Ten seconds could set the atmosphere for a storyteller and an audience through body language. When audience members see the storyteller’s face and stance, then the stories can have more depth and meaning. Kent and Nancy Potter from The Bennion Group presented a workshop “Reading Body Language” as part of the Brigham Young University Storytelling Club meeting on March 22, 2007. With their permission, I have adapted my experiences with their remarks.
Disclaimer: Though certain facial expressions or gestures tend to mean certain things, everyone has what is called a “baseline” or normal behavior. The better you know someone, then the easier to tell if there are shifting styles. Interpretations are usually more accurate when focusing on these shifting/changing behaviors.
The Potters prefer to conduct the “Vertical Scan” that consists of looking from top of the head to the feet. This quick examination can provide hints to moods and manners through body position, clothes and colors chosen, eyes, head/face, voice tone, arms/hands, and legs/feet.
The Potters mentioned that when you say “feels like” or “seems to be like”, then you are most likely describing your impressions from someone else’s body language.
One of the most revealing areas for body language is found in the eyes. Kent claimed that the eyes are the only living tissues seen from the outside. Skin, fingernails, and hair are considered “dead”. A workshop participant smiled and said that she knew another living organ sometimes seen while telling stories: the tongue. Kent laughed and replied that usually seeing the tongue is a form of rudeness—or silliness.
Some people feel uncomfortable when someone wears sunglasses. Perhaps hiding “living tissue” is part of this discomfort. Rarely, does a storyteller wear sunglasses unless it is an outdoors venue and the direct sunlight is blinding the storyteller’s eyes. An audience should feel welcomed by the teller.
Often, a storyteller introduces one or more characters when telling the story. To help the audience distinguish one character from another, the storyteller could use certain glances. The Potters shared the following eye movements:
- Frequent Glancing Away = discomfort/deception
- Darting Directly to the Side = something is going on
- Closing Eyes After Another Speaks = difficult response will follow for possible defensiveness, embarrassment, or dishonesty
- Sharp Blink Increase = guilt, remorse (as eyes dry out)
A storyteller could also get an idea of what audience members are thinking by watching eye movements. Body language is always a two-way road.
Dilated pupils can reveal excitement while contracted pupils can show anger. A storyteller could portray dilating or contracting pupils for characters in the story for the same results.
Whether the storyteller or the audience, our eyes tend to shift directions depending on what words we hear. The right side of the storyteller/speaker is the creating side. Kent revealed that creating stories and lying use the same function and side of the brain. The left side of the storyteller/speaker is the remembering side as can be revealed when someone says, “I can remember when…”. If someone makes up what is “remembered”, then notice how that changes where the eyes go.
You can test these eye movements by conducting a normal conversation with someone or while watching a storyteller.
Perhaps this is a way to determine if a storyteller is making up parts of a story or whether a storyteller is remembering parts of a story. Please note that a storyteller may know these eye tricks, especially when telling a tall tale.
Many emotions can be communicated beyond use of the eyes. Enjoy some of these common gestures that the Potters shared at the workshop:
- Fake Smile = mouth stretches in smile but the cheeks and crinkles around the eyes stay stationary
- Tongue Stuck Out = unconscious disagreement, distaste
- Clenched or Pursed Lips = extensive disagreement, malevolence
- Raising One Side of Mouth/Lips = disdain, mockery
- Curled Bottom Lip = extreme anger
- Covering Mouth = attempt to hide what is on the mind, possible deception, embarrassment
- Finger/Pen/Glasses/Object in Front of Mouth = evaluative, pensive, not ready to talk yet
- Chin Jut = defiance
- Chin Tucked In = defensive
- Stroking Chin = evaluative or neutral
- Nose Rub = dislike, discomfort, or disagreement caused by what you’re hearing
Storytelling often is more alive without planned gestures and looks. However, it may be a good idea for a storyteller to videotape the performance and watch to see what gestures and expressions come naturally for characters.
When the audience uses eye or facial expressions, then the storyteller may be able to understand general moods of the audience. Dilated pupils of the audience members could mean that they are excited to hear the next part of the story. A thought-provoking story may encourage more stroking chins or fingers in front of the mouth.
If you are curious as to more possible meanings behind body positions, clothes and colors chosen, voice tone, arms/hands, and legs/feet, then contact Kent and Nancy Potter. You may email at email@example.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a workshop with them today.
Until we tell again,