Non-Verbal Communication and the Brain


Why do spokespeople in ads who aren’t professional actors do so badly most of the time? No doubt we’ve all seen the ads featuring the owner or sales manager of the local car dealer, or the guy who owns the furniture outlet, that seem painfully bad. Of course, we’ve also seen a few success stories: long running campaigns that turned CEOs into celebrities and changed the fortunes of the company – Lee Iacocca’s series of Chrysler ads comes to mind, along with Dave Thomas’s Wendy’s commercials. Part of the reason is the level of production involved – filming national spots for an auto company will have high quality direction who will use as many takes as required to get it right. Local retail ads have lower production values, and will probably use the first take in which the “actor” doesn’t muff his lines. Neuroscience suggests another reason for this divide.

In filming a commercial featuring a spokesperson, the primary focus is usually on the text the actor will deliver – why the new product is great, how prices have been slashed for the huge weekend sale, etc. Research shows, however, that gestures and body language may be as important as the words, and that a mismatch between the verbal and physical means of communication causes a shift in brain waves similar to the reaction to misused or unexpected words.

The current issue of Scientific American Mind, in Gestures Offer Insight, reports on research by neuroscientist Spencer D. Kelly of Colgate University who is studying the effects of gestures by measuring “event related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. Measured with an electroencephalograph, the patterns show how different areas of the brain process information. One particular valley, or negative peak, has been dubbed N400 – it occurs when we stumble over an inappropriate word. (The article cites the example, “He spread his toast with socks.”)

Interestingly, the same N400 negative peak is found when a speaker’s gestures don’t match his words. For example, if the speaker was using a word like “tall” but his gestures indicated something short, a strong negative peak would be observed. The researchers interpreted this as meaning that speech and gestures are processed simultaneously, and that observers factor the meaning of the gesture into their interpretation of the word.

Years ago, the term “body language” was popularized when various authors offered interpretations for different body positions and gestures. Crossed arms meant resistance to an idea, steepled fingers in a meeting were a symbol of authority, and so on. Readers were encouraged to pay attention to the body language of others, and behave in accord with their better understanding of the mental frame of the other person. For example, faced with a sales prospect leaning back from the table with crossed arms, a salesperson would be foolish to plow ahead touting features and benefits; the first step would be to get the subject in a more receptive frame of mind.

The fact is that people are constantly processing the body language and gestures of others, but this is done mostly at the unconscious level. When we say, “That salesperson seemed a bit sketchy,” it may well be due to a mismatch between his words and body language.

Some business owners may be comfortable enough as actors to do a credible job. In many cases, they have one advantage over a professional actor: they know their product and believe in it. If this essential truth can be communicated to viewers, they don’t need exceptional thespian skills. A business owner who can’t deliver his lines with complete conviction had better be an outstanding actor. How many times have we heard a car dealer claim they are having the “sale of the century,” with prices that are “the lowest in our history,” and that will “never be seen again.” A few weeks later, of course, we hear a different variation on the same theme. Delivering these lines with heartfelt conviction might be best left to a professional.

The neuromarketing wisdom here isn’t much different than conventional wisdom: in every element of your marketing campaign – print ads, commercials, and sales presentations – pay as much attention to the physical actions of the people as to what they are saying. If these gestures and postures reinforce they verbal message, that message will be more powerful. If instead the non-verbal cues create dissonance with the intended message, the effectiveness of that effort will drop.

1 Comment
  1. Mike Murray says

    I posted about an interesting piece of research that relates to this today on my blog – it turns out that it’s not just about the physical *actions* of the people who are speaking as it is their physical location.

    The lateralization of brain hemispheres gives a different reaction to someone standing to your left than it does to your right – it’s an important thing for marketers to be aware of.


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