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Between the Lines: What Politicians are Selling You through their Body Language - The LAMP

Between the Lines: What Politicians are Selling You through their Body Language

By March 6, 2012 News No Comments

Obama uses downward hand gestures to give weight and authority to his words, while exposing his wrists makes him seem more honest (Photo: bvonmoney.com).

Last week we took a look at how candidates running for political office use color psychology and clothing choices to influence their image and how they market themselves to the public in order to win votes. Today we’ll continue with a brief look at how body language and gestures can also be effective marketing tools.

Please note that like color psychology, body language is an extensive and fascinating field of study. In order to really become adept at reading body language, one must examine multiple signals being given at the same time and cannot rely on interpreting just one gesture alone. Click here for a thorough introduction to body language and in depth charts of various gestures.

All disclaimers aside, it is a fact that most politicians are advised by their handlers on how to hold or not hold their hands while speaking, to make sure to make direct eye contact with audience members, and never to point fingers or cross their arms. Here are a few things you can look out for the next time you see a candidate making a speech or are considering doing a little public speaking of your own:

Hands out, palms up

Showing one’s palms and wrists exposes the vulnerable wrist area and is an almost universal signal for, “I’m telling the truth” and “trust me.”

Symmetrical Gestures

These gestures involve usually both hands and often draw attention to the mouth. They are highly effective for public speakers and help convey confidence and authority.

Crossed Arms

The candidate is having negative thoughts, is bored, or disagrees with something. Candidates are advised against doing this because they may come off as angry or guarded.

Playing with a pen or fondling a ring or other item

This is also a no-no on the campaign trail because it shows that a person is feeling awkward or insecure. Slightly more acceptable would be jotting down notes during a debate or holding a cup of water.

Holding any object in front of the body or draping one arm across body

The object or arm forms a barrier to protect the person who is feeling awkward or unsure. Many politicians and public speakers are advised not to do this so as to appear more confident.

Hand(s) on Heart

They deeply want you to believe them.

Finger Pointing

A big no-no for all public speakers. This comes off as dictatorial, confrontational, and arrogant. However if it is accompanied by a wink, it is an acknowledgment gesture and the meaning changes entirely.

Gesturing downward versus in an upward motion


Barack Obama uses lots of downward hand gestures. This makes his words seem more authoritative and literally plants them into the ground. Upward hand gestures have less impact and convey a sense of ideas being thrown away into the air.

Feet pointing in a particular direction

If the speaker is addressing someone who has just asked a question but his feet are pointing towards the nearest exit, then that is often where they secretly wish to be.

Be Happy, Dammit!

Americans overwhelmingly vote for the more positive candidate time and time again. Look for lots of smiling, handshaking, and good old-fashioned baby kissing. Huffing and puffing, sour expressions, and excessive displays of anger are a major turn-off for voters. Learn more about this interesting phenomena here.

What other signals can you look out for during this election cycle? Take a look at some candidates in action here:

–Kristen Palana

Kristen Palana is a Professor of Digital Media at The American University of Rome. Visit her online at kpalana.com.