More than just words

There has been a lot of commentary about the words spoken yesterday (Monday 31 January) by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as he sought to explain the situation regarding Downing Street parties. This is a sorry affair on many levels. Sorry because of the fact we are focusing on lockdown breaches from those who set the rules. But also because of the many ways that Boris has attempted to say sorry. While the words may be right the body language is certainly not.

I have watched the statement made a number of times and it is striking to look at the body language that is in evidence. The apologies and contrition do not feel genuine when they are accompanied by a smirk or a laugh. This was more than a nervous laugh at a difficult point. It was a disregard and dismissal of the situation that was unfolding.

As communicators we spend a lot of time coaching people to do media interviews or make some form of speeches, but how many times do we focus in detail on the body language they display? I have written many statements over the years. Carefully choosing the words, discussing it with the person who will deliver them, ensuring it is in their voice, and detailing what questions they may be faced with. On only a few very serious occasions do I remember talking through the body language.

Body language is a giveaway. Over the years I have realised it with my own. A primary school teacher told my parents they always knew when I was annoyed or frustrated. At work I found body language could be a huge help. When trying to explain to someone that their ‘fantastic communication idea’ was anything but was much easier when they could see it in your body language. On the flip side, it was also unhelpful when my body language gave away that I really did not want to be in that meeting.

When we reflect on the lessons from yesterday there will be many about the principles of crisis communication, how to deliver an apology, and what is expected from a leader. I also think it tells us a lot about how to deliver a message authentically and the importance of body language that supports what you are saying. The pandemic has put additional demands on leaders wherever they are based. When they speak now they need to not just be honest and trustworthy, but also show empathy and have an authenticity. Some do it well but many have a lot to learn.

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