November 19, 2013 catherinetownsend

What Bill Clinton taught me about body language

My first assignment as a student journalist at NYU was to get a picture of something political, so I hid in a hotel bathroom stall for hours and impersonated a reporter from El Diario to get my shot of Bill Clinton. I recently had the opportunity to finally get a shot with him – and observe up close the charismatic aura that has been called a ‘reality distortion field’. I’m meant to be an impartial observer – yet he had no trouble getting the upper hand.  The man is a master of body language, and as an investigator there is a lot that I can learn from his ability to seduce in a split second.

1. Making eye contact 

The former President established eye contact immediately, and held my gaze for just a split second longer than normal. This had the effect of making me feel special, as if I was the only person in the room (which, due to the fact that I nicked a staff pass while pretending to go to the bathroom, for a few minutes I actually was!) The sensation was intimate, yet he never invaded my personal space.

To master the art of non-creepy eye contact, Tim Ferriss recommends practicing with strangers.

He advises not staring them down, but making them comfortable by stepping back or lowering your voice as you increase eye contact.  He also advises being more present during conversations instead of looking over your shoulder or checking emails.

Handshake - Clinton - Obama - Secret Service - Eyes White and Wide

2. Using the right amount of pressure 

Clinton’s grip was firm, but did not leave me feeling like I needed an X-ray afterwards. While flaccid fingers and a limp grip signal weakness, the vice grip beloved by CEOs in conference rooms can backfire as well by giving the impression that someone is trying too hard. In a social situation, a neutral handshake (both parties with palms to the side) is more appropriate.

Clinton’s handshake conveyed confidence, authority and charm with the perfect amount of pressure.

3. Going left 


Clinton appearing on my left probably wasn’t an accident. When two people shake hands for a photograph, people tend to view the person on the left as being more dominant, because when they turn to face the camera they have, literally, the ‘upper hand’.

This is demonstrated by Richard Nixon in a photo op with Elvis in 1970. Politicians actually spend a lot of time calculating how they will get into position – yet when it happens, it seems totally natural.

4. Double grip 

When we met, Clinton put one hand on top of mine and touched my upper arm in order to build what body language experts call an ‘anchor’. This allowed him to convey an immediate connection (this grip is popular with funeral directors for a reason), while at the same time establishing dominance.

He was smiling, but also subtly showing me who was boss. . . and it worked!

5. Knowing when to fold ’em 


Clinton may be the quintessential alpha male in photos with world leaders, but as a master statesman he also knows when to approach with an open palm. In the photo with Hurricane Katrina victims (taken above in 2005) Clinton let the woman put her hand on top of his.

Giving Nelson Mandela the power position, as he does above, is a sign of respect and makes him seem even more trustworthy and likable.

The former President has taught me a lot about how to handle powerful men as a female investigator: Sometimes it’s important to assert dominance right away.

But in other cases, it definitely pays to let the other person think that they are in control.

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