What clowns can teach marketers about non-verbal communication

Non-verbal communication helps marketers understand what paying audiences want but can't express.

This week I experienced clown school. No, I have not had a lifelong ambition to don a red nose and big shoes.  Nor have I discovered a hitherto unknown love of slapstick.

At a networking event for Rada for Business we had a taster of what this school is like. One of the exercises involved one participant leaving the room while another picked a pose with a chair. A particular way of sitting, standing or leaning on it. Our first picker chose the classic Christine Keeler pose. 

The subject who left the room then returned and had to guess what pose we’d chosen. However there was no verbal communication allowed. As the subject tried out different poses we were meant to show through non-verbal encouragement (applause or the lack of it) whether they were warmer or colder in finding the right pose.

The exercise was more fun for the audience than it was for the subject.

Subject one actually found the Christine Keeler pose reasonably quickly. Subject two, who had to guess a different pose, to sit sideways and cross her legs elegantly, really struggled.

The more the subject struggled, the more heightened the emotions in the room. She kept trying different poses of all kinds. Moving different parts of her body in lots of contortions. The one thing she didn’t try was crossing her legs left to right instead of right to left.

This exercise would also be useful to anyone who is navigating a business relationship that has hit rocky waters.

It was frustrating to watch her. The journey felt hopeless in the end and we were glad to stop the exercise and clearly show her what was going wrong.

This exercise is useful to trainee clowns apparently because it helps them read the mood of the audience.  It teaches them to find ways to intuit what the paying audience wants but cannot express.

This exercise would also be useful to anyone who is navigating a business relationship that has hit rocky waters. That could be trade press to agency, client to agency, agency to media owner, you and your colleagues, you and your boss.

It's useful in two ways. First because it requires you to stop listening only to what is being said (as nothing is being said) and instead be attuned to non-verbal communication.

Sometimes when relationships break down we demand a chapter and verse detailing of what has gone awry. While this may prove a cathartic bit of venting for the aggrieved party it can also be misleading. If the problem is really that one party just doesn’t "get" the other one it might not be much help.  And we know (or we think we know), that more than 90% of communication is non-verbal.

Yet we demand, rather righteously, that a detailed list of the problems be delivered (verbally) so we can fix them, which we may then try very hard to do without fixing anything close to the real issues. Clown school would stop you making that mistake.

Secondly it teaches how important it is to be inventive with agility. Our second subject at Clown School just lost heart and dried up. We were so anxious for her to succeed. With every non-verbal cue at our command we tried to get her to cross her legs the other way.

Apparently, according to our moderator, comic Viv Groskop, in real clown school there is no letting you off the hook. You keep trying new poses until you get it right. She said she’d seen grown men reduced to tears in this exercise. 

Sometimes, even when both parties in a business relationship mean well things can go wrong. It is crucial to stay positive and try new things.

It is crucial to really listen to each other, beyond what either of you are saying.

Sue Unerman is the chief transformation officer at MediaCom.


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