14 – Oral Communication

Nonverbal Communication

David McMurrey; Anonymous; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt

Have you ever been in class and found it hard to listen, not because the professor was not well informed or the topic was not important to you, but because the style of presentation didn’t engage you? You want to avoid making the same mistakes when you give a presentation. It is not always what you say, but how you say it that makes a difference. We sometimes call this nonverbal communication, and it is a key aspect of effective technical and professional communication.

Nonverbal communication is the process of conveying a message without the use of words. It can include gestures and facial expressions, tone of voice, timing, posture, and where you stand as you communicate. As with spoken words, nonverbal communication can vary widely across different cultures. Eye contact, for example, shows authority and trust in certain European and North American cultures, whereas the same form in many Middle Eastern cultures comes across as rude. Cultures will also often dictate the tone of voice, which emotions are displayed, and the interactions between older and younger members of that group.

Moreover, nonverbal communication is often learned through inference and individual trial and error rather than being something that is explicitly taught. Autistic and neurodivergent individuals may also find picking up on and using nonverbal cues difficult if not impossible; other disabilities can impact facial and body movements as well as the tone and volume of your voice. If you fall into any of these categories, you are in great company. Do not engage in practices that make you feel uncomfortable or that you cannot physically or mentally perform. For instance, instead of making eye contact with individual audience members, gaze at places in the back of the room, your presentation slides (if you have them), or a prop or speaking aid that you are holding.

When reviewing the following nonverbal strategies, remember that you may need to modify the advice to better suit your situation, strengths, audience, and message.

Nonverbal Communication is Fluid
Nonverbal communication involves the entire body, the space it occupies and dominates, the time it interacts, and not only what is not said, but how it is not said. Let’s consider eye contact. What does it mean by itself without context, chin position, or eyebrows to flag interest or signal a threat? Nonverbal action flows almost seamlessly from one to the next, making it a challenge to interpret one element, or even a series of elements.

Nonverbal Communication is Fast
Nonverbal communication gives our thoughts and feelings away before we are even aware of what we are thinking or how we feel. People may see and hear more than you ever anticipated. Your nonverbal communication includes both intentional and unintentional messages, but since it all happens so fast, the unintentional ones can contradict what you know you are supposed to say or how you are supposed to react.

Nonverbal Communication Can Add to or Replace Verbal Communication
People tend to pay more attention to how you say something than what you actually say. In presenting a speech, this is particularly true. We communicate nonverbally more than we engage in verbal communication, and we often use nonverbal expressions to add to, or even replace, words we might otherwise say. See Table 14.2 for examples of specific types of non-verbal communication and what each type of action does or accomplishes.

Table 14.2. Some nonverbal expressions.

Term Definition
Adaptors Help us feel comfortable or indicate emotions or moods
Affect Displays Express emotions or feelings
Complementing Reinforcing verbal communication
Contradicting Contradicting verbal communication
Emblems Nonverbal gestures that carry a specific meaning and can replace or reinforce words
Illustrators Reinforce a verbal message
Masking Substituting more appropriate displays for less appropriate displays
Object-Adaptors Using an object for a purpose other than its intended design
Regulators Control, encourage or discourage interaction
Repeating Repeating verbal communication
Replacing Replacing verbal communication
Self-Adaptors Adapting something about yourself in a way for which it was not designed or for no apparent purpose

Nonverbal Communication Is Confusing and Contextual
Nonverbal communication can be confusing. We need contextual clues to help us understand, or begin to understand, what a movement, gesture, or lack of display means. Then we have to figure it all out based on our prior knowledge (or lack thereof) of the person and hope to get it right.

Nonverbal Communication Can Be Intentional or Unintentional
We often assign intentional motives to nonverbal communication when in fact their display is unintentional, and often hard to interpret. Making conscious choices about your nonverbal communication during a presentation can help to eliminate some of the confusion and resulting misunderstandings.

Nonverbal Messages Communicate Feelings and Attitudes
Albert Mehrabian asserts that we rarely communicate emotional messages through the spoken word. According to Mehrabian, 93 percent of the time we communicate our emotions nonverbally, with at least 55 percent associated with facial gestures. Vocal cues, body position and movement, and normative space between speaker and receiver can also be clues to feelings and attitudes.[1]

People Believe Nonverbal Communication More than Verbal (For Good Reason)
According to William Seiler and Melissa Beall, most people tend to believe the nonverbal message over the verbal message. People will often answer that “actions speak louder than words” and place a disproportionate emphasis on the nonverbal response.[2] We place more confidence in nonverbal communication, particularly when it comes to lying behaviors. According to Miron Zuckerman, Bella DePaulo, and Robert Rosenthal, there are several behaviors people often display when they are being deceptive:[3]

    • Reduction in eye contact while engaged in a conversation
    • Awkward pauses in conversation
    • Higher pitch in voice
    • Deliberate pronunciation and articulation of words
    • Increased delay in response time to a question
    • Increased body movements like changes in posture
    • Decreased smiling
    • Decreased rate of speech

If you notice one or more of these behaviors, you may want to take a closer look. Note that this experiment also focuses on a specific population and culture. It also was conducted during a time where neurodivergence was substantially paid less attention to meaning that these noverbal cues should not always be read as deceptive. With that said, it is worthwhile to be aware how you are appearing to your audience.

Nonverbal Communication Is Key in the Speaker/Audience Relationship
When a speaker and audience first meet, nonverbal communication in terms of space, dress, and even personal characteristics can contribute to assumed expectations. The expectations might not be accurate or even fair, but it is important to recognize that they will be present. Your attention to aspects you can control, both verbal and nonverbal, will help contribute to the first step of forming a relationship with your audience. Your eye contact with audience members, use of space, and degree of formality will continue to contribute to that relationship.

As a speaker, your nonverbal communication is part of the message and can contribute to, or detract from, your overall goals. By being conscious of them, and practicing with a live audience, you can learn to be more self-aware and in control.

Delivery Checklist

When you give an oral report, focus on common critical areas such as these:

Audience awareness. To reiterate, different audiences have different expectations for presentations. Often, these expectations are understood as opposed to explicitly taught. Even if you are a member of the culture you are presenting to, conduct preliminary research on what your audience expects a typical presentation to look and sound like.

Timing. Make sure you keep within the expected time limit. Anything substantially under-time is also a problem.

Volume. Speak loud enough so that all of your audience can hear you. If you can, try practicing in the same (or similar) space your talk will be with a friend listening from different parts of the room. If a microphone is available, use it even if you don’t feel you need the additional volume.

Pacing and speed. Sometimes, nervous oral presenters talk too quickly. That makes it hard for the audience to follow. In general, listeners understand you better if you speak more slowly and deliberately than you do in normal conversation. Slow down and pause between phrases.

Gestures. Some speakers “speak with their hands” and make exaggerated gestures. This too can be distracting—and a bit comical. At the same time, not moving at all can make an otherwise interesting talk boring. Practice your gestures so that they are deliberate and appropriate to what you are saying. When not gesturing, identify a “resting” stance or object to hold such as a podium, notecard, or other prop.

Posture. Certain stances convey authority. In American culture, stand or sit with a straight back, with shoulders rolled back if you are physically able. If you are standing, try to stand with your feet apart and in line with your shoulders. While an occasional lean in to the audience may be effective, avoid slouching at the podium or leaning against the wall.

Filler words. When we speak naturally, we often use filler phrases such as “um” and “you know.” These normal utterances are ways for us to find the right word or to check for understanding. In a speech, you will want to limit these filler words. Prior to your oral presentation, practice cutting your common filler words. The silence that replaces them is not a bad thing—it gives listeners time to process what you are saying.

This text was derived from

McMurrey, David. Online Technical Writing. n.d. https://www.prismnet.com/~hcexres/textbook/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

University of Minnesota. Business Communication for Success. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing, 2015. https://open.lib.umn.edu/businesscommunication/. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

  1. Albert Mehrabian, Nonverbal Communication (Chicago, IL: Aldine Atherton, 1972).
  2. William Seiler and Melissa Beall, Communication: Making Connections, 4th edition (Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon, 2000).
  3. Miron Zuckerman, Bella M. DePaulo, and Robert Rosenthal, “Verbal and Nonverbal Communication of Deception,” Advances in Experimental Social Psychology 14 (1981): 1–59, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60369-X.


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Howdy or Hello? Technical and Professional Communication Copyright © 2022 by David McMurrey; Anonymous; Kalani Pattison; and Nicole Hagstrom-Schmidt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.