Book Review: Visible Thought – The New Psychology of Body Language

Geoffrey Beattie is a respected and well known Psychology Professor based at Manchester University (UK).  I first became aware of Geoffrey after seeing him on TV some years ago as the resident psychologist for the UK’s Big Brother series.  After some googling I found his book titled Visible Thought – the New Psychology of Body Language (2003).



In reality, I bought the book several years ago around 2006.  On my first attempt to read, I got most of the way through the first chapter and rapidly lost interest.  The introduction was heavily peppered with Big Brother references and I got the distinct impression that there was some cashing in occurring on Geoffrey’s part, given his new found exposure as the widely renowned Big Brother body language expert.  I expected the remainder of the book to essentially re-iterate descriptions of some of the events occurring in Big Brother, which wasn’t really what I was expecting or interested in. The book soon found a quiet corner in my study and began gathering dust.

I recently found the book again and thought I’d give it a second chance. To my surprise, I persevered into the 2nd chapter and found that my initial assessment of the book was in fact wrong.  The book contains some solid theories, challenges some of the historical conclusions of body language research and describes some of the empirical testing carried out to prove the hypothesized shifts in theory.  This article reviews the book and summarizes the ideas and conclusions presented by Geoffrey.  In particular, I focussed on some key factors worth understanding to assist in sales interactions with customers.

As you delve into the book, you find that historical psychological researchers assumed verbal and non-verbal channels performed separate functions in the process of communication. Verbal communication was thought to present detailed information (objects, sizes, speed, etc) whereas non-verbal communication is believed to cater for the interpersonal exchanges between participants of an interaction (e.g. display mood and temperament in a primitive animalistic fashion).

The theory of visible thought challenges this assumption and explores the deeper connections between the verbal and non-verbal behaviours displayed during communication.  The book focuses on the relationship between gestures and speech. Gestures are defined as hand and arm movements displayed during communication.  Posture, vocalisation and facial expressions are outside of the scope of the book.

The book goes on to describe several empirical tests which do seem to indicate that the linguistic and non-verbal channels are closely tied.  The tests show that the inclusion of gestures in different attempts to communicate the same message deliver a much richer breadth of information about the subject matter discussed.  Where unaccompanied speech may give some basic detail of a message, including gesturing can introduce much more information.

For example, a speaker says “The boy bounced the ball”. In the first instance, the experiment participants (or listeners) just hear the words.  A second set of participants are shown a video of the speaker repeating the same sentence, but this time the speaker uses an iconic gesture by mimicking the act of bouncing a ball. Each of the groups of participants are asked various questions about the message, such as “how big is the ball?” and “how fast is it bouncing?”.  The results clearly showed that the participants who observed the message with gesturing got a much richer set of information than those who just heard the words.

What can be applied to sales?

Listening with your eyes and ears

A key message to take away from a sales perspective is that you can be more effective if you take the time to look for and perceive the extra information that gesturing provides. During your opportunity assessment activities, you may find information about the real pains and needs of your customer which you can’t always get from RFI or RFP documents.  It’s worth reiterating that it’s not just what you’re seeing that’s important, it’s what you are hearing too.  Speech and gesturing are complimenting each other to give you the overall rich understanding of your customer’s thoughts.  Dissonance between the vocal and non-verbal message, may also give you clue to deceptive messages.  Manipulators or deceptive gestures are not easy to fake as genuine gestures are usually done on an unconscious level.

Delivering your message with more than just your voice

In turn, an understanding of the relationship between these two channels of communication can also help you effectively deliver your messages to your customer.  By understanding your own gestures and using them to reinforce and supplement your verbal message, you can provide your customers with a clear understanding of your ideas, solutions and what exactly you are proposing.

It may be tempting to utilise conscious gestures to misrepresent or dupe your customer into a false belief about your capability or how appropriate your solution may be.  I’d strongly advise against this, false gestures (or manipulators) are not easily acted and can usually be spotted. By doing this you will undermine your credibility and your relationship with the customer.  I’ll be doing a blog later in the series focused on ethical approaches to sales.


I’ve not gone into much depth here but highly recommend reading this book to jump deeper into the specifics.  There’s a lot I’ve not covered in the review, for example the effect of character viewpoint gestures vs observer viewpoint gestures, so I encourage you to read the entire book.  It’s not overly complex and can provide a basis of knowledge for further research into and understanding of this field.  My only criticism is the format of the examples given.  At lot of the gestures are described alongside the text of the speech in a textual format. Sometimes this can be a little difficult to follow and using illustrations or photos may have been more effective.

I’ll be exploring communication and different aspects of both verbal and non-verbal behaviours in later articles. My interest in this area has recently been revived, I think primarily by the TV series “Lie To Me” (Google it to find out more).  Thank you for reading.

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