Much has been said about Joe Biden’s constant smiling and other gestures he made in the Vice Presidential Debate on Thursday evening. It’s very possible that in my house, which is located five miles from Joe’s (and that’s what people call him here in Wilmington – Joe) the reactions were even more pronounced. I had a debate party with eight of my neighbors who have all known him for years. They have witnessed firsthand his tendency to misspeak. Some were confident he would deliver and others were a bit wary – preparing themselves for a possible misstep. Scant wonder that they all started yelling at the TV ten minutes in when the camera showed Joe smiling and laughing silently while Paul Ryan was speaking. They kept saying, “Stop! Don’t do that! Don’t ruin it!”
Nonverbal communication is an essential part of every speaker’s repertoire – and we either handle it well and make a positive impression, or we swing and miss, leaving the audience with any number of negative reactions. Body language experts Allan and Barbara Pease suggest that our nonverbals account for at least 60% of a speaker’s impact on an audience. UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian has found in his research that the visual aspects of a speaker’s delivery account for 55%.
The main reason why these numbers are so high, and why words and voice matter less in the grand scheme of communication, is because of something called mirroring. Researchers have found that the human brain is capable of experiencing the same emotion that is being transmitted by another. In short, we can empathize. Did you ever yawn after seeing someone else yawn? That’s what we’re talking about. Therefore, if your nonverbals are conveying something different than your words, then the audience will feel the dissonance and leave with an overall negative impression.
So the question is, did Joe Biden’s nonverbals help or hurt him in the debate? Reactions seem to fall along party lines. Democrats think that he should have laughed since Ryan was constantly dodging the question being asked. Republicans think that Joe’s “antics” were insulting to Ryan who was himself a respectful debater.
I think the best analysis of the night came from John Heilemann, author of Game Change, who tweeted: Biden = Bentsen on crystal meth. No gestures are needed to understand that message.