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How to use body language to create engagement

How to use body language to create engagement



Body language is defined as ‘the conscious and unconscious movements and postures by which attitudes and feelings are communicated’.

When we talk about body language we’re talking about a wide range of human expression – such as posture, eye contact, use of space, voice, gesture, and so on.

And these are signals that communicate with us nonverbally, they are ‘wordless signals’ that can be indicators of engagement.

These signals are quite often done instinctively, rather than consciously too.

Being both aware of and able to read these signals helps us to create connections and build rapport with our groups and thus to create engaged groups.

So during this episode think about what signals you are sending to your group through your body language. Are you putting people at ease, building trust and connecting people to you by your body language? Or does your body language undermine what you’re saying or doing in the museum?

And also, how can you use body language to better read your group and build more engagement?



By improving how you understand and use body language can help you to connect better with others.   Being able to understand and use body language will help you to see how engaged your group are, whether they are enjoying the programme, following along or even whether they are listening – and all of this is so important for engagement.  It can help you to:

  • Understand how participants might be feeling relative to what they are saying (or not saying)
  • We can therefore better meet them where they are. It allows us to adjust in real time to address any issues or concerns
  • It can help you to capitalise on things that are going well (and do more of them) and to change course if things aren’t going well
  • The more we know about what our group might be feeling, the better we can personalise experiences to what the group needs at that moment

We should be training ourselves to be better observers of not just objects and artworks, but also of people, our participants. Without observing our groups, we miss seeing the bigger picture – and we might be missing out on building rapport, relating to them or assuming something that isn’t true – such as ‘this is going well’ when in actual fact it isn’t. Nonverbal communication is extremely important in the work that we do because it creates impressions amongst your participants.  And as it says in the book “Listen Like you Mean it by Ximena Vengoechea, Learning to read these signals or indicatorscan build our emotional intelligence’ and in turn ‘our capacity to listen and respond with empathy’. 


Before we start, a word of warning. Try not to make assumptions about body language. Try to see it as a possible indicator or signal rather than a given. Body language can have many meanings across cultures, for example arms crossed in front of your chest may suggest that you’re feeling fed up or defensive but it could also be a comfy way to hold your arms when you’re standing up (I know I do this). A given behaviour doesn’t always mean one thing. Body language is complex and can depend on context too. Look at body language in combination with what people are saying – as usually they are saying the same thing. There is a lot of information that we can get from non-verbal communication, but we do need to be cautious about making assumptions, jumping to conclusions that confirm our preconceptions. So let’s dive into some body language areas and see what insights they might tell us.


Faces can be very expressive at showing what we are thinking – some of us are easier to read than others. Micro-expressions like quick smiles, raised eyebrows or small frowns can be telling. Some people will wear all their emotions on their face whilst others will be much harder to read. It’s widely agreed that facial expressions of emotions are universal – so, for example you’ll recognise the main types of emotion – happy, sad, angry – in someone else’s face. Making eye contact with someone can mean you are engaged in what is happening, curious and open. Beware of too much eye contact as everyone has their own personal limits of how much is too much. A lack of eye contact could mean that someone is disengaged or distracted by what is around them. It’s very natural not to have eye contact all the time, but if someone is avoiding it, it could indicate that you need to do more work to engage and connect with them.


Pay attention to what hands are doing when you are scanning your group. Busy or fidgeting hands may indicate feeling uncomfortable or that they are thinking about something else. They could also be a tic or a habit – so do what Ximena Vengoechea does and look for predictable patterns which occur when discussing a particular topic, scenario. It could be also depending on who they are with.  If you see any body signs of feeling uncomfortable – twirling hair, reaching for the neck, playing with a necklace – you might want to think about doing a pair-share or using small groups until the group feel more comfortable sharing. Better to be cautious than to just forge ahead regardless.  Careful and consistent observation will give you information and this information will help you to navigate the group. 


This is also called limbic synchrony, but mirroring is definitely easier to say.  Mirroring is something we do with people we like or are interested in- we copy their body language, speech, facial expression and more.  It sends a signal that we are connected to that person in some way. It’s actually a subconscious process – the next time you are out and about in the museum, observe and notice people – who is mimicking who? Look at people talking, are their gestures and posture similar?  Can you figure out who’s mirroring who?  You’ll see that a lot more of this goes on than we realise! We can build rapport – that is trust and understanding – through body language, facial expressions and gestures. When there is mirroring, we know that there is rapport in the group. So, the next time you are with a group, notice whether anyone is mirroring others. This gives you an indicator of whether rapport is there or not. This may mean that you need to work a bit harder to build connections in the group.  Secondly, use mirroring consciously to create rapport. When you mirror others, you create an empathetic bond that signals a connection. When someone is talking in your group, notice how the other person is and meet them there – get into physical rapport with them (ie stand as they are standing) and match your voice tone as you reply to them. You can also maintain eye contact and share gestures. 


Posture is all about how we hold our bodies. It can relay info about how someone is feeling, as well as possible hints about their personality.  Scan the group and notice how they are standing. Are they facing you? Is their stance open and upright?  Or are they slouching? Slouching doesn’t mean automatically that someone is disengaged but it could mean they are uncomfortable. Has there been a lot of standing so far? Maybe look for an opportunity to sit down or to change the way you work from a large group to small groups to give the group an opportunity for variety.  Is anyone leaning in or inching towards you?  These might be signs of engagement and that this person is actively enjoying your company.  Observe how much space a person is taking up in the room. Remember Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk that included the Power Pose? This is the body pose for when you want to feel calm and in control before a big event. These types of open body positions help you take up space and send signals to the brain that you’re feeling confident. An open body position will signal to your group that you’re in control too. 


Proxemics is the study of human use of space, how we use space and how differences in that use can make us feel relaxed or anxious people adjust their physical distance from one another according to the degree of attraction or tension they feel. Obviously, friends stand closer than strangers and when you like someone you are inclined to approach that person more closely. In a group, you will want to watch the ways that participants stand and position themselves. Watch not only for where people choose to stand, and how close they sit to one another, but also notice the body positioning and other signals. This could give you an indication of whether your group are engaged and whether they are connected, whether they have rapport. 


A final thought, be aware that your observations and perceptions can lead you astray. And your emotions can come into play too. Think of a variety of possible reasons why people might be behaving in this way. Participants could be bringing all sorts of emotional states into the museum with them and it’s not necessarily as a result of what you’re doing. Keep an eye out for positive signals and focus on those.  And bear in mind that things like body language are not an exact science. The key thing is here is to pay close attention and notice what is going on, and be open to a variety of possible reasons.  


If you want to get more slow looking into your life and make it a regular practice, join us in the Slow Looking Club. We have weekly themes and monthly get togethers. It’s a place for conversation and discussion about engaging with art, objects and life slowly whether for personal enjoyment or for your practice as a cultural or museum educator.