On the Record | Sari de la Motte



Sari de la Motte is founder and CEO of FORTE, a communications consulting firm in Portland, Ore., that specializes in nonverbal intelligence. She has coached Fortune 500 executives, trial attorneys, government officials and educators on how to inspire those around them by focusing more on the messages they convey with their eyes, body, voice and breath than by the words they say. Assistant Editor Mary Winter interviewed de la Motte at the NCSL Legislative Summit.

State Legislatures: What does nonverbal intelligence mean and why is it important?

Sari de la MotteSari de la Motte: Nonverbal intelligence is the ability to be aware, adaptable and authentic in your communication. First, to be aware both of your nonverbal communication and other people’s nonverbal communication. Then it’s being adaptable so that you know what you’re seeing and how to change to make sure that good communication is happening, all while remaining authentic.

People define nonverbal intelligence differently, but it’s not just about body language. For example, with body language or nonverbal communication courses, the first thing that comes up is how to tell if people are lying, supposedly by watching for blinking eyes and sweating palms, but I think that’s missing the entire point of communication. A lot of the body language stuff out there isn’t helpful or useful; a lot of the body language tricks are very inauthentic and borderline manipulative.

SL: What role does our voice play in nonverbal communication?

SM: There are two basic voice patterns that you hear in most situations. One pattern is authoritative, when your voice curls down at the ends of statements. You’ll hear that voice pattern in the higher levels of any organization.

We also have the approachable voice pattern, which is a little bit more rhythmic and it curls up at the ends of statements. It means the person is more interested in the relationship at that moment.

SL: Which voice pattern affects how receptive people are to your message?

SM: Neither one is good or bad; it’s more about timing. In fact a lot of communication is timing. When you’re trying to describe an issue, you want to communicate with an authoritative voice pattern. And when you hear the authoritative voice pattern, you want to match it by also going authoritative.

If you hear the approachable voice pattern, you want to also use your approachable voice pattern. We somehow often get those mixed. But voice pattern is a great way to cue in to what people are needing in the moment because they often don’t tell us verbally; they tell us nonverbally.

SL: What advice can you give to engage an audience?

SM: Show up as your real self. So much presenting is often just read, but really good presenting can be just going out and being yourself with the audience. I worked with someone who said, ‘I hate presentations because I feel like I can’t be myself.’ I replied with, ‘Being yourself is the only thing that’s going to make this a good presentation. Otherwise it’s going to be one of those ones where we’re all looking at our watches going, when is this over?”

I try to find the person’s own style and bring that out—along with good presentation skills. I try to get them to use their normal voice, not what I call the “speechy” voice. 

But the biggest thing for presenters to learn, especially those who speak to large groups, is to take up space. What I mean by that is most people are not aware of the space around them or around others. We talk about presence a lot in our work—that you’re actually here—present in mind and in body; but you’re also aware of the space of others. Most people are never aware of space. When they communicate, they’re really just communicating in a bubble.

SL: How can you best prepare for a presentation?

SM: If you can, before the presentation, check out the space you will be in during the presentation. Then just kind of invite that space to be with you during your presentation. I liken it to putting out a nonverbal picnic blanket and saying, ‘Okay, let’s all gather here.’ You’ll be able to see this now that I’ve mentioned it to you, when you watch other presenters. You can tell that they are presenting to just the small space around themselves even though their voice is going out to the whole audience, They are only aware of their own space. They haven’t really invited everyone in. This is kind of a nebulous concept, but I think it’s simply being aware of the space. 

SL: How do you coach people past stage fright when they present to large audiences?

SM: I think stage fright is a symptom of a bigger problem. Start by asking: What’s the fear? What’s the story? What’s the story you’re telling yourself? Are you afraid you’re going to fall? Are you afraid you’re going to … Whatever it is, fix that first. So if you’re afraid you’re going to lose your memory, I would never tell you to memorize presentations; I would tell you to memorize a structure and to wing it from there.

I also talk a lot about breathing, which can also bring you into the present moment and help you focus on your preparation and your content in the moment. 

SL: What makes lawmakers charismatic when it comes to their nonverbal communications?

SM: Charisma is something that is bandied around a lot, isn’t it? In our seminars we used to ask, What’s charisma? People would turn around and go hmmmmm… We know it when we see it, but it’s very hard to define. So, instead of charisma—which is this kind of ‘I can’t say no to you’ magical thing—we talk about developing a leadership presence, being balanced.

For example, when my dad had a stroke and we were sitting at his bedside with not a lot to do, we started analyzing the nurses and found that the best ones were a blend of position and person. They were a blend of authoritative and approachable—someone who knows what they’re doing (the authoritative), but who also cares (the approachable). We had nurses who were all business, and we had nurses who were all jokey, but when they had the combination of both, that was charisma or leadership presence.

And that’s what I think we’re looking for in today’s politicians and leaders in the world—a combination of knowledge and caring.

SL: Is that all it takes to be a leader?

SM: We define leadership as having two ingredients. You have to be going somewhere, and you have to have followers. That’s it. That’s leadership. You can be a good leader or a bad leader, but you have to have those two. If you’re not going anywhere, then there’s no reason to follow you, and if you’re going somewhere and no one is following you, then you’re not a leader.

If you have those two things, that’s leadership. But when you have your following, they will want to know that: a) you can get to where you’re going—that’s the authoritative piece; and b) you care that they come along, that it’s not just about you. That’s why we keep coming back to those two halves. They are both needed. Authoritative isn’t all good and approachable all bad, or vice versa.

When you can incorporate both those elements when communicating to your constituents—that you are competent and that you care (authoritative and appoachable)—then that’s when charisma happens.

Editor’s note: This interview is part of a series of conversations with national leaders. It has been edited for length and clarity. The opinions are the interviewees’ and not necessarily NCSL’s.

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