The Body Politic

In a recent skit on YouTube, Hillary Clinton impersonator Rosemary Watson portrays the presidential hopeful alone in an Iowa hotel room, rehearsing an upcoming speech. “New hand gestures, Iowa. Take one,” announces faux Hillary, dressed in a white terry cloth robe.

“Helloooo pig farmers,” she bellows in a nasal Midwestern accent, before verbally and visually running through a gamut of gestures. “And I begin to hammer on healthcare,” she says, pummeling the air with clenched fists.

“I do a smoothing motion on middle class taxes, palms down,” she says, while looking like she’s practicing the breaststroke. “I enumerate the flaws of my opponent with a crooked finger,” she concludes, turning her body sideways to face an invisible rival while repeating an admonitory gesture.

Though the real Clinton has studied stagecraft with a high-priced media coach — as have many current and former candidates — and often animates speeches with an array of nods, waves and karate chops, she probably does not choreograph every move she makes. Yet, like most successful politicians, Clinton understands the power of body language: Hand motions, facial gestures and posture all can enhance or undermine a campaign’s message, shape public perception of a politician and profoundly influence an audience of voters — whether the voters know it or not. In today’s media marketplace, the practiced smile and the sly smirk, the hearty salute and the triumphant double thumbs-up are the political equivalent of product packaging.

“The visual image impacts more than the words,” says Democratic Party strategist Celinda Lake, president of the Washington, D.C-based Lake Research Partners, whose clients include Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu. To gauge whether her clients’ body language will appeal to or annoy potential voters, Lake first shows focus groups video of candidates with the audio turned off.

“You can’t absorb someone’s policy position in two seconds, but you can get your instinctual reaction to them,” says Dan Hill, an expert on “facial coding” and president of Sensory Logic, a consumer research firm in Minneapolis. “And you can get that on a non-conscious, nonverbal basis.”

Undebatable truths

There’s no better critical forum for candidates to sway the all-important undecided voter than “unscripted” presidential debates. But when they turn to the intricacies of healthcare mandates, audiences tend to tune out. “As auditory attention wanes, visual subtexts become even more important,” write the authors of “The Visual Byte: Bill Clinton and His Town Hall Meeting Style,” published in The Journal of Communication in 2007.

The authors scrutinized the 1992 and 1996 presidential debates and concluded that Bill Clinton, through his strategic use of body language, was the most persuasive candidate on stage. For instance, during 1992’s town hall-style debate, Clinton came across as respectful when Ross Perot — whose independent voters Clinton wanted to lure — spoke to the crowd and cameras. Clinton “sat on his stool, placed his hands between his knees and tilted his head towards Perot, as if Clinton were listening to each word Perot said,” write authors Mark Goldman, Mark Gring and Brian Anderson.

However, when George H.W. Bush spoke, Clinton’s nonverbal cues challenged the incumbent president’s talking points. Clinton created motion to attract the TV camera, standing up, jutting out his chin and smirking or shaking his head. “Clinton sold his own message with visual as well as verbal elements, and he transformed opponents’ message opportunities into scenarios where Clinton was actually doing the selling,” they concluded.

A longtime Clinton advisor, who requested anonymity, admitted, “We practiced reaction shots extensively [because that’s where] 15 to 20 percent of your face time goes.”

Al Gore could have used a lesson in body language from his old boss. During the first debate with George W. Bush in 2000, Gore loudly sighed when Bush held the floor. Whereas Clinton came across as strong in his debates, Gore evoked a frustrated schoolboy who knows the answer, but can’t get the teacher’s attention.

“Do I believe that the fate of the world should have been decided on whether Al Gore sighed in the 2000 debates?” asks Robert Shrum, a top consultant for Gore in 2000 and John Kerry in 2004. “No. [But] he shouldn’t have sighed. The safest thing for Gore, which he was told before the debates, was ‘Don’t react to Bush. When he’s speaking, just take notes.'”

Gore sighed less in later debates, which is not surprising. Most media trainers and political consultants polled for this article say it’s safer to wean candidates from distracting behaviors like deep sighs than to try to teach them new body language. Unlike quick-study actors, politicians can’t always master a new repertoire of gestures, and so risk coming off as insincere.

“Voters want to vote for people; they don’t want to vote for robots,” says C. Jackson Bain, a former media trainer and NBC White House correspondent. “That’s what these guys look like when they use inappropriate, ill-timed hand gestures.”

Democratic pollster and consultant Mark Mellman, whose clients include Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, remembers a female client who had a penchant for pointing: “People interpreted [the pointing] very negatively. Something had to change.”

But suppressing ingrained body language is difficult, and Mellman’s client couldn’t kick her habit. Instead, Mellman said, he settled for editing out her chronic finger-wagging from campaign spots.

Republican pollster and consultant Dave Hill (no relation to Dan Hill) ran a gubernatorial campaign for a candidate with whirling dervish-like body language. “He would give the full body movement like he was speaking to 10,000 people when he was speaking to 10 people in the living room,” recalls Hill. “I thought it was sometimes over the top.” The candidate was advised to tone things down. “As we see candidates closer, with tighter shots on bigger screens, [they] must modulate some of their hand gestures to not seem quite so wild,” says Hill, whose client lost the election. “Like most candidates, he was set in his ways and continued to do as he did.”

Richard Greene, a public speaking coach who trained Princess Diana and California Governor Jerry Brown, among others, notes that candidates should confine gestures to “the power zone” inside the shoulders. “Gesture outside the power zone will not be seen as authoritative,” he warns. “At every moment, [political leaders] need to look like they can carry the weight of our hopes and needs.”

In an informal poll, several political consultants nominated Howard Dean as the candidate with the most unpresidential body language in recent years. After his disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses in 2004, Dean’s red face and furious fist pumps accentuated his now infamous high-pitched yelp. What’s known as the “I Have a Scream” speech damaged Dean’s political brand because he came off as hotheaded, the very character flaw his opponents repeatedly drew attention to in the press when they tried to brand him as unstable.

Something in the way she moves

It’s unlikely that Hillary Clinton will follow in Dean’s missteps, but her inconsistent body language could still hurt her candidacy. Clinton is saddled with a reputation for blind ambition, and her gestures may lend credence to the belief that she’ll try almost anything to get elected. Clinton can seem at ease one day (her body relaxed, smile blinding), angry the next (fists curled, arms pounding the air) and practiced as a flight attendant prepping for takeoff the day after that.

Alan Siegel, CEO of New York-based branding consultancy Siegel+Gale, believes the problem lies in her candidacy losing its aura of inevitability. “Going from a lead brand to a challenger brand or a fighting brand is not comfortable for her,” he suggests. “Her body language reflects that.”

Which isn’t to say Clinton can’t enliven a speech or a debate with effective gesturing. Greene credits Clinton with delivering a body-language tour de force during the Feb. 21 debate in Austin, Texas. She used at least 16 different facial and hand gestures in roughly three minutes, while speaking with passion about meeting wounded soldiers. Her hand motions ranged from a light slap on the desk to emphasize her respect for Senator Barack Obama to a prayer-like pose while articulating concerns for the American people. Greene called it her namaste gesture and “one of the most heartfelt moments of her campaign.”

Clinton’s past, present and possibly future competitors for the presidency also exhibit fluency as well as flaws in their body language. Greene faults Obama for sometimes slouching. “Obama is [usually] Lincolnesque in his posture,” which helps brand him as a vibrant and commanding figure. “When he leans,” adds Greene, “he hurts his brand.”

But Obama’s signature gesture could complement his image as a conciliator: He routinely emphasizes points in stump speeches with what might be called the Obama OK, the formation of a circle with the tip of the index finger and thumb while the pinkie, ring and middle fingers curve together below the circle. “By putting the two fingers together you avoid having the jabbing finger,” says body language expert Dan Hill.

Senator John McCain suffered debilitating shoulder injuries during the Vietnam War, which limits his range of motion and likely explains his occasionally awkward hand movements. During debates, he seems most comfortable when he stabs the air or pounds the podium with his index finger. Those forceful gestures may prove to be a double-edged nonverbal sword. On the one hand, an economically troubled nation mired in an unpopular war might not be in the market for a military man. “McCain looks like a general, not a CEO,” says Caroline Keating, professor of psychology at Colgate University. “If the economy is the main issue, then he faces difficulty.”

On the other hand, the 71-year-old Arizona senator conveys vigor and authority, roaring, in the opinion of one media trainer, “I’m a military guy . . . and if we have to kick ass and take names, I’ll kick ass and take names.”

His arsenal of gestures contrasts with that of his vanquished foe Mitt Romney, says Keating: “When Mitt Romney was attacked during Republican debates . . . he would defend himself [verbally]. You know what he would do with his hands? They were folded together on the table, and it did not appear that he was really defending himself. Why wasn’t he pointing? Why wasn’t he gesturing? His words were strong and his body language was not.”

You get the point

Research supports the premise that our leaders’ movements can move voters.

Albert Mehrabian, professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and a renowned scholar of gestures, found that we derive nearly eight times more meaning from nonverbal cues than we do from words alone.

Another prominent scholar, Geoffrey Beattie, dean of psychological sciences at the University of Manchester in England, conducted a 2005 study comparing two television commercials for a fictitious fruit-flavored soft drink. One ad featured a voiceover and imagery. The second relied on visuals of the product and an actor using iconic hand gestures.

The spots were intended to impart the product’s three key attributes, as detailed in the British Journal of Psychology: “The gestures represented that the fruit used was ‘fresh’ (hands are together in front of chest, they move away from each other abruptly as fingers stretch and become wide apart), that ‘everyone’ was drinking it (right hand and arm move away from the body making a large sweeping movement) and the ‘size’ of the bottle (hands move towards each other until they represent the size of the bottle).”

Viewers of the commercial with hand gestures remembered the three core attributes of the product far more easily than viewers of the voiceover commercial. Beattie hypothesizes that the same dynamic works in the political arena: “Because you are accompanying speech with an image, it helps you remember the political message much more effectively. If you just have speech alone, your memory decays considerably over a three-month period.”

None of this surprises neuroscientist Spencer Kelly of Colgate University, who believes that gestures likely activate the brain’s mirror neuron system that causes us to actually feel emotions that others act out. “When you see someone fist pump, you almost simulate the fist pump yourself,” Kelly says. “That kind of emotional contagion is fast, automatic, unconscious and politicians are exploiting it. I don’t know if they know the science, but it’s smart because it works. We might distrust political words, but we’re wired to connect to their actions.”

New York-based journalist David Wallis is the editor of ‘Killed Cartoons: Casualties from the War on Free Expression.’