Sam Cawthorn: The power of communication


While heading home one day in October 2006, Sam fell asleep at the wheel and collided head-on with a semi-trailer. He was pronounced dead at the scene but miraculously survived after a week on life support. The accident left him with an amputated right arm and a permanent disability in his right leg. However, from tragedy came triumph, as he became transfixed on not only rehabilitating his body but his mind as well. From here, he was asked to speak publicly about his ordeal and began using this platform to launch into motivational and inspirational speaking.

“People were really interested in my story, and how I overcame adversity and not just bounce back, but also to learn from my crisis and bounce forward into what I could become,” Sam said.

In 2013, Sam and his wife Kate founded the Speakers Institute, focusing on communication for influence to help professionals harness the power of high-end presentation and persuasion skills to improve both individual and business performance.

“I feel that everything rises and falls with how well you can communicate – it’s not necessarily what you know, it’s how well you can explain what you know,” Sam said.

“From a business perspective, across the board, all the way from leadership through to the on-the-ground team, the way staff communicate with each other and ultimately to the marketplace is going to ensure both a great culture as well as also a super successful organisation.”

One of the key factors to effective communication lies in the non-verbal cues – or what Sam calls nonverbal intelligence – which makes up to 80 per cent of the message. In other words, it’s not always what you say, but how you say it.

Effective non-verbal communication has the incredible advantage of helping you appear certain in your quest to portray a message, even if you do not feel it on the inside. This feeling is often what we dub ‘confidence’; however Sam makes an important distinction here.

“Confidence comes when you show up. So, when you show up and when you’re present and you feel like you are worthy and good enough, then confidence will shine,” Sam said.

“However, there is a difference between confidence and certainty, and I believe that what you want to look is certain – not arrogant or as though you have lost your humility,” he said.

Your Career magazine asked Sam for his top tips on improving nonverbal intelligence, as well as how to look (and feel) more certain in your everyday interactions with clients, staff, management and beyond. As a bonus, understanding nonverbal intelligence helps you read others and better decipher their messages to you.

1. Facial Expressions

There are two main elements to facial expressions; one is our eyes, and the other is our facial muscles. It is true that the number of times you blink, as well as where you put your eyes when you are talking to others, is crucial to how your message comes across.

“The more times you blink, the less congruent you appear,” Sam explains. “In addition, when someone’s asking you a question and you want to come across with absolute truth, be mindful where you put your eyes right at the start. If you look up to your top right-hand corner, it means that you’re accessing your memory, which then means you are telling the truth. But if you ask someone a question and very briefly, you see their eyes go up to the top left-hand corner, that means they’re accessing their creative side, so are likely making up the answer.

When it comes to what we do with the rest of our face, always remember that first impressions matter – and a smile is a great first impression. The other key note here is to keep your mouth closed when you are not speaking; otherwise you come across with less intelligence.

2. Voice patterns – tonality and intonation

Ending your sentence with a high tonality sees you come across as if you are pleading or asking a question.

On the contrary, if you end with a low tonality, you generally come across as more congruent and serious.

Intonation, on the other hand, is all about accents. As in writing, where you would use bold, underline or capital letters, for example, you can use the verbal equivalent when speaking.

“Intonation and accent are really important to emphasise a specific sentence or a specific word for that to land well to the individual,” Sam said.

3. Gestures – arms and fingers

Sam’s key tip here is to always keep your elbows bent, that way you can more easily and naturally move your arms and hands. Then, only move your hands when you speak, and when you pause, you freeze the gesture.

You also need to be aware of where your palms are heading as you talk. When we bring our palms out, it appears as though we are pleading. If we bring them in and down, we are effectively shutting down the other person. Instead, try simply moving your palms straight up and straight down.

4. Body language and breathing
What we do from the waist down when we are talking to someone is also important. Keep your lower half locked – do not sway, cross your legs or fidget. Stand up straight and tall with your shoulders back and chest out. When it comes to breathing, we need to be mindful of our diaphragm, as that is essentially where we support our voice.

“When we support our voice in a stronger way, we do come across with more credibility and certainty, ” Sam said.

5. Get quality feedback

Sam’s final piece of advice for those looking to excel in their careers and become better communicators is to get quality feedback.

“If you really want to get good at this, go and seek help or advice. Go to a coach, go to a mentor and get quality feedback. Some of these things you might be doing automatically and intuitively…but some of it you’re not even aware of, and you might actually be repelling people rather than attracting them,” Sam said.

“Right now, our attention spans are shorter than any other time in history, so winning someone’s attention is going to be pivotal to your success in the future.”