August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

The Business of Nonverbal Communication: How Signals Reflect Your Brand

Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words, they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character, it becomes your destiny


This M.I. T study on nonverbal communication has a lot to teach about business. So much that, as the article says, “We ignore these ancient signals at our own peril.” Whether we realize it or not, everything we do or don’t do is freighted with nonverbal signals that others are straining to decipher. Whether consciously or unconsciously, experience teaches us all that verbal communication is just as likely to conceal as it is to reveal. Information is infinite and time is very finite. We are all looking for little poker “tells” that will give us an accurate appraisal of another’s character and motivations in the shortest amount of time. A first date is a great example. Both parties strive to be “at their best” while simultaneously looking for the “tells” that determine whether a second date makes sense.

Throughout my career I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. I realized long ago that making a successful hire means successfully reading the unspoken tea leaves of the person being interviewed and successfully managing my own.

For example, not only is the content of a question important but the order in which it is asked. Ordering signals priority, and while a question concerning retirement benefits is perfectly appropriate, a person whose first question is about retirement is probably signaling a security bias as well.

To be fair, perhaps in this example this person is actually not risk adverse but only inadvertently sending a “wrong” or “mixed” signal. But even here there is a signal to be read: the signal of a person who is not very good at managing signals. And a person who is not aware of the signals he is sending may also be signaling shallow thinking or deficient people skills.

Managing our own signals is not necessarily manipulative or inauthentic. As a salesman, my first questions were always about company goals and commissions because I was hoping my prospective employer would accurately “pick up” my signal that I was a team and goal oriented individual.

Managing our nonverbal signals is just an extension of Thoreau’s advice that we should learn to live “deliberately.” Living consciously and deliberately is akin to a company managing its brand, and whether we realize it or not, we are all in the brand building business. There is nothing more important to a company than its brand, and there is nothing more important to our lives—whether personally or professionally –than our personal brand. Whether its products or people, life is little more than a sorting process: we are constantly looking for brands and people we can trust, and there is a tremendous premium in being able to make these decisions accurately without having to do tons of time consuming research.

I remember an article in the Wall Street Journal about the man who turned around the New York subway system. He inherited every conceivable problem that a system in crisis could provide, but the first thing he did was eradicate graffiti from the subway cars. Every time a car came to the end of the line it was repainted and sent back out. Eventually the graffiti artists gave up.

Where some might see a man with his priorities out of whack, I saw pure genius. By eliminating graffiti he was signaling to his employees and customers that things actually were going to change. His victory over graffiti created confidence, lifted employee morale, and built the political capital that made a real structural overhaul possible. As someone who lived in New York in the early 80s and visited recently, the transformation is still wonderful to behold.

As a contrary example, I once inadvertently started a false rumor that company-wide layoffs were looming. Alarmed, I finally tracked down its source. It seems the president and I always met with the door open. So when on one occasion we did close the door, the employees jumped to the conclusion that it meant something serious… like layoffs. After a considerable waste of time I eventually stemmed the tide before resumes flew, but I learned from this incident that a kingdom might very well be lost from something as innocuous as a closed door. Another time I found myself in a hole when I showed up at a Silicon Valley start-up wearing a suit and tie.

The medium is the message and perceptions do matter. When a man forgets his wedding anniversary the uncaring signal he sends is far more damaging and long lasting than a single incident might suggest. Not to mention that he is now out of pocket for twice the roses for significantly less than half the credit. And the same holds true when we forget that one of our people is up for a salary review.

People often lament that following Thoreau’s advice to live deliberately or a monk’s to live “mindfully” sounds like a lot of work. It is, but the amount of work pales to almost insignificance when compared to the alternative: rushing around like the Wicked Witch of the East, scattering signals to the wind, and wondering why houses keep dropping onto our heads.

Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook, or check out my Forbes blog for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.