You won’t believe what Ed Snowden’s body language is really saying

June 11, 2014

My fascination with Edward Snowden has regrettably brought me no closer to any conclusions on whether this NSA leaker is a patriot or a parasite. In an earlier blog post, I reviewed both Glenn Greenwald and Luke Harding’s books about Snowden and shared some of the troubling inconsistencies in Snowden’s story and the storytelling contained in each book. Not ready to cast judgment, I stumbled upon a recent Business Insider article that interviewed Dr. Nick Morgan, a communications and body-language expert, whose review of Snowden’s recent Brian Williams interview left him similarly puzzled. So I rang up Dr. Morgan, whose new book, Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, is a mustread for any PR professional, and sought his input into the enigmatic Ed Snowden.

Like myself, Morgan came to the Ed Snowden issue with the same expectations I held when I began reading Glenn Greenwald’s book. Here was an idealistic young person who spoke out, at great personal risk, after becoming deeply troubled by the depths our government is going to to pry and spy into the lives of its citizenry.

But after watching the Brian Williams interview, Morgan concludes that Snowden’s performance was inauthentic on every level, a Kabuki dance of deception. The deceit starts with Snowden’s voice. As Morgan says, and reports in his newest book, humans have a unique ability to sense nuance in the over and undertones of the human voice. Leaders tend to radiate more undertones, which followers tend to mimic in group settings. In Snowden’s case, Morgan says the young man is purposely lowering the undertones in his voice in order to seemingly command more authority. Why? Could it be to cover the truth? That instead of an international man of intrigue, Snowden is just an IT guy who managed to out-kick his coverage and, in doing so, has parlayed his access to classified information into personal fame and a Brian Williams interview? It’s a motivation we will never know.

Morgan says Snowden’s body language is equally as baffling. During the interview, Snowden slumps down and back into his chair, subordinating himself to Williams. That’s odd, considering how Snowden chose to project himself throughout the controversy, as a patriot who acted from deep-held beliefs. But when given the chance to stand up for his beliefs, he slumps back. Again, inauthentic, says Morgan.

And finally, there’s that question of Russian involvement. When it arises, Snowden, for the only time during this interview, raises his hands in front of his face as if to hide. Could it simply be nerves? Perhaps, says Morgan. But when taken in its entirety, Morgan, who has worked with any number of Fortune 500 clients, would not trust a thing that Snowden has to say.

What can PR professionals learn from Snowden’s performance and his non-verbal cues? Here’s Morgan’s advice for practitioners advising clients:

In media and personal appearances, help your clients find their natural leadership voice. “It’s not about pitching your voice too high or low. Rather, it is about understanding the power of over and undertones and understanding that you are more authoritative if you hit the right place in your vocal range. Find your natural pitch and do not allow adrenalin to push your voice higher.”

Never subordinate yourself to the media.  Snowden does just that by slumping down and backwards. The media is not your friend, and will try to present you in the worst possible light. Don’t help them as Snowden did. Keep body language confident. Sit up straight and meet them directly.

Focus on the appropriate emotion at hand. Is it passion? Outrage? Grief? Joy or enthusiasm?
Snowden’s emotional response in the interview doesn’t match his stated outrage. Practice in advance of an appearance allows a subject to focus on their real emotion and present it in an authentic way that persuades and compels an audience, which is something Snowden failed to do in front of the American people.

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