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Body language is the key to your reputation

SpeechWhether you’re on TV News or talking to a concerned parent in your office, body language has far more impact on how you come across than anything you say.

This is often the forgotten element when school leaders front the media, but it’s also vital in every other area of a principal’s role.

Did you know that 93 per cent of what people take away about you from a TV interview comes from your body language and your tone of voice? That surprises most people. It shows just how important it is.

Why is David Shearer unpopular on TV? It’s nothing to do with what he says. It’s how he expresses it. In other words, his body language doesn’t match the message, so people don’t warm to him. John Key is the absolute opposite. He looks comfortable, friendly and his message and body language are consistent. The distinction between these leaders shows how important body language is.

The same can be said for principals and other school leaders. Have you ever seen your colleagues on TV, but not quite warmed to them? It’s probably because what they are saying is not matching their body language.

I often notice this disconnect with school leaders on TV. Most of the time it’s because they are nervous, but it doesn’t help their reputation. So much of a school’s reputation is directly related to the principal. That’s why it’s vital that they come across more like John Key than David Shearer.

Body language can be learnt

While some people are clearly natural, this is a skill that can be learnt. It’s just a matter of finding out how you come across, what you need to work on, and then practicing until you get it right. To do this it’s vital that you are taped when doing mock interviews, and you watch them back to see how you looked. A professional critique is also valuable, as you may not know exactly what to look for or how to correct it.

The first major mistake I notice is that many school leaders don’t move their hands. For some reason, most people freeze their hands in a media interview. They think this is what they are meant to do. But it stops you looking natural. We all use our hands to express ourselves in everyday conversation. So we should continue to do so.

Did you know that a recent study showed that babies born without sight still moved their hands to express themselves? This proves the point that the whole body is needed to communicate effectively and naturally.

Avoid monotone voice

The other important thing here is that failing to use our hands to express ourselves creates a more monotone voice. This is because when we don’t use our hands, our voice box tenses up. We’ve all heard spokespeople sound like this, rather than being more animated and natural.

In our “Media Training for School Leaders” training courses, we sometimes keep the camera running after a mock interview when the participant thinks it has been turned off. They then start gesturing with their hands, looking relaxed and believable. Lots of them don’t even realise they weren’t using them during the official interview, but the change in voice tone is obvious.

Don’t forget radio interviews

This is why body language is also vital for radio interviews. How often have you heard a school principal sound monotone on the radio? This is even more important because voice is the only communication tool to get your message across on radio.

For this reason, it’s important to use headsets with radio interviews conducted over the phone. That way, you can still express yourself with both hands, opening up your voice box.

I can’t emphasise enough the importance of body language for school leaders. Imagine if you were suddenly thrust onto the national media stage after some disaster at your school. Clearly you want to show your empathy to those affected and explain what you are doing to help them.

This is a daunting enough proposition. But if your body language is not in synch with your message, you could be seen as insensitive or not taking the situation seriously enough. This will not help your personal reputation, or that of your school.

While this is an extreme example, there are many media situation that school leaders can find themselves in. Even with print media interviews, the more genuine you come across, the more favourable the coverage will be.

By mastering body language, you will not only come across as credible with the media, but every other leadership forum you such as presentations and parent meetings.

Pete Burdon is Founder and Head Trainer at Media Training NZ. To find out more or register your interest in a course coming to your area, visit

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