3 things Anthony Robbins reminded me about communication

One of the things I love most about social media is the way new ideas and information can serendipitously cross your path and in the process, challenge your view of the world. I dove into the YouTube vortex recently with the intent of watching one short clip. An hour later I found myself immersed in the trailer for ‘Tony Robbins: I am not your guru.’ I’d seen the documentary appear on my new-to-netflix list so was already intrigued by the paradoxical title, but it was this single voice-over that really grabbed my attention:

How is it that people can make lasting changes in minutes? What makes that possible?

~ Tony Robbins

My work at the cross-sections of crisis communications, social sciences and countering violent extremism (CVE) means that I often see the world through a lens of threats and opportunities.

So it is rather oxymoronic that Robbins’ documentary covers one of his ‘Date with Destiny’ seminars, because in CVE we really are attempting to influence individuals aways from a preconceived, apocalyptical, date with destiny.

You’re probably thinking – hang on, Robbins isn’t known for having any views on counterterrorism or CVE – where are you going with this?

I’ve blogged before that our actions must speak louder than our words when communicating in the CVE environment. But in hindsight, after watching ‘I am not your guru’ with notebook in hand, it was remiss of me not to include nonverbal communication in that analysis.

Here’s 3 reasons why:


Humans regardless of culture, religion, geographical location or demographic all build relationships of rapport (or trust). We find people who are like ourselves, and through that feeling of commonality we build our sense of community.

The 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer supports this perspective. When asked What makes you form an opinion about a company? respondents ranked “a person like yourself” their third most trusted source of information, outranked only technical and academic experts.

If we take rapport (trust) a step further, Robbins’ remarked that “most people try and create rapport with words.”

In a CVE context that’s pretty much ALL we’ve been doing in our flurry of tweet for tat and talk fests.

Bar exceptions such as Abdullah X, our ability to deliver content payloads that are suitably nuanced in nonverbal communication (from cultural linguistics, tone of voice, entrainment and including but not limited to body language) have been muted at best as we grapple first with an adversary proficiently dominating social and news media; and second with perceived constraints that have more to do with a lack of resourcefulness than a lack of resources.

Yet we know that building rapport in a person-to-person situation, even via a movie or television screen- depends on these nonverbal communications cues. We know this but haven’t adequately applied this in our CVE efforts.


Robbins’ takes some creative license to the traditional definition of ‘biofeedback’ in I am not your guru.What he refers to in his documentary in this way is the two-way non-verbal communication that occurs person-to-person or in the case of movies and television (YouTube, SnapChat and other video platforms) the one-way communication between broadcaster/storyteller and viewer that elicits the same emotional response.

Consider nonverbal communication from a Daesh content payload analysis.

A video for example, is a layered payload of both verbal and nonverbal communication; blended with choice architecture, information cascades and game theory atmospherics. I’ll be writing follow up pieces to this blog on those topics in more detail shortly, but in the context of a Daesh content payload we see the distinct conveyance of cultural lingo, staged proxemics, heroesque body language, considered tones of voice, the projection of soft and hard power; and religiously significant modalities. Here’s an example:

The West’s CVE content by and large misses all these critical, rapport building nonverbal cues. More importantly our content doesn’t necessarily reflect the reality of life in the communities we target. Our words are so disparate to our actions- and the reporting of events in the news media – that we continually hijack our own good intentions.


We don’t live in the Mad Men era anymore but have our communication tactics really changed that much?

Perhaps the most telling aspect of nonverbal communication on social media for many organisations is the very fact that they are not in fact ‘social’ instead opting to remain on broadcast mode with no intention of communicative reciprocity.

The result – particularly with digital natives – is that we don’t build rapport and trust no matter what narrative is being presented or from which ‘qualified voice’ it is emanating from.

Robbins’ states in ‘I am not your guru’ that 7% of our communication skills are language based and 55% are based on physiology. He further breaks this apart more distinctly by saying building successful rapport (with nonverbal communication) requires 80% psychology and 20% mechanics.

I’m assuming this is based in some part on the research of Professor Mehrabian that was conducted in 1972. There is a lot of criticism of these discrete statistics, and Mehrabian himself has said in many cases his statistics have been taken outside of the context of which his study was intended – but the reality is, we still gather more information non-verbally about a person or situation than we do verbally.

While Merabian’s study was predated by the work of anthropologist Ray Birdwhistell (1952) who studied facial expressions and nonverbal cues and psychologist Dr Paul Ekman in studying the links between emotion and micro-expressions that convey nonverbal cues (1952 onwards) – it is worthy of note the continued academic research being performed in this area that actively informs other social sciences with real world applications.

For example, in his book ‘On Combat’ LTCOL Dave Grossman recounts numerous instances of soldiers under-fire and law enforcement officers engaged in lethal force encounters where their cognitive ability to process events is at times overridden by the body’s automatic survival instincts:

Have you ever tried to have an argument or a discussion with a truly frightened or angry person? It cannot be done, because the more frightened or angry the person is, the less rational he is. This is because his forebrain has shut down and his midbrain… is in control.

You (won’t) accomplish much trying to talk to a human being in this heightened condition. To connect with him, you must first calm him down.

~ Grossman, 2004

So what does non-verbal communication look like?


Our  intuition tell us that our senses are separate streams of information… In actuality, though, the brain uses the imperfect information from each sense to generate a virtual reality that we call consciousness. It’s our brain’s best guess as to what’s out there in the world. But that best guess isn’t always right.  (Psychology Today, 2015) 

When presented with propaganda engineered to overwhelm our sense of logic, the information our eyes and ears process is deliberately manipulated. A 2008 study of Non-Verbal Cues in Politics, for example, found that “non-verbal behaviours do influence the way politicians are perceived.” (Rominiecka) 

Against the backdrop of televised Cold War Jurgen Ruesch and Weldon Kees published the findings of their research in 1972 “Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations.”

Long before the advent of social media, Rusech and Kees summised rather prophetically:

If human beings are to protect themselves against the onslaughts of modern communications machinery and the distortion of propaganda, they must ultimately learn once again to use words scrupulously and with a sense of integrity. Only by a renewal of emphasis on the individual, with all his personal and unique characteristics – and this involves to a great extent the nonverbal – can a sense of proportion and dignity be restored to human relations.

Fast forward to the social media era some thirty plus years on and we still focus on the mechanics of modern communicative machinery:

As an umbrella term, we should think about social media and mobile behavior as it’s related to psychology, anthropology, communication, economics, human geography, ethnography, et al. After all, everything comes down to people.

Unfortunately in new media, we tend to put technology ahead of people. Think about your current social media, mobile, or web strategy for a moment. Do you even know who you’re trying to reach? Do you know what customers or stakeholders expect or the challenges they face? Are you familiar with how they connect and communicate and why? Lastly, do you understand the journey they take to make decisions?(Solis, 2007)

Social Media is about sociology and psychology more than technology.

~ Brian Solis

While ‘Tony Robbins: I am not your guru’ is in one way the epitome of technological communicative machinery as a streamed Netflix product; it conversely reaches people via exceptional communication via messaging that isn’t contingent on any kind of technology.

Robbins’ documentary is an intense exploration of people.

Academics and practitioners have long considered the characteristics of nonverbal communication in isolation, but when we put actions ahead of words, and carefully look at the nonverbal communication cues we are conveying in parallel, Robbins’ proves we can take powerful messages and make them transformational change agents.