Here are some tips I have picked up along the way to read the person you are talking to. I have found them especially useful running an organization that is distributed and virtual. We conduct most of our discussions through video on Google Hangouts, and reading body language and facial microexpressions are a key means to reading nonverbal signals.
When talking to one person
Read expressions and gestures in clusters. The look of critical evaluation when combined with closed body language, crossed arms and legs, indicate that you may need to make a more convincing argument.
Palms intentionally used to show open, honest speech
Everyone knows that crossed arms and legs indicate closed body language, but I am always amazed at how many people do that in meetings and even presentations. What I did learn was to stop doing that (because it doesn’t help anyone, it just makes the other person more uncomfortable). And when I did, I realized I was more open to ideas.
So, the piece of advice is to first check yourself from closed body language, and then to help others uncross their arms. You can do that by having them reach out for a pen or coffee mug and then create a rapport by nodding your head and mirroring, to make them feel more comfortable (and prevent further crossing).
Talking to many people
The bigger the audience, the bigger the gestures need to be.
Use wide expansive, open gestures. Don’t cross your legs or arms. That bars the audience and shuts them off. Stand confidently and welcome the audience to listen to you. Ben Horowitz does a great job illustrating this at our Technovation keynote a few years ago.
One way to enlarging gestures is to start them from the shoulder. Wrist or elbow gestures are automatically smaller and tend to be limited in their variety, too. In fact, this is the single most common problem that drives people to “repetitive gesturing.” If you keep making the same gesture, it rapidly becomes meaningless and ultimately annoying to the audience.
Make sure your gestures are high enough. Low gestures draw the eyes of the audience down and away from your face. They become distractions. If you watch for it, you can sometimes catch people doing a vague imitation of penguins, with their hands flipping about at their waists.
Hands behind your back indicate reserve, some level of discomfort.
Dr. Paul Ekman is the pioneer in this field. His book Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life is a great starting point.
The six basic emotions are shown below. If you watch closely, you will see various (and fleeting) manifestations in people’s faces. They will give you a very accurate window into what your listener is thinking of what you are saying.
“The reality of the other person lies not in what he reveals to you,
But what he cannot reveal to you.
Therefore, if you would understand him,
Listen not to what he says,
But rather to what he does not say”
― Kahlil Gibran