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This article is written by Jeff Baird, a Certified Body Language Trainer through the Science of People and founder of Arise from the Dust, a mentoring service to help people overcome obstacles and conquer their goals. You can follow Jeff on Facebook here and Twitter here

Politics & Body Language

The first televised presidential debate between Nixon & Kennedy in 1960 was an important turning point in politics. People that listened to the debate on the radio thought that Nixon had won the debate, while those that watched it on television thought that Kennedy had won. Why the discrepancy? Politicians since then have realized that the reason has A LOT to do with their body language.

nixon kennedy

Now, politicians spend untold amounts of time and money to get their nonverbal message just right. You can see the deliberate use of hand gestures, facial expressions and body language as politicians speak and see where they’ve been coached. What’s even more fun is when their emotions get the better of them and their feelings leak out in nonverbal cues. Without picking a winner based on policy, principle or experience, let’s look at some of the body language from the republican presidential race and see what we can see. There’s plenty of things to see, but here are just a few.


There are a couple of things that politicians want to convey, and will try to with their body language. They want to come across as competent, but also warm to find that charismatic balance that people like and can trust. One effective way they do this is with their hands. Often you’ll see politicians start out with a palms up approach. This is a more open and warm way of communicating.

Allan Pease has studied and taught body language for decades. In his research when asking groups or individuals to do something, they can get 84% compliance if they ask with palms up. The invitees also had nicer adjectives to describe the person and could remember more of what was said. Compliance rate drops to 52% when the palms are switched to downward position. And when asked with a finger point, it drops further into the 20s. These 2 ways of orienting their hands also led to negative adjectives and remembering less. For a politician to come out of the gate showing warmth, openness and trust palms out helps to do that.

republican debate

republican debate

However, they need to show they are serious on certain issues so you’ll see this kind of gesture over and over. A kind of soft handed fist with the finger pointing down. They do this to show they really mean what they are saying. This is preferable to a fist, which might show as too angry and aggressive.

republican debate

republican debate

Sometimes on purpose, other times when their emotions leak out, you’ll see the palm go down to say sit down, stop or back up.

republican debate

republican debate

republican debate

This photo shows similar hand gestures from Hilary Clinton:

hilary clinton

Then when things get really heated, the pointer finger comes out, as in this exchange between Christy and Paul. Remember that Allan Pease found that this was the gesture that gets the least compliance from groups, had the most negative descriptions about the person, and led to the least retention on what was said. What’s your dominant hand orientation when speaking and inviting? And is it conveying what you want?

republican debate

Hidden Emotions

Microexpressions are involuntary, brief expressions that leak out from an emotion. They can give you a clue into what the person is feeling, even if they aren’t saying it. Rand Paul can be seen throughout the last two debates with an expression of contempt or superiority. Particularly when he’s getting into it with one of the other candidates.

republican debate

In talking about a comment Trump had made about Carly Fiorina’s looks and what she thinks of his persona, you see a clear expression of disgust.

republican debate

Another sign of anger that comes out sometimes is a chin jut. Like this video of Muhammad Ali.

chin jut

We can see a chin jut from Kasich during a heated interchange with Christy.

republican debate

Just the beginning

This is just scratching the surface. Join the conversation on Twitter and let us know what you see. We have a long ways to go until the primary and the general election. It’s a great opportunity to watch and learn how to spot nonverbal cues, and to learn how to present yourself better.

This article is written by Jeff Baird, a Certified Body Language Trainer through the Science of People and founder of Arise from the Dust, a mentoring service to help people overcome obstacles and conquer their goals. You can follow Jeff on Facebook here and Twitter here

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