Authentic communication requires the use of the whole body © Shutterstock

Embodied communication: a recipe for authentic connection
Human beings are built for communication and we are at our very best when we use our whole bodies to “speak”
1 Sep 2023

Human beings are complex communication machines designed to connect to each other. From our five senses, to our 43 facial muscles, to the thousands of microgestures that indicate our moods, personalities and opinions, we are built for communication. This ability to communicate allows us to survive and thrive within our communities.

We are at our very best as communicators when we use our whole bodies to ‘speak’. Our presence is authentic and uninhibited, our voices are freed and natural, and our body language is open and unblocked. I call this state of being “embodied communication”, and when switched-on, it engages audiences both large and small to relate to our humanity and to feel a vivid, visceral and genuine connection with us. From my perspective as an expert in business communication and leadership speaking, embodied communication is the stuff of the best talks on Earth, and it’s what I teach the leaders and teams that I work with to unlock.

These days however, I feel that many people’s communication machines are powered down, waiting on stand-by and running on less than their full potential. And looking around, there are evident casualties of this apparent status quo. From lifeless online meetings, to forgettable speaking performances, to lackluster energy in boardrooms and conference halls, there is a high cost to the act of “dis”embodied communication. When it comes to the causes of this phenomenon I strongly feel that the COVID-19 pandemic upended us, ripping the floor from underneath our feet, both in a metaphorical and literal sense. The average person in a virtual meeting or call became a talking head and the floor became obsolete. Everything from the neck down became irrelevant as the head took center stage. Across the world, this became the standard modus operandi for virtual interaction.

This template persists today and is still the go-to method for how most people appear when they speak to each other online. Every now and then however, if you’re lucky, you’ll see the shoulders, arms, hands and torsos of the people that you are speaking to. Many times these people have dressed up the top part of their bodies to be seen on camera, while the lower part of their bodies are left plain (or in pajama pants). Comically, a new term has been coined for this phenomenon called an “online mullet”, which captures the concept perfectly!

When it comes to live communication the visuals aren’t much better when compared to the virtual world. While their bodies are visible, I notice that the people that I am watching are often unaware of what their bodies are doing. I see their heads bobbing around and ‘talking’ as usual, and yet their bodies are often locked-up in tightness, with raised shoulders, arms and torsos held rigid, and hips, legs and feet in lockdown. Tension is the culprit for most of this behavior and tension is the enemy of connection.

When tension shows up anywhere in the body, it contracts all of the elements which embodied communication consists of – presence, voice and body language. It reduces the power of this triad and dims the dynamic glow of the person who is communicating. What we as observers see when watching a person in this state is someone who has energetically checked out and switched off the lights behind their eyes. To imagine what this looks and feels like, just remember the last time that you watched someone give a boring presentation. Presto! 

To get on the right side of tension and to harvest the very best that you have to offer as an embodied communicator, here are three simple suggestions:

1) Be well prepared

Nothing puts you at ease and makes you feel less tense than being well prepared. It is the secret ingredient to all effective communication. Whether you are speaking to an audience of one or one thousand, invest time, effort and energy in preparing both the content and the delivery of your words.

2) Warm up your whole body before speaking

Minutes before you speak go somewhere private and listen to your favorite song with your headphones on. Move your body like no one is watching and do a full body shake-out to release your tension.

3) Improve your fitness

Your body is intelligent and when you work out or do sports or other physical activities regularly you amplify your body awareness. 

This awareness will switch on your ability to know what your body is doing at any given time when you are communicating. While speaking, if you feel tension in your shoulders for example, you will be more aware of this sensation and you can fix it on the spot.

By vanquishing tension – the enemy of connection, you will be on your way to using your amazing communication machine in the way that it was designed. Your whole body contains everything required to meaningfully connect with those around you. Remind yourself that your peers, teams and stakeholders want to experience your humanity and feel a vivid, visceral and genuine connection with you, and the greatest gift that you can give them is your uninhibited authentic presence, your freed natural voice and your unblocked body language. 

* Dr. Laura Penn is the Founder of The Leadership Speaking School. She is a master teacher in the speaking arts and an international authority on business communication.
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