The Power of Body Language in Acting

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Albert Mehrabian is famous for his research on verbal and nonverbal cues, namely his findings known as the 7%-38%-55% rule. As a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA, his research suggests that, generally speaking, body language accounts for a whopping 55 percent for the overall information transmitted during interpersonal interactions. Tone of voice is attributed to 38 percent of the message. And astoundingly, the literal words spoken account only for 7 percent of the message conveyed as we converse. This knowledge can inform both a person’s personal and professional interactions. But the unspoken forms of communication can clearly amount to a treasure trove for actors.

Actors work long and hard to memorize their lines, and for each of those words, their character is experiencing a physiological reaction. Certain dialogue brings about stress within the character’s body, while other parts of the script allow for moments of relaxation. Physical expressions give clues about a person’s thoughts, emotions and desires, as well as levels of confidence, comfort, and forthrightness. When preparing for a role, actors consider many details, such as how to hold their posture, effectively use their eyes, move across the room with purpose, and gesture with their hands, to name a few. The options of physical expression are truly limitless. But the more subtle the body language, the more refined the acting performance.

Joe Navarro, former FBI agent and body language expert, puts it this way, “It really is looking at an individual and saying, ‘What are they transmitting?’ We’re all transmitting at all times. We choose the clothes that we wear, how we groom ourselves, but also: How do we carry ourselves? Are we coming to the office on this particular day with a lot of energy? Or are we coming in with a different sort of pace?”

Here are a few ways we use body language, whether we’re conscious of it or not.

1. Eyes

Eyes have an enormous impact on what we communicate. How much eye contact do we give while speaking and listening? When eye contact is too intense, it can intimidate the listener to various degrees. When performing for the screen, actor Sir Michael Caine His gaze focuses on one of his scene partner’s eyes to convey strength, rather than shifting his gaze from eye to eye. He insists, “Two of the worst things to do is to change which eye you’re looking at, and the other is to keep blinking. If I keep blinking, it weakens me. But if I’m talking to you and I don’t blink, and I just keep going and I don’t blink, and I keep on going and I don’t blink, you start to listen to what I’m saying. And it makes me a very strong person,” he says.

2. Posture

If your character is confident, an erect stance demonstrates a more assured presence. Good posture allows the chest to open up fully, enables one to breathe more deeply, and have greater command of the voice. In other words, posture conveys quite a lot. On the other hand, if your character is distraught, slouching is in order with more shallow breathing and a weakened voice.

3. Arms

Arms give clues as to how open and receptive we are to others. Generally speaking, visual learners are more likely to move their arms while speaking, whereas auditory and kinesthetic learners tend to move their arms less while conversing. The arms akimbo pose (hands on waist, elbows out) is an example of a power pose. A pose that conveys confidence while sitting is by placing your elbows on the table and then positioning them wide apart while steeping your hands (fingertips from both hands touching).

4. Hands

Whether you’re conveying a character as an actor or gesturing in your personal life, your hands are always busy communicating. Allan Pease, globally known as “Mr. Body Language,” speaks about the power we hold in the palm of our hands as we seek to communicate with others, to motivate them and win them over. He demonstrates how much information can be exchanged in a simple handshake; It’s significant because this introductory interaction has the potential to influence your feelings about the other person—namely, how dominant, equal, or subordinate you feel to them—right off the bat. Pease also explains how keeping your palms turned upward while giving instruction results in a largely receptive response from others, whereas giving the same instruction with palms turned downward—or worse yet pointing—triggers a more resistant response.

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