Turn those Red Lights Green

L face

It was the last night of his tour, and the bells rang 12:00. The house was packed, so he kept talking, trying to cram everything he’d learned into this one meeting. Crash! Everyone jumped, and those at the door ran outside.

“He’s dead!”


“That guy—Eutychus—he fell asleep and tumbled out the window.”


Unless you are the apostle Paul and can pray your audience back to life, it’s dangerous as a speaker to let your listeners fall asleep. When you’re excited about what you have to share, or when you’re nervous and just trying to remember all the words, you might miss some clues as to how your audience is feeling. Fortunately, researchers have pinpointed a few consistent signals people give, that work like traffic lights to direct an attentive speaker to success. A skilled speaker can even learn how to turn a red light green. Let’s talk about three fairly common signals and how to turn them around.

You’ve probably heard that when a woman’s arms are locked, so is her mind. Crossing the arms is a sign that your listener is not with you. They could be bored, anxious, self-conscious, defensive or even hostile–but they are not absorbing the great news you are sharing. Set your phone down and do this with me: Make a gate by crossing your arms. Now turn your palms upwards and swing open the gate. Swing it wide to the side. Now roll your shoulders, 1, 2, 3. Let your hands float down to your sides. You can engage your audience in the same way. Get people in motion, focusing on this moment, and then you can use that focus to move forward. Another way to open those locked gates is to give them something to hold. If you’re a sales person, handing out a brochure might work. If you lead a small group, bounce a foam ball around the circle. I saw a speaker once who handed out little red clown noses to get us into the action, and I gave out little bottles of wedding bubbles when I spoke in Guatemala. The very anticipation that came with holding the bottles brought smiles out in waves.

bubbles in guatemala
The ladies in Guatemala having fun during our session.

Next are the lip-covering moves: If you see a listener is leaning on her elbow, with a finger curled over her lip, her thumb under her chin, and her index finger up the side of her cheek, she is practically speaking sign language. This look is shaped like an L for Loser because that’s what she’s thinking. If a listener is smoothing his mustache or covering his lips with his hand, his brain is likely sensing untruth or incomplete truth. Perhaps he doubts your veracity or has unanswered questions. Take an open stance, palms forward. That generates trust and is even believed to encourage truth-telling in the speaker. Stop and ask for questions, or reword your speech a little, changing your points to questions and answers.

What about those uncovered lips? Where you’re from can really affect your ability to read a smile. Up North, if you smile too much, people wonder what you’re up to. Down South, if you’re not smiling, people ask what’s wrong. In some cultures, people will smile and even say “Yes,” when they disagree with you. They are just politely giving you the OK to continue speaking. In general, women smile more than men. A smile can be used not just to indicate happiness, but also to encourage others, hide pain and attract smiles from others. The bottom line about smiles is that while you can’t always trust them to convey your audience’s feelings, you can use them yourself. A warm, sincere smile can inspire good feelings in your audience. Add a dash of humility and some eye contact for a real home run.

Speaking of eye contact—if your audience’s eyes are closing, try getting them to repeat a key word or phrase aloud. And then repeat the phrase that will motivate every person in the room: “Thank you and good night!”

If you’d like to work on your own body language or learn to interact with your audience better, check out your local Toastmasters group. It’s an awesome place to network, to experiment with techniques and to learn from nonjudgmental, experienced speakers and entrepreneurs.

Thanks, God, for giving us some relatively universal clues that help us understand others and interact more effectively. Help us this week to withhold judgment, promote acceptance and communicate Your love to those You bring us.

If you’re headed to work and need something to keep you awake, listen to this cheery song. I have it set as my final alarm each morning.

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