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It's not what you say, it's how you say it.

The old saying "It's not what you say; it's how you say it" shows the importance of nonverbal communication for credibility and leadership. Generally, nonverbal factors fit into five categories: eye contact, gesticulations, paralanguage, posture and overall facial expression. Environmental factors such as seating arrangement and setting also have a great effect on leadership and credibility. Use of this information can be important to a communicator because receivers interpret specific actions as having specific meanings.


Credibility is the believability of a person as measured by another person. Our credibility is measured by the people with whom we interact. Although the output of credibility can be controlled by a communicator, credibility is still determined by the receiver. The receiver is taking in, consciously or unconsciously, all communication output and summing it up to measure the sender's credibility. Of all communication, nonverbal is the most important. Competence, trustworthiness and dynamism are the three main components that make up credibility. Competence is the communicator's knowledge and expertise about the communication. Trustworthiness is a measure of the communicator's honesty and sincerity. Dynamism is a person's energy and confidence in communicating. Nonverbal communication is vital to competence, trustworthiness and dynamism because these qualities are rarely stated directly. For example, people rarely say, "I am competent" or "I am trustworthy."


The most noticeable nonverbal behaviour that affects credibility is eye behaviour and eye contact. Like the old saying, "Eyes are your window to the world," eyes can be the window to credibility. Studies on eye contact and its effect on communication and credibility find that maintaining gaze while communicating is beneficial to credibility, and, conversely, averting eye contact is detrimental to credibility. Eye contact studies have produced information about the effect of eye contact on the three components of credibility. In tests where these three components were isolated, eye behaviours had little effect on dynamism. The competence and trustworthiness categories, however, produced a significant link.

When volunteers were asked to rate competence of communicators with low eye contact and with high eye contact, the competence ratings were significantly higher for the subjects who exhibited high eye contact with the audience. The same test produced the same results in measuring trustworthiness of those with low eye contact and high eye contact.

Other strange eye behaviours, such as shifting eyes, looking down at notes for extended periods, and blinking excessively, have been shown to lower credibility. The most important eye behaviour in increasing credibility is to maintain eye contact while communicating. Eye behaviours can be controlled by a communicator, but credibility cannot. Through the use of beneficial eye behaviours, a communicator can raise his or her credibility with the receiver.


Paralanguage is a set of nonverbal "packaging" factors that contributes to or reduces a person's credibility. Verbal messages such as "I am confident that..." are persuasive. Paralinguistic factors include dynamics such as volume, rate, pitch and pronunciation that have a strong effect on the receiver. The communicator's voice is a major determiner of the receiver's first and final impression.

Volume represents more than a level of sound. A person with a weak voice is usually perceived as lacking confidence, which lowers credibility. A strong voice, on the other hand, shows great confidence.

The rate at which someone speaks is vital to understanding a message and to the credibility of the communicator. If a person speaks too slowly, the audience will likely lose interest, and the speaker's credibility will drop. Speaking too quickly may make a voice unintelligible, leading also to lower credibility. A speaker should, therefore, use a rate that is fast enough to keep the audience interested and show confident knowledge of the subject. But the rate should be intelligible to the audience and slow enough not to reveal nervousness.

The pitch of a communicator's voice usually varies, depending on the subject. During a conversation, pitch almost always changes if the subject changes from, say, a sports event to abortion. Changes in pitch are expected by receivers and make a communicator more colourful and dynamic. A monotonous pitch throughout a conversation will be perceived as neither competent nor dynamic.

Pronunciation is vital to credibility because pronunciation is probably the most obvious dynamic feature of a voice. A speaker with poor pronunciation is perceived to be lower in competence, trustworthiness and dynamism than a speaker with good pronunciation.

If the qualities mentioned above are used while communicating, the communicator will have a "confident voice." In a recent study, texts were read with confident and doubtful voices to observers. As expected, the speakers with confident voices were rated more credible. Also, a speaker with a doubtful text and confident voice was more credible than a speaker with a confident text and a doubtful voice. This finding shows how important the dynamics of a communicator are to perception by the audience.

At times, paralanguage is actually more important than the words. In general, the communicator should avoid long pauses, repetition of words, and constant filler words such as "uh." These vocal actions reduce credibility. A good combination of volume, varying rate and pitch, and fluency gives the impression of a competent and energetic communicator.


Gestures make a large portion of a message. A speaker u simply standing and talking with no motion whatsoever is dull. This does not mean that all gestures enhance communication; some can be detrimental. Ideally, a person's gestures should flow with the vocal channel so as to enhance the content. Gestures should also agree with the vocal message; if they don't, they will be detrimental. Use of good gestures at the proper time is beneficial to credibility. There is no "correct" gesture for any given situation, but one of the keys to using good gestures is the appearance of spontaneity and naturalness. In other words, gestures should be performed without nervousness.

Unnatural gestures, such as touching the body and playing with objects such as clothing or pens, are detrimental to the conveyance of the message and hurt credibility. Leg and foot movements also are known to represent discomfort and should be avoided. Finger-tapping, lip-licking and smiling too often are tentative gestures that show lack of confidence. These gestures do not enhance the communicator's message and should not be used.

Beneficial gestures usually are performed with the hands, arms and head. These should be used to emphasise a point. Communicators should keep their hands and elbows away from their bodies to avoid the appearance of nervousness. In short, using gestures to show participation and dynamism is beneficial to anyone who wishes to establish his or her credibility.


Posture also can influence perceived competence. The difference between gesture and posture is that a gesture conveys a message by using one part of the body, whereas a postural shift involves the movement of the body as a whole. Closed postures, with features such as folded arms and crossed legs, indicate a closed personality and a lack of confidence. Open posture, with arms spread in a relaxed manner, is a much more confident pose than a closed stance. One should change posture periodically to show confidence because postural stiffness is usually perceived as nervousness. Like gestures, postural movements should flow with the conversation so that they look natural.


The overall facial expression is important to a receiver s perception of credibility. An expression of dullness detracts from an image of dynamism. A speaker's face must show interest and attention. This helps considerably in the credibility rating.


Personal appearance is a major factor used to judge a person simply because the first impression of a person is based on appearance. One's physical appearance creates an image of the person in the same way other nonverbal messages do. People who are attractive are found to be credible more often than less attractive people. People can change their appearance by changing clothing styles, hairstyles and other factors. Generally, clothing and hairstyle should flatter body type, rather than expose weaknesses. To establish credibility, people should wear styles that fit the environment and feel comfortable.


The environment in which communication occurs can have a great effect on the communication and the leadership portrayed. Factors such as seating arrangement and the objects in the environment are important. In group communication or task-oriented communication, the communication seems to centralise. This indicates that the top person is acting as a kind of communication centre, and in this sense is performing a leadership function.

Studies have shown that face-to-face communication is optimum. When people are side by side, the communication flow is minimal. This indicates that people in different seating positions give and receive different amounts of communication. If seating position affects communication flow, and communication flow affects leadership, then it follows that seating position affects leadership.

Positions that face the most people in a group are the best. A person sitting at the head of a table probably receives more communication than those on the sides, since, from the head of the table, one can easily engage in face-to-face communication and the communication centralises there. A person sitting in a high position is usually the leader. (Nelson Rockefeller used to have steps up to his desk so that he could stand on top of his desk when addressing people in his office.) Circular seating has no advantage or disadvantage because every person has the same opportunity to receive communication flow. Given a choice of a seat or resting area, a communicator should choose the most central position available to receive more communication flow.

Besides position, other environmental factors also affect credibility and leadership. Studies find that aesthetic and professional objects in the office affect the image of credibility. Authority and trustworthiness ratings were higher when a person had aesthetic objects, such as plants and pictures, and professional objects, such as diplomas and plaques, in the office. These objects did not have any major effect on dynamism but they did affect authority and trustworthiness. We can say that environments have personality, as people do. The size, objects, colours, seating arrangements, and other factors determine this personality. Therefore, people in control of their environment should consider these guidelines.

Nonverbal factors are important to the image of credibility and leadership. Proper use or disuse of non-verbal communication not only improves communication, but also helps establish credibility and leadership. Although gender has not been discussed as a nonverbal factor so far, a recent study indicates that gender also influences credibility and leadership. This may need to be added as a factor to provide a more realistic assessment of the influence of nonverbal communication on credibility and leadership.

James Poon Teng Fatt is a lecturer at the School of Accountancy & Business, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.
COPYRIGHT 1999 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:nonverbal communication
Author:Fatt, James P.T.
Publication:Communication World
Date:Jun 1, 1999
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