It’s not just what you say but how you say it.
The appearance on a Kremlin-backed TV station of the two suspects in the Skripal poisoning episode was bizarre enough. So too were the accounts of the two men (with near consecutive passport numbers) who were of course civilians on a 3,000 kilometre sight-seeing tour of Salisbury cathedral.
Even if you were to take their account seriously, the vocal delivery and body language of the two Russians –let them down.
Both men, especially Boshirov, struggled with eye contact. When asked to account for their movements he looked sideways as though recalling an agreed script. Throughout, they looked uncomfortable. Both swivelled constantly in their chairs and tended to look down before answering questions. When they did look at the interviewer it was not the eye contact of engagement. As a viewer, I found their piercing stares intimidating. Their shrugs when asked if they were members of the Russian security service, smacked of insolence.
The men’s accounts were devoid of animation. When describing how their lives had been turned upside down, there was no feeling behind this. When Boshirov outlined the wonders of the 123 metre spire, he lacked enthusiasm– it was the delivery of a bored student rather than that of a globe-trotting cathedral fanatic.
The interviews with Petrov and Boshirov are near perfect examples of incongruence – demonstrating the principles outlined by Professor Albert Mehrabian’s nearly 50 years ago.
Although his work has often been oversimplified, Mehrabian demonstrated the importance of congruence between words and verbal and non verbal communication.
What someone says will be more powerful and convincing when their gestures and intonation enforce their message. Their words will absolutely be unconvincing when there is no congruence with viewers focusing unconsciously on the non-verbal elements.
When media training we rehearse difficult interviews and playback to examine not only the words spoken but also the messages given off through body language and vocal delivery.
Perhaps in future, communication training will also be offered to up-and-coming Russian agents!