Nonverbal Communication

Why would you want to study nonverbal communication?

Would it surprise you to learn that there were two university studies conducted in the early seventies that concluded 93% of our communication is nonverbal communication?

For your information, one study was done by Abraham Mehrebian in 1968 the other was led by Bob Birdwhistel in 1970.

Both of these studies came up with similar conclusions, namely that communication between people was broken down as follows:

  • 7% verbal
  • 38% tonal
  • 55% physiological

These figures are often quoted in NLP as well ( and NLP is now widely used in sales)

[Now, I am not totally convinced these figures are correct but I'll give you some examples later on this page to prove that it's not ALL about the words we use]

Given that selling is largely about communication and that 93% of that is nonverbal communication it would make sense for you to examine nonverbal communication as a persuasion technique, wouldn’t it?


Lets look at the tonal aspect of nonverbal communication. I would consider this to be the qualities of the voice in the sender of the message and the miscellaneous grunts and groans people make as they receive a message.

How many of you have heard or uttered the phrase,
“Oh, I had a great day!”
Did it always mean that the speaker had “in fact” had an enjoyable day? 

Or was the comment made with a sarcastic tone that made it immediately obvious that the day was probably a nightmare?
Yet, plainly those words could be understood either way based on the tone of the person speaking, couldn’t they?

What about your mother? Was there a way that your mum said your name when you were growing up that caused you to go and hide or quickly leave the house to go and visit a friend? That TONE indicated you were in deep trouble and it was time to stay out of mum’s way for a while until she cooled down.

These are two, hopefully, well know examples of how nonverbal communication can change the whole meaning of the words spoken.

You only have to think about the comedian Don Rickles, who made a living out of insulting people and getting laughs from it. He said things to people, face-to-face, that if he’d have said in the wrong tone would have gotten him a black eye but instead they laughed.

By the way, matching someones tone of voice is a very good way to build rapport.

Applying this to selling

Have you ever heard a prospect say,
“I’m interested in what you have to offer”
and you knew instantly that they had no interest at all?
Perhaps they uttered those words in a slow, dull, monotone voice with no emotion in it?
You instinctively knew that from their nonverbal communication.

Dr Len Sperry (“Developing Skills in Contact Counselling”,Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley, 1975, p40) suggests that the following voice characteristics (technically called paralanguage) are likely to have the meanings described in the right hand column.

  • Monotone voice = boredom
  • Slow speech, low pitch = depression
  • High voice, emphatic pitch = enthusiasm
  • Ascending tone = astonishment
  • Abrupt speech = defensiveness
  • Terse speed, loud tone = anger
  • High pitch, drawn-out speech = disbelief

However, I caution against labelling of voice tones. It is much better if you work out what a voice tone means to someone during the course of your communication with them. This process of calibration makes sure that your interpretations are correct for the person you are dealing with at the time.

What about the emphasis of certain words in a sentence as an example of nonverbal communication.

Imagine in the sentences below that the words in bold / italics are emphasised.
Your boss has called you into his office and says:
“ You made a mistake.” 
You made a mistake.”

Do those two sentences have the same meaning?
Say them out loud.
Would you react differently to your boss if he said that sentence one way rather than the other way?

Let me give you another, more complicated example, once again remember that the words in bold/italics are emphasised.

You should not be doing that here.”
“You should not be doing that here.” 
“You should not be doing that here.” 
“You should not be doing that here.” 
“You should not be doing that here. ”

Those sentences are all different, aren’t they?
Pretend you’re saying them to someone or someone is saying them to you.
Notice the difference.
Nonverbal communication at work.

Yet, not many salespeople that I know consciously pick up on those differences when their prospect emphasises a word.
Do you notice when a client emphasises a certain word? 
Do you think that, maybe you should?

Perhaps you need to learn more about sales language and words that sell.

Just remember it's not just about the words you use but how you say it.

The Noises People Make While Listening

What about the strange sounds people make when they are listening? 

You know, the: “Ahhh”, “Hhmmm”, “Uh. Huh” and “Oh”s that we utter.
Ever though about what they mean?
Are they not, nonverbal communication?

I’m sure you respond to some of them instinctively.
Let me give an example.

Say, a colleague of yours walks into your office and you say something like,
“Whatever you do don’t send out the last X we have in stock, our biggest customer has asked us to hold it for them.”
And they reply, with a short, sharp,
I don’t have to say any more, do I?
You know it’s just been despatched.

What about if your explaining something to somebody and they’re replying rapidly with, “Ah ha, Ah ha, …”.
You believe they are following your story or reasoning, don’t you?

What about when you’re explaining some new information to someone and they reply with a long drawn out, “ Oooohhh”, with an upward tone in their voice.
That’s different to the, “Oh!” two paragraphs ago, isn’t it?
The long drawn out “Oooohh” tends to signify that the listener has just come to a new understanding about the topic you were discussing.

Once again take some care in developing generalisations about these grunts and groans, take the time to calibrate to the individual you are talking with.

Once you know what these noises mean you can start using them yourself. 
You say something to your prospect and end your words with, "Hmmm" or whatever non-verbal they use to signify interest. 
this actually helps them connect to the feeling of being interested !
This is an example of anchoring.

So, far we have covered nonverbal communication you can hear, what about the things you can see?

There are many things we can see if we keep our visual attention focused on our customers while we interact with them. Things like:

Body Posture and Gestures

  • Head position tilt/lean/changes
  • Breathing rate/pattern/shifts – fast v slow, high in chest v low in stomach, sudden sigh
  • Heart rate (can be seen at the base of most people's necks)
  • Fingertips on face or lips
  • Hands facing up
  • Body lean...
  • Tension in upper body
  • Shoulders raise quickly & unconsciously
  • Time for processing answers

I’m sure you’ve noticed some of these. For example, often when a person is listening intently they tilt their head to one side. When someone is thinking about something they’ll often lean back in their chair and look up, sometimes they’ll move one hand up to their chin while they do it.

It’s not so much what these movement are that is interesting to you in a sales situation but how they change.

What about if someone is leaned back as mentioned two paragraphs above and after some time they take their hand off their chin and place both hands behind their head? What does that nonverbal communication mean? That is something you need to discover for yourself during the meeting.

Let me alert you to one thing I have noticed with quite a few people. If someone is talking with you and you notice a consistent nonverbal communication of gesturing with just one arm all the time and never moving the other arm there is a fair chance that they have some internal conflict about what’s under discussion. They are undecided. One part of them thinks one way, while another thinks the opposite could be correct. So, in a sales situation you need to draw out their conflicting views so you can deal with it because if you leave it too long it could surface when you least want it to.

Facial Expressions

People convey a lot of information with their facial expressions.

  • Blink rate/pattern
  • Smiling/frowning
  • Nostril dilation
  • Upper lip movement
  • Lip biting
  • Eyebrow movement/scrunching/lifting
  • Squinting
  • Lower lip swelling with blood (when swollen you can’t see lines on their lips)
  • Blinking when answering
  • Skin Colour (sort of like blushing but not quite as noticeable)
  • Skin Tonus (is the facial skin shiny or not)

Once again it’s not so much what these movement are that is interesting to you in a sales situation but how they change.

If you make a trial close to a prospect and you notice their face flushes what does that mean?

Or you start talking about the price and they are saying everything is OK but they start biting their lip. What does that mean?

The Eyes – windows to the soul

When you are communicating with someone pay very close attention to their eyes. Are the eyes focused or defocused? Are the pupils dilated or undilated? And once again how does this change during the course of your interaction.

Now I’ll give you a piece of information about nonverbal communication from the field of NLP that is very interesting.

Did you know that we can only process information via reference to our senses (sight, sound, feelings, taste and smell)? And that to access the part of the brain that is connected to these senses our eyes have to be in a certain position? A very subconscious form of nonverbal communication!

Think about it from your own experience. When someone is depressed how do they hold their head? Do they look up or down? When you see a child being chastised by his or her mother, where do they look? Down. Don’t they? Well, guess where your eyes have to be when you are accessing feelings in your mind?

Remember I said before that if your client leans back and looks up he or she is thinking, well to be more specific they are looking at pictures in their mind. When accessing the visual part of the brain the eyes are required to look up.

And please note the information directly below as it’s a very important aspect of nonverbal communication.

Not only that but to remember a picture most people have to look to their left whereas if they are imagining something they tend to look to their right (i.e. your left, as you look at them).

The full story is this, from your perspective as you look at someone, if you see their eyes go:

  • Up and right - they are accessing old pictures in their head
  • Up and left – they are imagining or creating pictures
  • Midline and right – remembering old sounds
  • Midline and left – creating sounds in their head
  • Down and Right – they are talking to themselves inside
  • Down and Left – they are accessing feelings.

Once again there is a caveat.
Not everyone is wired exactly this way.
Some people have the left and right sides reversed.
Often these people are left-handed or often they wear their watch on their right arm. They are only clues.
To be absolutely sure how someone is wired just ask them one simple question that requires them to remember something.
If they look towards YOUR right then they are normally wired.

How is this useful in sales?

Well if you ask someone who is normally wired some pertinent information that they have to remember and they look up and to your left. They are making it up! They either don’t know or they are not telling the truth. Now we couldn’t use that, can’t we? (this last sentence is no error, I meant to write it like that, why?)

Now plainly “nonverbal communication is inexact; yet it is vitally important in communicating." (Discovering Yourself p. 102) and it’s well worth spending some time to observe people and practice your understanding of this vital communicating skill. But only if you want to further Your Sales Success.