8 Types of Nonverbal Communication and How to Use Them

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Photo Source: “The Last of Us” Credit: Liane Hentscher/HBO

Should nonverbal communication be studied and added to your emotion communication toolbox? The answer is an overwhelming yes.

What percentage of communication is nonverbal?

Nonverbal communication makes up anywhere from 65 to 95 percent of our communication. An audition requiring only a reaction from you brings it to 100 percent. Since we are in the communication business, it makes sense that all actors master this nonverbal language.

Why is nonverbal communication important?

It’s what you’re not saying within the silence that often speaks the loudest. A slight clamping and lifting of the corner of the lip can send a message of contempt or skepticism. The rate of blinking can suggest interest, hostility, or distress. Your scent, what you’re wearing, and your posture are all sending messages and are interpreted by casting. It’s this nonverbal information that differentiates the skilled actor from the unskilled or unprepared.

The nonverbal information we send out through our body, voice, face, and appearance is called “nonverbal behaviors.” Nonverbal behaviors spring from our attitudes, cultural upbringing, and are reactions to things we deem to be important to our well-being either in a positive or negative way.

The following is a quick overview of eight types of unspoken communication and behaviors that you can use as a checklist and reminder for your next audition.

Types of nonverbal communication

  1. Facial expressions. The majority of your nonverbal communication will come from your facial expressions. Some facial expressions are just random muscle movement without meaning and only serve to confuse the viewer. However, facial expressions associated with surprise, fear, happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, and contempt are universally recognized. Used appropriately, they inform the viewer what you are feeling at any given moment. Some facial reactions are also used for punctuating words or phrases, such as raising your eyebrows to comment on how big something really was.
  2. Gestures. Movements that express some kind of thought or process of thinking are called gestures. Some gestures occur with speech, such as using your fingers when counting out loud or perhaps to emphasize a word or phrase. Others, like pointing or waving, are recognizable without words. Gestures are expressed primarily with your hands, however, can occur in the head, body, or even your face. This may include nodding your head “yes,” a shoulder shrug implying that you “don’t know,” or a wink of the eye suggesting “game on.”
  3. Paralanguage. Vocal communication separate from the actual words you speak is referred to as paralinguistics. This includes tone of voice, volume, inflection, and pitch. It can also include yawns, laughs, grunts, and pauses. Consider the powerful effect your tone of voice can have on the meaning of a sentence. When said in a strong tone of voice, listeners might interpret approval and enthusiasm. The same words said in a hesitant tone might convey lack of interest or confidence.
  4. Body language. Unlike facial expressions, body language doesn’t tell us what emotion you’re feeling, but rather, how well you’re coping with the emotion felt. Things that we find frightening or distasteful, we tend to move away from. Heavy swallowing or licking your lips, touching your hair or sprawling out on a couch can be signs of stress, interest, or feelings of superiority.
  5. Personal space. The amount of distance we need and the amount of space we perceive as belonging to us is referred to as proxemics. The amount of space you or your character needs is influenced by a number of factors including social norms, situational factors, personality characteristics, and level of familiarity. Just a slight moving in towards your partner, reader, or the camera can enhance intimacy.
  6. Eyes. Looking, staring, and blinking, also known as eye gaze, is an important nonverbal cue. When people encounter people or things that they like, the rate of blinking increases and pupils dilate. On the other hand, when angered, the gaze gets harder and the blink rate will decrease or stop completely. An increase in the blink rate for no apparent reason sends a clear message that you are either not prepared, not connected, or experiencing high anxiety.
  7. Touch. Communicating through touch is known as haptics. It’s another important nonverbal behavioral cue to think about. Touch can be used to communicate a range of information and feelings such as affection, familiarity, sympathy, desire, etc.
  8. Appearance. The choice of color, clothing, hairstyles, and other factors affecting how you look fall under the category of appearance. Appearance can also alter physiological reactions, judgments, and interpretations. Just think of all the subtle judgments you quickly make about someone based on his or her appearance. The first impression you make in your audition is important and lasting.

It’s how you react to an event or situation—your attitude or behavior under certain circumstances—that makes your performance memorable. When chosen and layered appropriately into your audition, any one of these eight nonverbal behaviors can bring more depth, colors, and meaning to your actions, reactions, and the words you speak.

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

John Sudol is a bicoastal audition coach, speaker and founder of the Emotion Training Center. He is known to many actors around the world as the “go-to emotion specialist.” Sudol’s expertise is in emotional facial communication, he’s written two books on emotional communication: “Acting: Face to Face,” the actors guide to understanding how your face communicates emotion for TV and film, and “Acting: Face to Face 2,” how to create genuine emotion for the TV and film.

Visit www.languageoftheface.com for more information, and follow Sudol on Twitter @johnsudolstudio and Facebook. To schedule a free 20-minute consultation, email john@languageoftheface.com.

The views expressed in this article are solely that of the individual(s) providing them,
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

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John Sudol
John Sudol has been teaching acting for 25-plus years and is known to many actors across the country and around the world as the “Go-To Emotion Specialist.” He is the founder of the Emotion Training Center (ETC) and Center for the Language of the Face (LOF).
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