Penguin Waddling, Fig Leaves and Hip Thrusts: Nonverbal Rules for Press Conferences

Penguin Waddling, Fig Leaves and Hip Thrusts: Nonverbal Rules for Press Conferences

Nonverbal communication – the “tells” (to borrow a poker term) we send when we communicate – provide a ton of information to those on the receiving end of our messages. Nonverbal cues are a key component of persuasive appeals, and when I talk about persuasion, I mean a precise type of communication intended to get others into agreement with your attitudes, beliefs or behaviors. It’s worth talking about, especially in the context of on-camera interviewing.

Press Conference Nonverbals

In Chicago a few weeks ago, I keynoted the North American Race Management Program hosted by the race directors from the Los Angeles Marathon and the Chicago Marathon. Nearly 50 race directors from around the country attended and how did I repay them for inviting me to address their group? By talking about all kinds of nonverbal communication that takes place at post-event press conferences like nose picking, slouching, slumping and a number of distracting, often unflattering poses like leg spreading while seated on bar stools, to name a few. It was both embarrassingly funny and a bit exasperating as I showed picture after picture of press conferences where the worst of on-camera, nonverbal practices were on display.

Non verbal media interview behavior

non verbal media interview

non verbal media interview

Press conference participants are particularly vulnerable to the camera. Unlike one-on-one interviews where interpersonal nonverbal skills rule the interaction, press conference interviews take place on a dais, in the perceived safety of a bigger a group, physically distanced from reporters. It’s easy to let your guard down in this circumstance, but, spokespeople have to perform well in these unique situations. To help, here is my list of most important nonverbal rules for press conferences:

Eliminate Penguin Waddling

You can imagine what this looks like by visualizing a waddle of penguins, nudging around on the ice. They shift back and forth around each other until one who was in the middle of the waddles squeezes out to one side. Press conference organizers often put a group of potential spokespeople up on a small stage behind a clutch of microphones, and then when a new speaker is called forward, the waddle has to shuffle around to let the person come forward to address a question. It’s pretty common, but it’s also pretty clunky looking. Solve this by seating your spokespeople in the front row of chairs facing the stage, then calling them up one-by-one. The added bonus is that the time it takes to move into position, gives the next spokesperson a little bit of time to think through the best messaging for the remarks to come.

No Fig Leaves a Hip Thrusts

The fig leaf pose is when a person clasps their hands together and lets them hang below the belt line. The nonverbal signal is “I’m afraid,” or “I want to hide.” It’s a low-power position; the pose makes a person look visually smaller and steals energy from their presentation. By contrast, a hands behind the back pose (I remember this being called parade rest from my days in the military), thrusts the hips out toward a camera. You might see Britain’s royal family employing this pose regularly. They can pull it off, but generally, holding ones hands like they’re tied behind your back is a sign of anxiety.

Pose Like Tony

Strike a confident stance: by placing one foot slightly in front of another as if you’re taking a step toward the camera, with hands in the strike zone, unclasped, rolling around a bit – nice and loose. Think of this as your Saturday Night Fever disco pose. If that visualization has you shooting your arm into the air like John Travolta’s Tony Manero character, then think of something else!

The key idea here is to take up space. This is especially important for female spokespeople who may have a natural tendency to shrink a bit in front of an audience. Check out Amy Cuddy’s terrific TED Talk on the subject of power posing. This is a smart exercise to do before entering a room for an interview as the posing helps stimulate the body and brighten your presence.


Smizing is a word made up by supermodel Tyra Banks on the thirteenth episode of America’s Top Model. Not that I watch that show, (orrrrr…. maybe I do), but I understand (from others) that smizing is shorthand for smiling with your eyes by scrunching them up just a tad.It’s not a squint, so be sure not to over-do this with a big toothy grin. Keep it real.

Fit Your Face

Conventional wisdom on the topic of expression tends to affirm the presence of seven basic emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness and surprise. More recent research collapses this to four super-basic emotions: happy, sad, afraid/surprised, and angry/disgusted. Academics often talk about the importance of facial expressions in the context of these emotions using the term, “regulatory-fit.” The gist of the concept is that when viewers experience regulatory fit – when a communicator’s facial expressions match up to a message – viewers tend to perceive the message as being more persuasive and respond more readily to the persuasive recommendation. Regulatory-fit theory is cool because it provides a structure within which precise predictions about when, and for whom, a nonverbal cue will affect persuasion and through it, we understand that like gesturing, facial expression is key to making a persuasive case.

“Steady heady”

Usually, we use head nodding as a way to convey respect and understanding. On camera, however, head nodding can be mistaken for agreement when the questions are negative. This sounds weird, but do your best to listen with your eyes to avoid inappropriate head nodding.

Pacing, pausing, volume, inflection, pitch and articulation – also called para-language – all control the emotional meaning, attitude and persuasiveness in an interview; even in print interviews. Taking a few moments to be conscious of these subconscious conveyors can help you deliver the goods, especially in difficult interview situations.