Sunday, November 15, 2009

Nonverbal Communication Skills: Using the Torso--Leaning Forward to Emphasize a Point

During my presentation earlier this week on “Uncommon Tips for More Impactful Presentations” at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business, I did not discuss the use of one’s torso, something which was on my original agenda but had to be deleted because of a late start. So, here goes:

The use of one’s torso to help emphasize a point and enhance one’s impact on the audience is best illustrated with a real-life example, this one involving then-Houston Fire Chief Lester Tyra. In the summer of 2000, Tyra was embroiled in a major controversy stemming from the sudden death of a 12-year old boy Daniel Lopez who had twice sought medical help at a local fire station. It appears that paramedics failed to examine the boy thoroughly, and his death a few hours later stirred an “uprising” of sorts and quickly became a cause célèbre within the Hispanic community.

In September/October that year, Chief Tyra was interviewed by Houston’s most prominent TV channel and fielded numerous questions relating to the circumstances surrounding the boy’s death. Upon noting that Tyra was impassive and not evincing much concern or sensitivity to the tragedy, the interviewer asked him, “You agree that the incident was tragic?” (or words to that effect). I remember being stupefied by Tyra’s demeanor when he replied “Yes, it was tragic.” His expression was devoid of any sign of regret. The somewhat corpulent fire chief, who was comfortably seated during the interview, did not move a single muscle as he uttered those words. Perhaps sensing that this apparent indifference could damage Tyra’s cause, and as if to give the fire chief another opportunity to express his pain, the interviewer again asked “It was tragic, right?” But Tyra simply repeated his previous utterance, and once again in an apathetic tone. Not surprisingly, Tyra was demoted by Houston’s mayor a few days later.

Now, I have absolutely no doubt that Fire Chief Tyra had greatly agonized over the young boy’s death and that he was full of compassion for the Lopez family’s suffering and loss. But he failed to exhibit any concern. Tyra should have made his sense of grief manifest during the interview by using appropriate body language. For instance, at the crucial moment when he was asked that direct question (“...this incident was tragic?”), Tyra could have leaned forward in his chair, and using a different vocal pitch and speaking slowly, said something like “You know (interviewer’s name), I have agonized greatly over young Daniel's death….” I believe such an unambiguous display of his feelings during that high-profile interview might have helped mollify many in the local community and perhaps enabled him to retain his job.

Note that if Fire Chief Tyra had been standing (such as at a press conference) while fielding the above question, he could have displayed his feelings and sadness by leaning forward, holding the lectern firmly and pressing his torso against it, as he gave the above suggested reply.

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