Saturday, July 21, 2012

Nonverbal Communication Analysis # 2052:
Dialing Up Empathy and Sincerity -
Mitt Romney's & Barack Obama's Response to
Aurora, Colorado "Batman Shooting"

Both President Obama and Mitt Romney gave speeches yesterday to express their condolences to the families and friends of the victims of the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting.

An analysis of their nonverbal communication and their paralanguage is closely correlated to their verbal language - and thus the communicative Gestalt. They both messed up, Obama more so.

When speaking about a tragedy such as this - is one occasion when a speech should not be read from a script. The phrase/idea of "connecting with an audience" means - an Emotional Connection. This cannot be achieved when reading off a script with anywhere near the effectiveness as when it is spoken from the heart. Yes, it may not come off as smooth, and yes - politicians at these high levels are used to having speeches written for them. A compromise/hybrid approach would be to use one or two word bullet points or a similarly constructed mind map - so that a brief glance a one word/phrase will trigger paragraphs of thought/idea/emotions in the speakers mind. It appears that Barack Obama did something akin to this for at least part of his speech. Mitt Romney read directly from a script though - and thus he lost another opportunity to let the electorate see into his human side. As a leader this made them seem less connected to the average person. It's morphed into a distancing moment - rather than a rapport building moment as it should have been.

Election or no election, it's a leader's job to bring people together and lift them up when they need it. Reading from a script is not a good way to achieve this.

What would you think if a person read an apology - a' la Tiger Woods. That a lawyer had written it and it doesn't come from the heart - and thus it has elements of (or big chunks of) insincerity. If someone has to tell you what to say, it's by definition not heart-felt. While not quite this extreme in a memorial, condolence or comforting-type speech - it has this very similar insincere "feel". Remember when Hillary Clinton got choked up during her 2008 presidential bid? People who previously couldn't relate to her, could suddenly see a part of her personality they didn't previously see - she was one of us. Hillary enjoyed a big boost in the poles - and she was a better leader for it.

From a body language standpoint, notice how when either the President or the former Massachusetts Governor reads from their scripts - their hand gestures dramatically drop-off or become non-existent. This is particularly true for Romney, since he is reading throughout. In the world of nonverbal communication, a good share of these gestures fit into a group of behaviors known as Illustrators - for they illustrate, underline, emphasize, bring to life, etc. the verbal messages. When there's a relative or absolute lack of illustrators - this signals anxiety .... and perhaps much more, depending on the other nonverbals seen. When illustrators are used well - synchronous with speech and not too quickly or with excessive speed or amplitude, they increase rapport and audience retention. A lack of illustrators (or an excessive use - which is less common) is also suggestive of insincerity and does not build/destroys rapport.

When speaking in general, particularly in such a high office on such an important matter, steering clear of verbal clich├ęs adds to sincerity - while their use is both a sign of, and engenders feelings of insincerity and anxiety. Barack Obama spoke the sorely overused phrase, "... at the end of the day ..." twice in this short clip (even once would have been disingenuous). This is one downfall of going script-less. Ouch.

While Mitt Romney did read, essentially word for word from a script, overall his words had more of sincere tone. He sounded more compassionate. The very fact he was reading though, detracts from the sincerity quality of his tone. He could improve this incredibly important and all too often under-nuanced paralanguage characteristic of tone-emotion-appropriate usage.

President Obama often has a tone, cadence, rhythm that has a good bit of "Verbal Swagger", and while this may make him feel more powerful and solidify his political base, it is not necessarily the best tactic to use to gain the allegiance of the independent voter in all contexts. It can be heard at various times throughout this segment. When it comes to a memorial/eulogy/tragedy - this verbal quality is abhorrently wrong - for it has a braggadocio and egocentric feel, rather than projecting feelings of sympathy, empathy and compassion. Very wrong.

The nose rub displayed by Obama at the 2:54 mark, is a relatively rare faux pas for him, and suggests strongly that he has anxiety about his statement and does not believe his own words.

Another tactic which would have helped both of these leaders, is either a plexiglass lectern or one with a thin, central support beam would have been far superior (see also: Analysis # 903: The More I See of You - Plexiglass Podium/Lectern). The use of solid-faced lecterns should be avoided. The less we see of a person, the less we trust them, believe them or emotionally connect with them. The opposite is true as well. While such a tactic is true for any speech - political or otherwise - it would particularly wise here.

People want to feel the emotions of their leaders, particularly after such tragedy. When one's verbal, paralanguage and nonverbals are congruent, sincerity and empathy are strong. Without sincerity and empathy there is no connection. Here they are both weak. Obama gets a C- and Romney perhaps a C+ here.

See also:

Analysis # 1855: Sincere Kisses & Closed Eyes

Analysis # 771: Ann's and Mitt's Affectionate Hug

Analysis # 882: President Obama's Stand on Same-Sex Marriage - Is he Sincere?

Analysis # 2046: Romney, Sincerity, Truth and Bain Capital