Body Language: Why You Should Avoid Othello’s Error

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on April 3, 2014 – 6:02 am

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Othello is tricked into believing that his wife, Desdemona, cheated on him with his Lieutenant. When he confronts Desdemona, she weeps—a sign, Othello concludes, of her guilt. In a rage, Othello murders her, only to learn shortly thereafter that she hadn’t committed adultery after all. 

Othello made the mistake of assuming that he understood the source of Desdemona’s anguish. He assumed that his wife’s sobs when confronted were a sign of her guilt; he didn’t understand that her grief was rooted not in guilt, but in her knowledge that there was no way to convince her husband of her innocence.

That tragic mistake—what psychologist Paul Ekman dubbed “Othello’s Error”—teaches us that just because someone exhibits an emotion doesn’t mean we understand the root cause. “Emotional signals don’t tell us what brought them forth,” Ekman writes in Emotions Revealed.


The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix

The Death of Desdemona by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix


As an example, let’s say you’re about to deliver a talk and you’re feeling nervous about the proposal you have to present. You believe that a few people in the room actively oppose your idea, so you’ve prepared rebuttal arguments just to be safe.

During your presentation, you notice a man in the front row—a key decision-maker—who’s furrowing his brow and crossing his arms. He looks unhappy with your proposal, confirming your worst fears.

At the end of your talk, he approaches you to thank you for your talk and ask you a question about how he can follow up with you. “I’m surprised you’re interested,” you say. “I was convinced that you didn’t like my proposal because you looked skeptical.” “Nah,” he says. “My wife tells me I look that way when I’m thinking. I thought your proposal made sense all along.”

That type of scenario happens all the time. And it happens, in part, because we’re conditioned to see that which we expect. According to Dr. Ekman:

“Our emotional state, our attitudes, our expectations, what we want to believe, even what we don’t want to believe can all bias how we interpret an expression or more specifically what we think caused the emotion shown by the expression.”

Emotions Revealed Paul Ekman Book Cover

In other words, if we’re nervous about an audience when presenting, we’re more likely to interpret a man’s “thinking” face as his “disgusted” face. We’re more likely to assume that his seemingly disinterested expression means that we’ve failed to persuade him. We’ve committed Othello’s Error.

Othello’s Error doesn’t mean you should stop trying to read your audiences. You can often glean important clues about their moods and attitudes by remaining attentive to nonverbal cues. But it does suggest that before solidifying any assumption that they’re against you, you should ask a clarifying question instead (“It looks like a lot of people are thinking hard about this proposal. May I ask what you’re thinking about or what questions you might have?”). 

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The Nuns Were Wrong About Your Hands. Here’s Why.

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on January 19, 2014 – 6:02 am

I occasionally ask audiences whether anyone went to Catholic school. I follow up by asking those who did whether they were ever instructed that it was rude to gesture using their hands. Many of them nod their heads, chuckling at the memory from long ago.

It’s not just nuns (and certainly not all of them) who perpetuated the belief that gesturing with one’s hands is considered undisciplined, undignified, and unrefined. Many of our presentation training clients have been taught the same thing by other presentation trainers (although I know many great trainers who never teach that erroneous advice).

In this post, I’ll strip away the myths about gesture—and share with you what the experts tell us.

Angry Nun with Ruler

Researcher Susan Goldin-Meadow, author of Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think, tells us that “we have not yet discovered a culture in which speakers do not move their hands as they talk.”

It turns out that gesture is innate. “Even individuals who are blind from birth and have never seen others gesture purposefully move their hands as they talk,” Goldin-Meadow reports. In one study, “the blind group gestured at the same rate as the sighted group.”

Whereas many people once believed that speech and gesture were two different things that could be teased apart, the research suggests otherwise. Goldin-Meadow writes:

“Gesture not only conveys meaning but does so in a manner that is integrated with speech. Several types of evidence lend support to the view that gesture and speech form a single, unified system.”

look at that!

Not convinced yet? In their book Nonverbal Communication In Human Interaction, authors Mark Knapp, Judith Hall, and Terrence G. Horgan report similar findings:

“Gestures help speakers retrieve certain words or describe objects that move as part of their function, and thus serve a greater interpersonal function. Listeners may benefit more from a speaker’s gestures when these gestures add emphasis or clarity to speech, help characterize and make memorable the content of speech, and act as forecasters of forthcoming speech.”

The evidence is clear. Humans speak using their hands. Effective communication depends on it. If any trainers tell you otherwise, throw them out of your office.

There are, of course, some guidelines for the best way to gesture. You can see some of those here.

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Can You Become 56 Percent Better At Presenting–Instantly?

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on October 16, 2013 – 6:02 am

Anyone who’s read a public speaking book or attended a presentation course has likely heard the advice to speak with “open” body language.

Hand gestures are a key part of that advice—and you may be surprised by how much the “little” things matter when it comes to the impression audiences form of you.

Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of The Definitive Book of Body Language, did an interesting experiment. They asked eight lecturers to deliver ten-minute talks to various audiences using three different hand gestures. “We later recorded the attitudes of the participants to each lecturer,” the authors wrote. 

Their findings were dramatic.

Hand Gestures Slide

“We found that the lecturers who mostly used the Palm-Up position received 84 percent positive testimonials from the participants, which dropped to 52 percent when they delivered exactly the same presentation to another audience using mainly the Palm-Down position. The Finger-Pointed position recorded only 28 percent positive audience response and some participants had walked out during the lecture. Finger-pointing not only registered the least amount of positive responses from the listeners; they could also recall less of what the speaker had said.”

That last part is especially striking: Hand gestures not only influenced the audience’s perception of the speaker, but had a direct impact on how much of the speaker’s presentation they remembered.

The Palm-Up position is not only useful during the body of your presentation, but also when taking audience questions. Instead of pointing a finger at an audience member when selecting them to ask a question, use an open palm to indicate that the floor is theirs.

It’s worth noting that there may be better hand gestures in certain situations. For example, speakers wanting to indicate that their stance is non-negotiable may be more effective when using the Palm-Down position. And Joe Navarro, author of What Every Body Is Saying, points out that “steepling” one’s hands is often perceived as a sign of confidence and self-assurance, particularly for women.

Either way, if you tend not to speak using the Palm-Up position, it’s worth experimenting with. No, one study doesn’t give us sufficient data to be able to state that you’ll become 56 percent better just by modifying your hand gestures. But the Pease study is reinforced by many similar body language studies, so it’s not a stretch to believe that you can improve the audience’s perception of you simply by going from being a finger pointer to being a palm-upper.

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The Statistic Communications “Experts” Keep Getting Wrong

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on July 21, 2013 – 6:02 am

In dozens of books and hundreds of articles, you’ll find media trainers, presentation coaches, and communications experts offering a startling statistic:

Only 7 percent of the way someone forms an impression of you comes from your words! The remaining portion comes from your voice (38 percent) and your body language (55 percent)!

There’s only one problem: Those statistics are wrong. Completely wrong.

Their root comes from a 1960s study by a UCLA professor named Dr. Albert Mehrabian. But Mehrabian never intended for his research to be used—or misused—that way.


This slide is fascinating. It’s also completely wrong.


Mehrabian’s study was very limited in scope—it looked only at single words, focused solely on positive or negative feelings, and didn’t include men—and yet, I see articles at least once a week touting these numbers as gospel, as if they have much broader implications than they actually do.

Had these communications “experts” taken the time to look at the original research (or simply look at Dr. Mehrabian’s Wikipedia page, which debunks this myth), they wouldn’t have made this mistake. So I can only conclude that communications professionals who use this data are ignorant,  lazy, or willfully misusing this data to sound smarter than they are.

As an example, I came across a video from Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld last week. I saw the video because it was a “Sponsored Post” on Twitter. The link led me to a YouTube video, which had this in the video description:

“When people want to make an impression, most think a lot about what they want to say. Stanford Business Professor Deborah Gruenfeld cautions you to think twice about that approach. The factors influencing how people see you are surprising: Words account for 7% of what they take away, while body language counts for 55%.”


In the video, Gruenfeld says:

“When people are forming an impression of you, what you say accounts for only seven percent of what they come away with.”


Creativity Works, a U.K.-based communications firm, produced this video called “Busting the Mehrabian Myth.” It’s a well-produced (and humorous) video. UPDATE: Several readers have correctly pointed out that this video goes too far in the opposite direction, prioritizing words over delivery. That, too, is wrong — the right balance of words and delivery is highly contextual, and it’s too reductionist to say that one generally matters more than the other.

Have thoughts about body language and the Mehrabian Myth? Please leave them in the comments section below.

The PowerPoint slide in this post comes from the Presentation Zen website; to their credit, they acknowledged that this graphic isn’t quite right.

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An Unusual Example of Great Body Language

Written by Christina Mozaffari (@PMRChristina) on July 16, 2013 – 6:02 am

In media training, we often talk about the importance of body language. Your words are important in interviews — but if your body language and your words don’t jive, your audience will tend to believe your body language over your message.

So imagine having only your body language to convey your words. And imagine those words were actually rap songs.

That’s what Holly Maniatty does. Ms. Maniatty is an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. And she recently found herself performing at a Wu Tang Clan show, which instantly turned her into an Internet sensation.

Warning! Some of the language in the Wu Tang Clan video below may not be appropriate for workplace listening.

Her performance was so energetic (some bloggers said she “put her back into it”) and so widely shared on social media that Jimmy Kimmel played the clip on his show. Her performance also brought attention to an emerging trend of having ASL interpreters at concerts.

I heard an interview with Ms. Maniatty on a radio show called The Story. She was so compelling that, though this isn’t typically the kind of body language we discuss on the blog, I had to share it.

Ms. Maniatty takes the body language aspect of her job seriously. Her energy is not just a result of enjoying the music. She studies her subjects’ movements (she told The Story she prepared for the Wu Tang Clan show for about 50 hours), memorizes the songs they’ll most likely perform, and even takes into account the regional dialect of the band and the places they’re performing.

Beyond that, Ms. Maniatty certainly succeeded in some big ways in her interview.

  1. 1. She had a message. It wasn’t enough just to be incredibly cool having performed with acts such as the Wu Tang Clan and Bruce Springsteen. Ms. Maniatty also talked about how much the hearing impaired community has embraced these performances. Before this interview, it never occurred to me that this was an important service for hearing-impaired people. Now I know.  
  2. 2. She illustrated tough concepts well. From now on, when I’m training somebody and they tell me their topic is just too complicated to explain simply, I’m going to bring up the example of Ms. Maniatty. She was able to clearly and simply illustrate sign language actions (did you know there’s actually a sign for Wu Tang Clan?!) on the radio. Impressive.
  3. 3. It was about more than just her. I really got the sense from the interview that she cares a great deal about the deaf community, has great respect for her colleagues, and really wants to make ASL translation the standard at major concerts. She was outwardly focused in a situation in which it would be easy to make it all about her.

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Aha! I Knew That’s Why You Were Crossing Your Arms!

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on June 4, 2013 – 7:12 am

When our new trainees arrive at their first media training sessions, they tend to be a little nervous. They know they’re going to be interviewed in front of their peers, and their fear of failure usually provokes at least a little bit of anxiety.

So when I look around the room at the beginning of the day, it’s not unusual to see a few trainees with their arms crossed across their chests.

People typically barricade their bodies when they feel threatened, defensive, anxious, or closed off. But when I point out their body language to them, virtually all of them say the same thing:

“I’m not closed off. I’m just cold.”

Three businesspeople talking.

I’ve always known that was wrong. When they get more comfortable later in the day, their arms uncross, while the room temperature stays exactly the same. Joe Navarro confirms my suspicions in his excellent book “What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. He writes:

“It could be argued that women (or men) cross their arms simply because they are cold. But this does not negate the nonverbal meaning, since cold is a form of discomfort…When we are distressed the limbic brain engages various systems of the body in preparation for the freeze/flight-or-fight survival response. One of the effects is that the blood is channeled toward the large muscles of the limbs and away from the skin…Since blood is the main source of our body warmth, diverting blood away from the skin and into deeper muscle makes the body’s surface feel cooler.”

So the trainees are right that they’re feeling cold. But they’re wrong about “just” being cold. They’re cold because they’re uncomfortable—and because their bodies have responded to their distress.

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Five Things You Should Know About Body Language

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 2, 2013 – 6:02 am

Yesterday, I reviewed Joe Navarro’s excellent book What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People.

Today, I’m going to highlight five things I learned about body language from his book. The excerpts I’ve selected will offer you some fascinating insights into what the eyes, shoulders, hands, thumbs, and legs communicate to others, often without our knowledge.

And thank you, Joe, for generously granting me permission to use these excerpts,

What Every Body Is Saying Book Cover

1. EYES 

“When we like something we see, our pupils dilate; when we don’t, they constrict. We have no conscious control over our pupils, and they respond both to external stimuli (for example, changes in light) and internal stimuli (such as thoughts) in fractions of a second.”

“When we become aroused, are surprised, or are suddenly confronted, our eyes open up—not only do they widen, but the pupils also quickly dilate to let in the maximum amount of available light, thus sending the maximum amount of visual information to the brain…Once we have a moment to process the information and if it is perceived negatively…in a fraction of a second the pupils will constrict.”

“Any decrease in the size of the eyes, whether through squinting or pupillary constriction, is a form of subconscious blocking behavior. And all blocking behaviors are indicative of concern, dislike, disagreement, or the perception of a potential threat.”




“We use shoulder shrugs to indicate lack of knowledge or doubt. Look for both shoulders to rise; when only one side rises, the message is dubious.”

“Partial shoulder shrugs indicate lack of commitment or insecurity.”

“If you see a person’s shoulders only partially rise or if only one shoulder rises, chance are the individual is not limbically committed to what he or she is saying and is probably being evasive or even deceptive.”


One of those indecisive moments



“Hand steepling may well be the most powerful high-confidence tell. It involves touching the spread fingertips of both hands, in a gesture similar to “praying hands,” but the fingers are not interlocked and the palms may not be touching.”

“I see women steepling under the table or very low, undermining the confidence they genuinely possess. I hope that as they recognize the power of the steeple as an indicator of self-assurance, competence, and confidence—traits most individuals would want to be recognized as possessing—more women will embrace this gesture and display it above the table.”




“Often seen with high-status individuals, the thumb sticking out of the pocket is a high-confidence display.”

“When individuals carry their thumbs high, it is a sign that they think highly of themselves and/or are confident in their thoughts or present circumstances. Thumbs up is another example of a gravity-defying gesture, a type of nonverbal behavior normally associated with comfort and high confidence.”

“Feelings of low confidence can be evidenced when a person (usually a male) puts his hands in his pocket and lets the fingers hang out on the side…this signal says, ‘I am very unsure of myself.’”


Man with hand in suit pocket



“Leg crossing is a particularly accurate barometer of how comfortable we feel around another person…We normally cross our legs when we feel comfortable. The sudden presence of someone we don’t like will cause us to uncross our legs.”

“When people sit side-by-side, the direction of their leg crosses becomes significant.”

“Here’s an interesting feature of leg crossing. We usually do it subconsciously in favor of the person we like the most.”



Joe Navarro’s What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People is available in softcover here and for the Kindle here. A recommended read.

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Book Review: What Every BODY Is Saying

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining on May 1, 2013 – 6:02 am

You can’t turn on cable news these days without coming across some “body language expert.” 

No licensing agency verifies the claims of those self-professed experts, so it’s no surprise that many of them come across with the credibility of a roadside psychic. I regularly roll my eyes at cable news segments that feature these allegedly wise people who appear to make it up as they go along (but they’d be right to view my eye rolls as a sign of disdain).

Reading body language is notoriously difficult. Sure, some “tells” are more certain than others, but even rather obvious tells usually require other, complementary tells—known as clusters—in order to accurately assess their meaning.

That’s why I so thoroughly enjoyed Joe Navarro’s What Every BODY Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People. His book is filled with all of the necessary and responsible caveats, but is still an easy read full of fascinating tidbits. Navarro rests his conclusions on the most recent science—his book has a three-page bibliography—but he impressively avoids the pitfall of weighing down the book with dense prose.

What Every Body Is Saying Book Cover

Navarro, a 25-year FBI veteran, says the face is one of the least reliable indicators of what someone is truly thinking. He writes:

“Having conducted thousands of interviews for the FBI, I learned to concentrate on the suspect’s feet and legs first, moving upward in my observations until I read the face last. When it comes to honesty, truthfulness decreases as we move from the feet to the head.”

In part, that’s because people are taught to lie using their faces at an early age, he says, such as when children are told not to make a certain face when eating a distasteful meal or to pretend they’re happy to see an unpopular aunt.

Navarro’s book does a nice job of explaining the “three brains,” and why our “limbic legacy” is responsible for the freeze, flight, or fight instincts that manifest themselves—usually without our knowledge—in our nonverbal behavior.

In subsequent chapters, he details nonverbal behaviors from head to toe—or, more accurately, from toe to head. His book also includes almost five dozen short side “boxes,” many of which contain fascinating anecdotes from his career as an FBI agent.  

Since I believe every review should take note of a book’s flaws, I’ll briefly mention that in a few places, I felt that the author stated the obvious. For example, it probably didn’t require a full page to explain that attire communicates a message, and that a person in a dark alley wearing a suit will be perceived as less threatening than a person wearing baggy clothing. But that’s a small point. Every time I started feeling that the author was stating an obvious point, I’d flip the page and learn three new things.

I’m late to this party. Navarro’s book was published in 2008, but still is ranked among Amazon’s top 500 bestsellers. Despite my tardiness in writing this review, it’s as worth the read now as it ever was.

Joe Navarro’s What Every Body is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People is available in softcover here and for the Kindle here.

Please tune in tomorrow for five fascinating things I learned about body language from this book.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

    Brad Phillips

    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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