The first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1960 revealed an important insight into the criticality of non-verbal communication. People who watched the debate on television thought Kennedy won the debate decisively. People who heard the debate on the radio, by contrast, thought Nixon won—by an even wider margin.
In all acts of persuasion, style trumps substance. By style I mean charm, wit, and especially kindness. I do not mean to say that style is more important than substance, but that all other things being equal, style takes the trick. If two sellers are offering the same product with equal capabilities and equally good service at the same price, buyers will opt for the salesperson that they like, the one who makes them feel more comfortable, more understood.
It is proverbial that people buy from people they trust. The tipping point in a sale is often no more than a visceral response to another human. The emotional impact one person has on another is driven not so much by what they say (substance) but how they say it (style).
Words, for the most part, are under our conscious control. We try to select our words carefully; we moderate our phraseology. From an early age we are taught to self-edit. Not so with our body language. Most of us are only vaguely aware of the emotional power of nonverbal communication. We note how people make us feel, but we don’t always wonder why. We weren’t taught to. Consequently, our own body language remains unconscious and therefore unedited, uncontrolled, involuntary.
Left to chance, the majority of what we are communicating to our audience may not be what we hope (or intend) to communicate at all. We too often unconsciously broadcast our current, emotional condition. An intellectually perfect argument, for example, if presented by someone who lacks confidence, will likely fail.
Fortunately, while it is a sensitive and personal area, managers can impact style. And they should. Managers need to help salespeople cultivate habits of positive and effective human interactive behaviors, both verbal and non-verbal. There is a valuable body of literature on the subject precisely because it matters. And human interactive behavior is a skillset that can be learned, but only if we are aware of the fact. Absent direct conscious oversight, our brains act on autopilot.
The psychiatrist Carl Jung is widely quoted as having said: “Until we bring the unconscious to the conscious level, it will control our lives, and we will call it fate.”
Managers need to help salespeople recognize their behaviors and redirect them. It’s not easy (because demeanor, appearance, and mannerisms are highly personal and therefore rather sensitive topics), but it is important. Ride-alongs, role-plays, and game film provide excellent opportunities for managers to offer feedback to salespeople on how they are coming across, and why. Video and audio recordings especially can help people see themselves as others do. They tend to self-correct.
Style is based on a person’s
- Personal presence
- Vocal persona
- Interpersonal communications skills
Note: Not unlike actors, salespeople need good stage direction.