Season 1, episode 12, “Datalore”
Lesson: people’s facial expressions will tell you more than words
This post is part of my ongoing quest to watch every episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation and pull one startup, entrepreneurship, tech, or investing lesson from each.
When visiting the planet where the crew originally found Data, they find a strangely abandoned laboratory and the body parts to construct a Data replica. The assembled replica calls himself Lore, saying he was created before Data and is the more perfect, more human version of him. He says that the scientists disassembled him and went with Data instead because he’s more robotic and thus easier for humans to control and work with.
Lore proves to be a traitor who’s in contact with an evil energy force that killed all of the scientists at the lab. He knocks out Data and impersonates him but only Wesley, as usual, detects that the swap has happened. Wesley figures out that Lore is impersonating Data by picking up on small nonverbal cues, like Lore’s facial tic, more fluid/less robotic movements, and slighly more aggressive vibe. The difference is difficult to articulate and Wesley struggles to do so, making Picard think he’s being insubordinate. Wesley reanimates Data and saves the day.
This episode articulates how important it can be to read body language. People often say one thing but their nonverbals tell a different (and more truthful) story. Unfortunately the world of startup investing isn’t the most straightforward around communications. VCs say they love a pitch in the meeting but never email the founders back, board members say they won’t approve a salary grant but secretly know they will when pushed, founders tell investors they have a ton of competing term sheets when they don’t…the list goes on. Things as simple as “does this person agree with what I’m saying” or “does this person like me” can be easy to read through body language but awkward as hell to talk about.
I’m constantly observing people’s body language as an early-stage VC to pull out real motivations, bluffs, tensions, and interests. And although I try to be blunt to a fault, it’d be smart for anyone meeting me to do the same. There are plenty of reasons why people don’t feel comfortable saying exactly what they think, yet their bodies telegraph it for them.
Thus it’s incredibly useful to be fluent in body language. Think of it like an application layer that runs on the operating system of your visual system. Not only can you read others this way, but you can catch yourself as you put out nonverbal signals and correct them to be in line with the message you want to send.
How do you start? With deep, constant observation. Sit back, listen, and watch. Instead of thinking about what you’re going to say next, be present in the moment with the people in the meeting with you. Humans are wired to pick up the smallest flicker of an eye or movement of a hand. You’ll be surprised and amazed at what you’ll know instinctively about people’s mindsets through their bodies.
Here are some quick tips to jump start your body language skills:
- The feet are the most honest part of the body. Although the face still telegraphs thoughts and feelings more truthfully than words, people are better at regulating their facial reactions (the “poker face”) than the rest of their body. Generally the further away from the face you get, the more honest the reaction. Jiggling, fast-moving feet usually mean excitement. Frozen, non-moving feet usually mean fear and anxiety.
- People’s feet point in the direction of their interest. If you’re talking to someone at an event and their feet and hips are pointing towards an exit, not to you, they want to leave. If you see a circle of people talking and their feet and torsos are facing each other, they aren’t open to new entrants to the conversation. In contrast, they are open to new people joining if their feet create an open angle.
- You are judged significantly more trustworthy if people can see your hands when you’re talking. Thus make sure your hands are visible and not under the table or out of the video frame if you’re trying to make a good impression.
- People who like each other tend to mirror each other’s positions. If you’re in a meeting and you lean forward towards someone, he’ll do the same within 10–15 seconds if he’s feeling positively towards you. The reverse of this rule is also true: if you want someone to like you, mirror their body position.
- You can spot a fake smile because it doesn’t crinkle the corners of the eyes at all or as much as in a real one. Humans are great at detecting fake smiles, so try not to use them; you won’t pull it off and risk it backfiring.
- Someone sitting down who puts both hands on her knees is saying “I’m ready to leave.”
- People physically distance themselves from people or ideas that they don’t like. Signs that someone doesn’t like what you’re saying in a meeting: they turn away from you, they don’t look at you, they lean far backwards in their chair, or they create barriers between the two of you by crossing their arms or stacking notebooks or a laptop.
- “Steepling” of the hands (making an upside-down V by touching the fingertips together) when talking is a strong sign that the speaker really believes in what he or she is saying.
- Squinting eyes and pursed lips both mean “I don’t agree with you.”
- Looking to the side when someone’s talking means “I question the validity of what you’re saying.” Looking up, in contrast, tends to show that the listener is thinking but hasn’t rejected the idea.
- People subconsiously employ pacifying behaviors when faced with a person or topic that makes them uncomfortable. These include touching or rubbing the neck or face, covering the eyes, putting a hand over the mouth, stroking the hair (especially for women), rubbing the palms on the legs, or holding one’s arms. If you see someone doing these behaviors, there’s a good chance that the current conversation topic is making them uneasy.
- If someone doesn’t want to be the focus or even part of a conversation, they’ll subconsciously try to hide. Resulting nonverbals include “turtling” (retracting their head into their shoulders) and hunching over as if trying to be invisible.
- A head tilt indicates comfort, curiosity, and interest.
- If a person is nodding (up and down) or shaking (side to side) their head while making a statement, check to see if the head movement is consistent with what they’re saying. If they’re saying “yes” but shaking their head, there’s a good chance they’re lying.
- Someone talking with their palms in front of them, face up, is asking to be believed and could be deceptive. Someone talking with their palms face down, in contrast, is more confident and emphatic.
If you’re interested in learning more about body language, the two best books I’ve read on the topic are “What Every Body Is Saying: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Speed-Reading People” by Joe Navarro, and “The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over,” by Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins. Clearly there’s a trend here with former FBI agents being able to read people like pros. “What Every Body Is Saying” is more detailed in its examination of virtually every nonverbal cue and what it could mean, whereas “The Like Switch” is about employing nonverbal cues to create stronger relationships.