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Human Behavior

Body Language of Leaders: President Obama

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What kind of body language do leaders use? In this series from Science of People we’re having a look at the body language of real and fictional leaders.

In this edition: President Obama.

Let’s have a look at the State of the Union speech. It’s a speech that lasts little over an hour, but for this post I’m only looking at the first 10 minutes. Even in a timespan that short we can see some interesting body language.

Great use of hand gestures

Not per se a trait of great leaders but definitely something that boosts their charisma: the use of great hand gestures. President Obama does this very well throughout his speech. He uses the thumb and index finger to emphasize important points. He is quite literally “making his point”.

He also uses gestures like a wave of the hand to illustrate a spectrum of things or a timespan. By doing this, he is very clear in his communication with his audience as his nonverbal communication is perfectly in sync with his verbal content.

How can you use this?

By using gestures you can make it easier for your audience to understand what you’re saying. So whenever you are explaining something to another person make sure you use hand gestures. This will make you come across as more charismatic and more lively.

Little to no amount of smiling

Another body language trait of leaders is a low amount of smiling. You can see President Obama doing the same thing. He is not smiling as he is delivering his speech. His message, being the State of the Union, is a very important one so smiling would not be appropriate in this case.

Smiling can sometimes be seen as a sign of submission. The President definitely doesn’t want to appear submissive and therefore doesn’t smile at all as he delivers his speech.

How can you use this?

If you don’t want to appear submissive in a serious situation like in a negotiation or during a business meeting, try to limit your smiling. Of course it’s okay to smile every once in a while or people might start thinking of you as cold, but try to limit it and to not be grinning all the time.

Purposeful movement

When leaders move they do so with a purpose. They don’t waste energy and time on pacing back and forth (or at least not publicly). You can see the same thing with President Obama in his State of the Union speech. He barely moves behind his podium. In this situation it wouldn’t be very appropriate to move, of course.

How can you use this?

How purposeful is your movement? Do you find yourself pacing as you’re delivering a presentation? This can be seen as anxious behavior so be careful with it. Leaders never want to appear anxious so try to be conscious of your amount of movement and whether it’s purposeful.

Clarity of speech

In his speech, you will never catch the President be unsure about his words. He knows exactly what message he wants to convey to the public. His clarity of speech makes him appear more credible and very confident of himself. At the same time, he makes great use of pauses to let his point sink in and to give his audience time to consider what he is saying.

How can you use this?

Try to avoid saying “ehm” during your conversations. People can take that as a sign of a disorganized mind of someone who doesn’t really know what they’re trying to say. Definitely not how you want to come across, right? So try to train yourself out of using filler words like “ehm” and “eh” to show that you’re clear about what you want to say.

What leader should I analyze next?

Do you have a leader you want me to analyze? Whether it’s a world leader or a fictional leader if you leave their name and a link to a video in the comments I’ll consider writing a blogpost on him or her!

This guest post is by one of our body language experts in training: Michiel Andreae from The Netherlands. He loves to teach people how to improve their communication skills through body language and to coach people to make better use of their nonverbal skills. Find him on Twitter.

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