Body Language in the World of Politics

12/07/2016 15:24 | Updated 12 July 2016

I have written extensively, in the past, about what makes a good speaker, covering the critical areas of delivery and, of course, content. Amongst these musings, I have often highlighted that body language is a powerful, and vital, tool when making a speech. Whether speaking on television or at a conference, an individual can communicate a wealth of information through non-verbal channels i.e. what they aren't saying. As such, I decided to reflect on some of the messages delivered through body language, and the particular techniques employed to ensure that these are the intended ones.

There's plenty of theory to draw on about this but, given the prevalence of political campaigns at the moment--both for the recent EU referendum and the upcoming US presidential elections--it is especially interesting to consider how certain principles are applied in practice within the world of politics.

With the expert advice of some the body language experts and politicians we represent at Speakers Corner, it is apparent that there are consistent themes governing effective body language in political speech-making. Barack Obama, for example, is a clear stand-out. According to Kevin Dutton, a research psychologist at the University of Oxford, Obama "always carries a mixture of confidence and poise", while David Lammy MP attributes the masterly oratory of the 44th US president to the way he "varies speed to great effect to really move an audience".

Generally, however, a major issue with speakers on the political scene is that, too often, their speeches sound forced and obviously coached, a point made by behaviour specialist Jez Rose. Looking specifically at David Cameron, Jez comments that "he has become much better, but still often appears flustered when speaking". Personally, I think this was never better demonstrated than during the EU referendum campaign where both David Cameron and George Osbourne failed to connect with the voters. Although factually they were on rock solid ground, they appeared uncomfortable when trying to access the emotional element of the campaign. Compared to Boris Johnson, who has no problem connecting with his audience, Cameron and Osbourne failed to empathise with the public, coming across as disconnected and morally aloof.

It is clear, then, that there are good and bad speakers when it comes to politics: so what are the exact elements of body language that make the difference? Turning to our experts again, some simple ways to control your environment can really help to ensure the successful delivery of your speech:

Firstly, a speaker needs to be mentally prepared because a lack of confidence or conviction will translate through body language. Preparation, then, is key for politicians such as David Lammy, which includes watching yourself in the mirror or videoing yourself. Indeed, prior to a presentation, Professor Kevin Dutton makes the effort to request and observe any photos or footage from former events, and asks himself the question 'What is it about me that appeals to me?'

Another critical component is appearing natural. Daisy McAndrew, the former chief political correspondent of ITV, encourages using one word over two when possible, as well as refraining from over-emphasising movements. Waving your hands around too much will only cause you to resemble an air traffic controller so, instead, limit their use to emphasising your punchline, almost "to let the audience know when you're finished or expecting applause - they aren't mind readers after all".

Being emphatic and commanding, however, does not mean being aggressive, especially while partaking in a panel discussion. Daisy explains how "you should never block someone else from seeing other panellists - this looks boorish". In the context of politicians, she advises against the patronising 'hand on opponent's upper arm' move if you disagree with something: resorting to belittling tactics will be distasteful to your audience and make you seem out of your comfort zone.

One area that politicians do seem to excel in is the appropriate use (or rather non-use) of slides. "Don't stand behind a large lectern with a laptop screen", asserts David Lammy. "PowerPoint presentations should illustrate the speech - they shouldn't be the speech". Gilan Gork, a professional mentalist, goes further: "It is in my interest to keep the audience focussed on my body language. I keep my slides extremely simple with very little text on screen unless absolutely necessary. This helps to keep my audience's eyes on me".

Make sure to own the stage by moving around in a confident and disciplined manner. As Jez Rose puts it: "Being conscious of when you move, and why, is where it all starts - and ends!" Avoid flailing arms, aimless walking, or odd stances. You don't want to be madly scooting from one end of the stage to the other, advises Kevin Dutton. Equally, however, you shouldn't be rooted to the spot, and Daisy McAndrew endorses looking around the audience as much as possible lest you appear to be a frightened rabbit.


These body language theories and techniques, observed and tested in the field by experts and political speakers themselves, are largely consistent. They also reveal that, while those presenting in the world of politics can be coached to deliver the right message through their body language, authenticity definitely trumps training.

Looking back at the EU referendum for a case in point, it can be argued that the Remain campaign lost because they did not connect with the voters - both in terms of the messages and, more importantly in my opinion, how they were delivered. By contrast, key political figures on the Leave side were able to create that fundamental connection, and the messages conveyed in their actions meant that the perceived results were never going to be as clear as some thought. There are broad similarities in the campaigns for the US elections ahead in terms of how well Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump are able to access the emotional side of their audiences. When you take the body language points above into consideration, the successes and problems experienced by the respective candidates, and anyone operating on the political speaking circuit, become all the more apparent.