelle Obama uses a number of hand gestures to emphasize, to demark, to point, to chop effectively, all of which add to the message she is sending. Because it’s on a Zoom-like medium and not on a stage, these behaviors are elevated to be in frame, but it doesn’t look contrived. Whatever she is saying, you know it is important. It made her delivery—saying that we have got to vote like our lives depend on it—more impactful.
Here we see a very powerful gesture with Kimberly Guilfoyle’s hands spread out wide away from the body, fingers spreading apart for emphasis. These kinds of gestures scream for attention and contribute to understanding the intensity of sentiment expressed. One cannot look away.
However, a very expansive gesture is great if you’re in an auditorium, but here you have a small screen. Even the cameraman or director noticed that and switched to a wider shot. Similarly, you can tell even with the sound off that she’s talking in a very loud voice. It feels discordant in this setting. This manner of presentation is too theatrical. Performances need to meet the audience, and if there’s no audience there, you should shape your performance around that. Most people don’t remember what politicians say, but we remember the presentation. It’s interesting to me that a woman who has always taken care of how she presents herself, including as a TV host, didn’t register that her message would be better conveyed if it were more suited to the format. Viewers register the disconnect, and that’s what sticks with them.
During his convention speech, Don Jr. tilts his head, cocking it slightly and squinting his eyes while at the same time making a wide gesture with his hands. Together, it conveys that he’s incredulous or suspicious about something. His body language communicates something to the effect of saying sarcastically, “Can you believe that?” In reality, at this particular moment, he says: “People of faith are under attack. You’re not allowed to go to church. But mass chaos in the streets gets a pass.” Some of these behaviors, like his slight twitch of the head and askance facial expression, are so fast that they’re what’s called “tachykinesic.” We don’t consciously realize that we notice it, but it registers subconsciously.
Senator Tim Scott is clearly a very dynamic speaker. Here we see two behaviors of interest: the furrowing of the glabella that communicates that he is troubled by something (even before he emphasizes that again with the shake of his head), and the pinched thumb and index finger, which is called a “precision grip.” This is usually used to indicate we are thinking about or articulating something very precisely. Both behaviors add to the message making it more powerful. He also emphasizes his message by leaning in slightly, and he punctuates it by arching his eyebrows, like Pelosi did. The viewer understands without even hearing his speech that he is an important figure with an important message.
What was most noticeable about Melania Trump’s speech was that she appeared to be someone who is not used to public speaking. We have to keep in mind that maybe this is not a role she would have wished for, but she is obviously willing to give it her best. She’s clearly reading from a teleprompter, and you see some tension in her face and neck that conveys some nervousness and straining. If you were to show this to an audience unfamiliar with who she is, they might say that she looks a little stressed. I don’t want to speculate too much, but the question our brains ask is: Do we see a high degree of comfort? And, politics aside, I don’t think we do. We don’t see a relaxed face.
What does that ultimately mean? Politics will still dictate how people felt about this, but as an ethologist, someone who studies behavior, I don’t think her tension depends on what she had to say but rather on the fact that she had to do this at all. She may not be uncomfortable with the message, but she appears very uncomfortable with the setting.
Kellyanne Conway’s speech struck me as really strange, because we know she is used to speaking to the public. Here, her arms were stuck to the side of her body, which is not normal for her. She knows how to convey effective messaging, but this is not that. The energy and emphasis that we would normally see is lacking. The human brain seeks to see the hands, and public speakers usually use that to communicate effectively. I’ve seen her talk to the media at the White House, but here we see a much more restrained face, and, most noticeably, her arms don’t leave her side. You can speculate all you want about what psychological forces might have been acting on her, but what matters to me is that the presentation was unusual and the audience registers that, even if they can’t articulate it.
Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s segment was another that was very effective in terms of nonverbal communication. On mute, his gestures are very relaxed and comforting, and when you turn the sound on, his tone of voice affirms that. His cadence simultaneously puts the viewer at ease and commands their attention. He comes across as cool, calm and collected. The stagecraft also evokes patriotism in a way that makes a lapel flag pin that nearly everyone else feels compelled to wear unnecessary. You understand that he served his country.
As a speaker, it is clear he is confident, and his gestures—open palms in the vertical “receptive” position—are consistent with his message. All of what’s communicated nonverbally here says: Listen to me because I’m important. He does it really well, and without knowing anything about him or his politics, I can tell that he’s a leader.
Rudy Giuliani pinches the corners of his mouth slightly, which is a signal of disdain or contempt. When I listened back, I saw that he was talking about “progressive Democrats.” Anytime you see air quotes, you know someone’s introducing something they’re going to ridicule, and then you see that reaffirmed with the pinching of his lips. You also can tell that he turns his head a little bit askance, like Don. Jr. did.
While there was no shortage of commentary about Melania Trump’s facial expression when Ivanka Trump joined the stage at the White House before Donald Trump’s speech, I think many people were reading too much into the moment. It may have appeared like she was betraying some deeper feelings about her stepdaughter. But in this case, I believe the simplest explanation is likely the right one: that Melania’s smile momentarily lapsed as she turned her head. It’s certainly awkward on camera, but overall, the First Lady appears much more relaxed and comfortable standing alongside her husband in front of a crowd than she did earlier when she had to speak on his behalf.
You can also see the contempt conveyed during President Donald Trump’s speech with the pinching of his lips. When you turn the sound on, you hear that he’s talking about mayhem in Democratic cities. But what stands out the most from his performance is the way he leans against the podium. It conveys that this is a very comfortable kind of space for Trump, and you don’t really see it in this kind of public speaking. Normally, a president isn’t this relaxed. It’s more common with smaller groups—for example, a professor speaking to a class might take on this position. He’s not just holding the podium but putting his weight on it, which you can see by the angle of his shoulders. For viewers, the White House is something almost reverent, and we are primed to want to see nonverbal communication consistent with the highest office. When we see behavior like this, it feels discordant and not very presidential.
Obviously, there are people who like that about Trump, who like that he doesn’t adhere to traditional notions of respectability but rather conveys open disdain for Democrats. Is he too cavalier? That’s up to the politics of the viewer. There’s no disagreement that all people are clearly receiving the message he’s giving off.
BY JOE NAVARRO