Oh, you thought it was about what they said? Whether you realize it or not, as you sat on your couch listening to the State of the Union and GOP responses, you probably made up your mind based on how they said it. Or so we're told by the professionals who analyze the mysterious arts of the "nonverbals" - body language, vocal tone, all the subtleties that convey sincerity - in politics. We got two of our regular teams to watch for us - Democratic coaching/consulting firm KNP Communications; and a pair of academics, Karen Bradley (University of Maryland) and Karen Studds (George Mason), both Laban movement analysts - and describe the highs and lows.
The scholars of body language are typically impressed with him and found him stronger than usual Tuesday. POTUS was "projecting a lot of strength," say the KNP team, using a staccato rhythm and an emphatic finger point to underscore lines like his warning to al-Qaeda that "we will not relent, we will not waver, and we will defeat you." A subtler, actorly touch: the way he lowered his voice to just above a whisper for his triumph-of-the-American-spirit moment ("We do big things!"). Said KNP, "It created a sense of intimacy." Big improvement: Obama's tendency to hold his chin high can make it seem like he's looking down his nose - but he did it the right way at SOTU, while talking about the American dream ("We believe in the same promise that says you can make it if you try"), which conveyed a pride shared with the rest of the country.
A big step up onto a national stage for the Wisconsin Republican, and the Bradley-Studds team was unimpressed by the way his head bobbed around while his body seemed frozen. Why does that matter? Because it's natural to move when you talk, and Ryan appeared to have "lost all connection to what he was saying," the academics said. KNP nicked him for keeping his eyebrows raised through most of his speech - conveying an exaggerated alarm - but praised him for conveying warmth through a natural smile and steady gaze: "The only one of the night's speakers to make eye contact."
Ah, yes, eye contact. Much buzz about why the tea party favorite from Minnesota was gazing just left of center; her office did not return an e-mail, but many assume her teleprompter was misaligned. Unfortunate, say the KNP folks, because "looking directly at your audience increases your emotional impact substantially." Otherwise, say Bradley-Studds, she's not bad. Her body language supports her verbal message - gathering-up gestures, firm fists, when needed. But they're not fond of the seemingly rehearsed smiles.