The devil is in the details

A sacramento consultant explains the mechanics of nonverbal communication

National leaders show off their nonverbal intelligence.

National leaders show off their nonverbal intelligence.

SN&R Photo Illustration By David Jayne

Emily Marquez took a biology class from Kendall Zoller at El Camino Fundamental High School in 1994. She said Zoller was known for his “great sense of humor, his semi-maniacal cackling and his goofy ‘science ties,’ which were pretty ugly and had weird stuff like spaceships or bugs on them.”

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President George W. Bush can’t “hold many words in his head,” according to Kendall Zoller, a local expert in nonverbal communication. Watching a recorded speech, Zoller noticed that Bush did not take a breath until the end of his sentences, allowing him a limited number of words per sentence as well as creating a tense feeling in his audience. “When you breathe, your audience breathes with you,” said Zoller.

Zoller bases his analysis on the concept of nonverbal intelligence. The concept has existed for a very long time, although the term is new. People with nonverbal intelligence are systematic in their use of gesture, voice, breathing and other nonverbal signals. Those with well-developed nonverbal intelligence quickly can establish rapport and choose which nonverbal skills to implement depending on the situation.

For instance, analyzing a video clip of Bill Clinton at a recent workshop, Zoller emphasized Clinton’s posture. Clinton’s hands rest comfortably on his knees, his shoulders down. This gives his audience a relaxed feeling.

Zoller also mentioned that not blinking is perceived as a sign of intelligence. “Gore, Clinton, Reagan, those guys just didn’t blink,” he observed. Stillness is another sign of intelligence, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is very still in interview clips.

Rice also “beats” her head, tilting it in different directions to indicate different points, Zoller noted. Many politicians do this with hand gestures or their heads to “place” main points by indicating a physical location. This is something most people do unconsciously, and it is all part of the nonverbal repertoire.

Though akin to the body language experts featured on The O’Reilly Factor, Zoller does not claim to know what a person is thinking or feeling based on a video clip or photograph.

There are researchers generating reliable and valid data from paralanguage studies, Zoller said, but “there are a lot of fruitcakes out there, too, touting the magic of body language.”

According to Zoller, “The key with nonverbal patterns is you don’t interpret the person’s internal thoughts based on the nonverbal behavior.”

Observing someone with their arms folded may lead to what Zoller calls a “hallucination” that they’re irritated. You’d have to ask that person if they’re irritated and get an honest answer to know for sure.

With that caveat, Zoller analyzed some video clips of various political figures to demonstrate that although nonverbal communication may be subtle, it has a definite effect on people. An audience will respond to a good or bad speaker without knowing what exactly they’re responding to. So, if you get an uncomfortable feeling watching President Bush talk, it’s not only due to the things he says, it’s also how he says them.

Zoller referenced a video of the “I Have a Dream” speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “When King is really in the zone, his eye blinks slow down to about two blinks per minute,” Zoller says. “You can also see his breathing slow down.” It is during one point in the speech where King seems to lose his way that his blinking rate increases. As soon as King stops fumbling for words and is back in his comfort zone, the blinking slows down again.

Illinois Senator Barack Obama blinks far more in an interview clip than in a prepared speech. “Blinking is his observable evidence of construction of ideas,” Zoller says.

Zoller also described the credible voice, which is used to deliver important information—and is often used by politicians. He does an impersonation of Tom Brokaw, pointing out that Brokaw dips his chin at important pauses and the end of each sentence. “I’m Tom Brokaw (chin dip, pause) and this is the evening news (chin dip, pause).”

As a consultant working to enhance nonverbal communication skills, Zoller’s mission, and the mission of his company Sierra Training Associates, is to promote effective teaching methods using nonverbal intelligence. Zoller launched his Foresthill company with three of his associates in January of this year.

The company’s workshops help people identify what they do naturally when teaching or presenting, and show them how to use nonverbal signals to their advantage. Zoller himself has held positions as a high school teacher, a college professor and the director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education at CSUS. The company’s client list includes California police-academy instructors, the San Juan and Sacramento school districts, and the UC Berkeley Center for Teaching and Learning.

Apparently, there are 30 modes of speaking that can be used in conjunction with nonverbal signals to communicate what sort of information is being presented.

One pattern Obama uses is raising the voice, inserting a pause and then transitioning to a whisper. This voice pattern is perceived as passionate, Zoller said. King was particularly masterful at the use of this speaking pattern.

Different modes of learning also can be identified through body language. The visual-auditory-kinesthetic model, developed by psychologists in the 1920s, describes each mode of learning. People often are strongest in one, and regress to that mode when comprehending difficult material. Zoller cautions that the mode has nothing to do with what we think of as intelligence. It only explains how one processes information.

A visual learner will move their eyes up when recalling information, such as in response to a teacher’s question. A kinesthetic learner, who learns best while moving or doing hands-on work, will keep their eyes down. Auditory learners often have to read material out loud in order to comprehend it. An auditory learner also will tilt their head to the side when recalling information.

To illustrate, Zoller showed a clip of Ronald Reagan giving a speech from the White House. Reagan, regarded as a great speaker by many Americans, had the ability to evoke strong visual images in his speeches. In the video clip, Reagan subtly tilts his head to either side as he accesses auditory information.

Rice, Zoller observes, sits upright and erect, which is “evidence of a high visual.” Zoller says that in clips of New York Senator Hillary Clinton, her eyes move down when she talks, which “may be evidence of kinesthetic processing.” Like Obama, she also blinks more during an interview than in a rehearsed speech.

As for Bush, Zoller pointed out that he is clearly a kinesthetic learner. “We haven’t had a kinesthetic president for at least 30 years,” he observed.

Zoller believes it is imperative for teachers and others to learn more about nonverbal communication and to develop their nonverbal intelligence.

“We know that nonverbal communication is a huge element,” he said. “I think it’s a part of our social responsibility. If you’re going to be an effective communicator, why just focus on the words?”