presenting in a meeting

What is non-verbal communication?

By BBC Maestro

When it comes to giving a great speech, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it- in other words, you need to think about both verbal and non-verbal communication. 
The contents of your speech are important, of course, but the very best orators also use non-verbal communication to connect with their audiences.  
But what, exactly is non-verbal communication? Why is it important when delivering speeches? And how can you improve your non-verbal communication? Here’s everything you need to know. 

What is non-verbal communication?  

Non-verbal communication describes the way we convey information without using any words. That might sound similar to body language, but it’s not exactly the same.  
Body language focuses on the physical movements, postures and gestures, including things like pointing and waving, facial expressions and posture. 
Body language forms a significant part of non-verbal communication, but the two terms aren’t entirely synonymous, as it’s a much broader term that encompasses all forms of communication that don’t involve any spoken language.  
Non-verbal communication includes a wide range of different cues and signals including eye contact, tone of voice, facial expressions, body language, gestures and touch. 

Forms of non-verbal communication 

Non-verbal communication is a crucial component of human interaction – so much so, that you’re sending non-verbal cues all the time, probably without even realising it. Some of the key types of non-verbal communication include: 

Facial expressions 

You can convey a huge amount through your face, without ever having to open your mouth. Whether you’re smiling or frowning, a facial expression can set a certain tone, and provide context to what you’re saying.  
What’s more, there are no language barriers when it comes to reading a person’s face. After all, the facial expressions for emotions like happiness, sadness, anger and fear are the same across every culture. 


From waving to pointing, and from thumbs up to the ‘ok’ sign, gestures are naturally woven into our everyday communication. Some people ‘talk with their hands’ in a very animated way, while others use gestures in a more limited way – but most people do use gestures to some extent. There are, however, cultural differences when it comes to which gestures are socially acceptable, so it’s important to be mindful of this when communicating with people from outside your own culture. 

hand gesture


Slumping can indicate boredom, while standing with your shoulders back and head held high can convey confidence. We make snap judgements about other people, often factoring in things like posture and appearance, so it’s important to consider what impression you want to give and adjust your posture accordingly. 

Eye contact 

Eye contact – or a lack of – can indicate whether someone is interested or disinterested in a conversation. If you’re giving a speech and want your audience to stay engaged, one of the easiest things you can do is to maintain eye contact. 


From a pat on the back to a handshake or hug, physical contact can communicate warmth, support or affection – or it can indicate the opposite. 

Tone of voice 

The way we speak says just as much as the words we use. The tone, pitch, pace and volume of your voice are all important, as well as your inflection and whether you use filler words like ‘umm’ when you’re speaking.  


Have you ever felt uncomfortable because someone stood too close to you? That’s because it feels like they invaded your personal space. The physical space between people can signify many different things. It can be used as an act of aggression and dominance, or it can be a sign of affection and intimacy. 


As already mentioned, we do judge people very quickly, before they open their mouths, based solely on their appearance and body language – in fact, studies have shown that it takes just one tenth of a second for people to judge strangers based on their face. 

Body language 

You can say a lot through your body language. Crossed arms can signal that someone is disinterested or defensive, while mirroring someone else’s body language can put them at ease and send the signal that you’re in sync.  


Objects like jewellery, or props like slideshows and charts, are also a form of non-verbal communication. 

Why is non-verbal communication important when delivering a speech? 

Our non-verbal behaviours are often sub-conscious, but they convey a lot more than you might think – especially if your non-verbal messages, like facial expressions and eye contact, don’t match up with the words coming out of your mouth. 
If you want your audience to stay engaged, or if you’re trying to persuade them to do something, matching your non-verbal cues to your spoken words can help to reinforce your message. But if you’re trying to deliver an impactful message while looking bored with hunched shoulders and crossed arms, it can deliver confusing mixed messages to your audience. 
Non-verbal cues like gestures, body language and facial expressions, when they’re in sync with your spoken message, can reinforce and emphasise your key points. This can make your message more compelling, as well as giving you an air of confidence – both things that can help you to have more authority when delivering a speech. 
Your facial expressions and tone of voice can communicate your emotions and enthusiasm for the topic – and when these match your words, displaying genuine excitement, it can help to engage your audience. 
What’s more, using non-verbal cues like maintaining eye contact and smiling can help to build a connection with your audience, helping to quickly establish a rapport. 

How to improve your non-verbal cues 

Improving the way you communicate non-verbally can go a long way to helping you deliver more effective speeches and build a better relationship with your audience. Here are some quick tips for improving your non-verbal communication skills. 

Become aware of your own non-verbal messages 

Be conscious of what you’re saying through your body language and posture. Stand up straight with your shoulders relaxed, avoid crossing your arms, make contact with audience members, and don’t forget to smile.  
If you’re nervous or think you’ll have trouble remembering these things, you can write something simple like ‘smile!’ on a cue card to prompt you. 

Use video recordings 

When you’re practicing your speech, record yourself talking. Then, review the recordings to try to spot any non-verbal behaviours that could detract from your message or distract your audience – and practice your speech again, trying to eliminate these behaviours. 
When watching these videos, be on the lookout for nervous habits. Actions like fidgeting, pacing or playing with objects can be distracting for your audience, and may make you appear less confident. 

Vary your delivery 

Pay attention to your tone of voice. Vary your pitch, volume and pace to add depth to your speech, and use your tone of voice to convey excitement, seriousness or empathy in line with your message. 
You should also practise your pacing. Try to avoid speaking too quickly, which can make you seem nervous, or too slowly, which may lead to a disinterested audience. 

Use props and visual aids 

If you have a complex message, consider using visual aids like charts, slides and other props. These can help to clarify complex ideas and can keep your audience engaged, even when you’re talking about difficult subjects. 
Non-verbal cues can either amplify or undermine your message, making them a key part of public speaking. By improving your non-verbal communication, you can bridge the gap between your intended message and what’s understood by your audience – leading to a more engaging, impactful speech. 

Curious to learn more tips and tricks for improving your public speaking? Take a look at Richard Greene’s BBC Maestro course, Public Speaking and Communication. 

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