Every single one of us was born with the ability to speak without words.
Body language is the primal foundation upon which our modern communication is founded. We can read an entire novel’s worth of non-verbal cues without ever hearing or seeing a word. And yet, in our modern-day work, we often struggle to communicate with one another.
The problem is that we get in our own way.
After completing school, I joined a charity program volunteering to teach English around the world. My assignment was at a Tibetan monastery in the north Indian mountains. Before setting out, all of the volunteers met for a week of training.
It was during this meeting that one of the most influential experiences of my life took place—and I hadn’t even left for the monastery yet.
Our tutor for the week was in charge of showing us how to communicate with people who don’t speak the same language. To demonstrate how it worked she told us she was going to only speak to us in Chinese, which immediately made me confused. However, as soon as she started speaking, I found I was able to pick up the meaning of her words via simply watching her and listening to her voice.
In just a few minutes, I learned 10 words—even though everything she said was in Chinese.
Some people think that body language is surface-level nonsense, manipulation, or pretending to be something you’re not. I discovered that there is much more to it than that. For me, body language is the deeper way we all connect with each other, where we tap into something more natural and meaningful.
In order to communicate powerfully, we need congruency in our words, body, and voice.
Once I arrived at my volunteer teaching assignment, I was so grateful for this lesson. I’d been under the impression that the Tibetan monks I’d be working with needed to improve their English and so we’d have a base level to start from. But when the door opened and two monks were there to greet me, it was immediately clear they didn’t understand a single word I said.
I couldn’t afford to behave in the professional and muted manner I’d picked up in school. I had to speak and behave with total congruency simply to be understood.
For example, if I was trying to teach them the word “excited,” if I didn’t look excited or sound excited, then I might as well have been saying “pineapple.” My physical and vocal communication had to match my meaning.
Modern life, on the other hand, has stripped away congruency. Many people work in open-plan offices, where they have to limit their voices so they don’t distract others. Company cultures often focus on behaving “professionally,” which sometimes means “impersonally.” Out of fear of showing how we really feel at work, we limit our expression, which means when we speak, much of what we say doesn’t necessarily match how we say it.
Congruency disappears, and it becomes much harder to understand what people really mean.
And things only get worse when you stand behind a lectern.
They are usually positioned on the side of the room, away from the screen. Slides are filled with countless words, forcing the audience to read the presentation rather than connect with the speaker. These barriers may make a speaker feel safe, but communication is not about doing things that make you feel better. It is about giving other people what they need from you.
You need to give people the subtext, which is much easier when people can see your face and your body. Professional communication isn’t about leaving your personality at the door. It’s about using your voice to bring ideas to life and connecting with people.
Think of it this way: would you tell a child they could only talk to you if they stood behind a box?
No, of course not. So we must resist doing this as adults and speak in a more human way.
So, in some ways, improving congruency in our communication requires reclaiming our instincts.
Some people will tell you, “Oh, I’m just a quiet person.”
But people are not born soft-spoken. At birth, no one pops out of the womb and whispers gently, “I would really like some milk.” Instead, a baby’s first noise is so loud, powerful, and emotional, it compels as many people as possible to help.
And that’s your goal as a speaker—you want to compel as many people as possible to your call to action, whether that’s joining a volunteer organization to teach English, or to work with your company. You must leave behind any restrictions in your movements and voice so that you can freely connect with people from your true instincts.
It’s only when we free our bodies to communicate that we tap into our true power as speakers. Which doesn’t need to sound overwhelming or scary—you were born to do it. You just need to drop limiting habits and return to the way you were born to speak.