• Careful observations make your copy more detailed and conversations more colorful.
• Nonverbal communication makes up between 70-80 percent of total communication. To totally communicate interpersonally, one must understand what the nonverbals may be telling the other person.
Categories of nonverbal communication
Body Movement — This category includes gestures and other body movements, including facial expressions, eye movement and posture. Winking, staring, blinking, gazing. He was happy? How happy was he? The answer will be what you write.
Paralanguage — This includes voice qualities, speech habits, inflection, volume, tone and other verbal actions such as laughing, hissing, growling, etc. It is not WHAT is said, but HOW it is said. Often, a dialect or speech pattern can tell something about the interviewee. He drawled in his Pampa, Texas, accent. She whispered.
Space — This includes human use and perception of physical space; may be referred to as “our bubble.” This involves interaction and reaction among people. How do people interact with each other? Do some withdraw? Do some get too close?
Artifacts — Things with which we surround ourselves such as clothing, jewelry, eyeglasses. These artifacts may offer meaning in a writer’s work — signs of wealth, poverty, power, age or other abstracts.
Touch — Handshakes, embraces, pats on the back, punches all have meaning when applied to a situation in a story. These also signify interaction and may signify caring behavior.
Color — Our use of color tells much about ourselves; however, we are not always in control of the colors which are in our environment. Colors often say things: Green with envy, purple prose, a yellow streak, little white lies, etc.,
Time — The way human beings use time may speak volumes about them.
In this example from Esquire magazine, note body gestures, facial expressions, paralanguage, touch
Trump raises his right arm and waves (body gesture) to the crowd like a presidential candidate (comparison), which he once pretended to be as a ploy to generate publicity for his first book. Then the fight fans spot Marla and start cheering for her. “Mar-la! Mar-la!” they begin to chant. (paralanguage) Trump stops in his tracks (body gesture) and lets the pleasure of the frozen moment wash over him. He used to be insanely jealous of his ex-wife Ivana’s celebrity, but he regards Marla’s notoriety as being entirely his own creation. “Can I make a star or what?” he gloats. (paralanguage) Marla grits her teeth in a drop-dead grin. (facial expression/comparison) “Oh, thank you, Donald,” she replies, caressing his arm. (touch) Then she turns and purrs (paralanguage) to a friend, “If I was nothing before, how come he went after me?”
Another excerpt from the same story shows even more nonverbal information:
Marla arches her brows and purses her thin red lips to effect the half-smile of a pinup model. “Donald just loves to do this.” She sighs and rolls her opalescent eyes
In this example from a story about the Olympics gymnastics champion Paul Hamm by Associated Press writer Nancy Armour, note body gestures and facial expressions which make the reader “see” the event as “shown” by the writer.
Hamm’s dismount was perfect, and he hit the mat with a solid thud before thrusting his fists into the air and throwing his head back in amazement. He waved at the roaring crowd and then sprinted off the podium clapping his hands while his coach, Miles Avery, jumped up and down on the sideline.
Why study nonverbals?
• Knowing about nonverbal communication enables a writer to SHOW things rather than tell about them.
• In an interview, the reporter may learn more about a subject by knowing nonverbal communication.
• Avoid jumping to conclusions about nonverbals. Report what you observe; you are safe.
• Be discriminating. Too much unplanned description can be ludicrous.
One of my favorite songs is ‘Baby makes her blue jeans talk’ by Dr Hook. I know. I think my parents were too young for the sixties and therefore embraced Disco with a tad too much enthusiasm. I was raised on rock, folk and disco with a huge dose of mirror ball. Anyway, I have always been enchanted by the image this song creates. It is one sentence that makes for a very memorable character:
“She don’t say nothing, but Baby makes her blue jeans talk.”
In fiction writing we tend to state the obvious and leave very little up to the reader’s imagination. But what an intriguing notion, a character who doesn’t speak. I am addicted to dialogue, but what if I try this? How will I convey her character? If she isn’t saying anything how do we know who Baby is?
What can that one sentence tell us about Baby?
1) Baby has a well-shaped derriere. Gym or genetic?
2) She wears jeans. Does she have a casual job, no job or is she off duty?
3) She walks with confidence. The jeans talk, they don’t moan and groan.
4) She is rather mysterious. They don’t know her name.
5) The tone suggests an informal atmosphere.
6) The ‘dialect’ indicates a story set in the American South.
So there I have setting, tone and character. Imagine if every sentence worked as hard. Would the writing have been as powerful if I wrote the following?
A woman walked down the street in the American South wearing pants. They were tight fitting blue jeans. She was swaying her posterior in an enticing manner. She did not say anything, but walked along with confidence. She was attractive. No one knew who she was so they called her Baby.
Once again less is more. Let your character keep quiet for once and use body language instead. Who knows maybe they look good in blue jeans too.
Or not. That could be fun too.
Mia Botha facilitates for “Writers Write.” She is also a novelist, a ghost writer and the winner of the Mills & Boon Voice of Africa Competition.
Back to Mass Media Stuff — stuff I have collected over 28 1/2 years of teaching a beginning mass media course in journalism-photography at San Antonio College
- Amy Cuddy: Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are (alexrister1.wordpress.com)
- The Science of Body Language & The Debates (psychologytoday.com)
- Battle of the Sexes: Male vs. Female Communication (masteringmanagementcommunication.wordpress.com)
- Communications and Your Health (enlightendu.wordpress.com)