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APRIL, 2019

The Book of Tells by Peter Collett

How to read people’s minds from their actions.

In brief:

  1. Tells are overhangs from our evolutionary past.
  2. They provide an insight into how people truly feel, they’re a reflection of our true feelings that our conscious mind may try to hide.
  3. This is not a new field of research, Darwin was a keen contributor.
  4. Tells focus on the idea of dominance and submission. Generally speaking, the larger you make your body the more dominant you are. The smaller you make your body, the more submissive.
  5. Appearing relaxed is a sign of dominance.
  6. We are fight or flight species but, as we live in society we can’t run away from all we fear. A submissive display is our way of resolving conflict and showing cooperation.
  7. Note of caution:
  • When analysing tells and body language we must look for multiple tells.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions, make conditional inferences.
  • Compare the person you’re observing in different settings.

The following are my notes on ‘The Book of Tells‘. What I record is a reflection of my own interests as much as the content of the book.

I have classified it as ‘public transport appropriate‘ e.g. it can be read in a busy environment with the odd interruption and you will be able to pick up where you left off with ease.

Review: The Book of Tells is an interesting read that has had an immediate impact on how I view people.

In the two weeks since reading The Book of Tells I’ve correctly anticipated two people’s dispositions toward me, in advance of them saying a word to me (once during a lecture, another during a pitch).

A tell is a recognised activity that reveals something about someone that is not directly observable. It’s a clue about someone else’s true feelings.    

The book’s author Peter Collett, is a psychologist and former Oxford don. With this background comes an implied rigour that helps the reader accept the majority of the book’s assertions. 

It is easy to see how in the game of poker, where it’s essential to hide one’s true feelings, tells are important. This book helps us all become better at reading people’s true feelings in everyday settings. 

Much of what the book covers is obvious to the reader but only after it’s been articulated. For example, most people with a healthy dose of sensitivity can tell when they’re talking to someone who would rather be elsewhere. However, The Book of Tells highlights what makes-up these signals (posture, stance, gaze of the eyes). Once these signals have been disclosed it is easier to become more attuned to other people’s feelings, without the need to ask them directly ‘how do you feel?’

Reading The Book of Tells made me feel like I had discovered a new language few could understand until, I read its conclusion. Here Peter Collett cautions against assumptions, he recommends:

  • When analysing tells look for multiple tells.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions, make conditional inferences.
  • Compare the person you’re observing in different settings.

Unfortunately, the format of The Book of Tells means the reader will be hard pushed to remember much of its content. Each chapter is a list of observable behaviours framed by a context. For example, one chapter is headed ‘Political Tells’, with a list of references about behaviour by politicians. This makes The Book of Tells a good reference source rather than a cover-to-cover memorable read. The Book would benefit from more narratives to bring its content to life. 

How does The Book Of Tells help with pitching?

We all (hopefully) know when someone is turned off in a pitch (they’re on their phone, maybe asleep). Therefore, without reading a book on the subject we all have some inkling about what’s going on.

The Book of Tells is helpful in expanding our existing knowledge, making us better at reading others and reading our own behaviour.

Since buying the book I have self-corrected my body language and spotted signals from an audience I would not have otherwise noticed. The book really does equip one with a new language. 

Perhaps most importantly I have noticed how much I look away from my audience when uncertain about my value proposition, forcing me to re-evaluate my pitch.  

I recommend The Book Of Tells to anyone looking to improve their pitching  and selling skills.






Poker players rely on tells to read the minds of their opponents and win games.

Autonomous tells’ are unintentional clues about a person’s true feelings. ‘Attached tells’ are actions, like shaking hands, but not the action itself, rather how the action takes place.

To qualify as a tell it must be:

  • An activity
  • Reveal something that’s not directly observable
  • Noticeable
  • Its significance must be recognised

Micro-tells usually appear on the face, where most of our senses are based.

A false tell is either something made up or, unreliable. A counterfeit tell is a padded jacket, high heels on a woman etc. Common tells are blushing. Local tells are specific to a culture. A signature tell is specific to the individual.

Predictive tells tell you about something that’s about to happen. For example, a woman talking to a man on a bench, doesn’t just get up and leave. She will make changes in posture, feet, look at her bag etc. Yawning is another example of a predictive tell because yawning is contagious.

Dominant Tells

Elbow Tell: Hands on hips, elbows out (Henry VIII) . This is an expansive action, it can be threatening as it protrudes your sharp elbow bones. It is preparatory, half relaxed, half ready to attack. 

Henry VIII by Holbein, elbows out

Orientation Tell: Two people talking. One facing the other and the other shows their side. This could be two different messages depending on context:

  • If at work, subordinate faces the boss. Boss faces away as they are relaxed.
  • In a confrontation, the person who is face-on is being aggressive, the side-on person is being submissive.

Face Tells: Only place you find all the sense modalities. Narrow eyes are bad eyes, aka ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’, where Clint Eastwood shows visor eyes. Dominance is illustrated by looking over glasses. Vladimir Putin and other politicians maximise dominance by showing few smiles and only ‘sealed smiles’.

Sealed smile

Other Dominant Tells

Yawning Tells: Can be through tedium, transition (moving from bed to shower), tension (paratroopers report yawning before jumping from planes). 

Talking Tells: Show dominance by talking the most, quickest off the mark, interrupting others the most, talking over others, raising voice and using non-verbal gestures to discourage others from speaking.

These dominant talkers are more confident in their speech, fewer hesitations and dysfluencies, often use the old English class system of talking LOUDLY.

Deep voice: dominant people should have higher testosterone as longer vocal tracts are found on a taller person.

Falling pitch: Creates dominance through making statements.

Rising Pitch: Questions, uncertain, submissive.

“Talk low, talk slow and don’t say too much.” John Wayne

Mothers speak to their babies in a high tone because they are more sensitive to a higher pitch.

Touching Tells: Horizontal touches are those made between people who are on the same level. Boss can touch a subordinate but not the other way round. 1992, Queen visiting Australia was touched by the Australian PM, Paul Keating, created a big fuss in UK.

Looking Tells: In business the subordinate spends most of the time watching superior. On greeting they lower their heads. Hands and feet stay close to their body.

Patterns of gaze – person who unlocks from gaze first tends to be the subordinate.

People who are going to work together in a team, upon meeting for the first time – the one who outlooks the other tends to be the more talkative and influential during that team activity.

Subordinates can show disagreement though looking at their superior for longer then averting their gaze. They are nervous when talking to their superior, so they avert their gaze.

Relaxation is an essential feature of dominance. For superiors they use the principle of economy, the subordinate is governed by the principle of effort.

Nietzsche asked “What is an aristocrat?”, he replied ‘The slow gesture and the slow gaze.”

Defensive Tells:  Scissors stance, shy, lacking in confidence. Sitting down, drawing together legs and your feet close to your body in a public space. Crossed legs at thigh or ankle. The antithesis of this is open legs posture, exposing genitals.

Auto-contact – when people feel threatened they unconsciously touch themselves, mimicking motherly caring touch – recreates feeling of love and security experienced as a baby. When people feel submissive they frequently stroke their hair.

Bandoleer – arm crosses body to other shoulder, embrace reenactment.

Dovetail – two hands intertwining = reassuring, like hand holding.

Dominance and Head Tells

Head Tells: Charles Darwin noted lowering of the head and nodding are submissive tells. When we are at a party and wish to navigate between groups that are talking we tend to dip our head.

Lowering head and exposing our neck is a submissive tell.

“Those who are relaxed about status distinctions don’t usually produce any submissive tells at all.” Peter Collett

Head Nod Tells: Slow repetitive nodding shows agreement, the faster the nodding the more likely the person wishes to take over the conversation.

Look at speaker and nodding is a show of support. Look away from speaker and nodding shows you wish to take over the conversation.

Eye Tells: We are fight or flight species but as we’re in society we can’t run away from all we fear. A submissive display is our way of showing resolving conflict and cooperation.

Removing our gaze from someone reduces our sense of fear, shows no wish to attack dominant person.

Our automatic aggressive impulses switch off when someone shows submission, when they become small, weak and defensive.

The ‘eye-shuttle’ is the movement of the eyes from side-to-side, looking for possible escape routes.

Smiles: Two types of smile, mouth smile and, the mouth and eye smile. 

Mouth smile is a conscious act. The Mouth and eye smile (above, crows feet around the eyes) unconscious.

A mouth smile is seen as false because it is made to make you appear nonthreatening and friendly. Subordinate smile, to make dominant people feel appeased.

Women smile more than men. Unsmiling women are viewed as unhappy whereas unsmiling men are viewed as dominant. Therefore, women often feel they must smile more than men to appear normal.

Blushing Tells: The autonomic nervous system increases blood flow to cheeks and face, neck and chest. 

We blush because of unwelcome attention from others. It shows we’re concerned about how others see us and we’re eager to behave properly and not do the wrong thing. Blushing functions like an apology.

Conversation Tells  

“The reason why we take turns is because of the limitation of our brains: We cannot talk and listen to someone else at the same time.” Peter Collett

Any conversation operates at two levels, an official dialogue where people exchange ideas and opinions and, an unofficial ‘dialogue’ where they exchange signals about turn-taking and demonstrate how committed they are to the conversation.

Turn Avoiding Tells: ‘Uh-huh’, ‘yes’, ‘yeah’. Display attentiveness by asking questions: ‘Isn’t it?’ ‘Don’t you think?’

Turn Taking Tells: Altering signals. Raise hand, widen eyes, open mouth, breath in audibly. Negative back channel = sighing, looking away, impatiently nodding head.

Overlap talk: Supportive, sniping (‘rubbish!’) and interrupting. One can interrupt by raising volume, appearing resolute and continuing to talk beyond where most interrupters give-up. Men are more likely to interrupt than women. Different cultures view interrupting differently. In the Mediterranean culture it’s often the norm to interrupt. 

Turn Yielding Tells: You wish to give-up the floor by:

  1. Altering pattern of gaze e.g. looking elsewhere then look at the person at the end. The person you look at last it most likely to become the next speaker. End of a sentence is often the time to yield but, if you have many sentences then you need additional signals.
  2. Drop in vocal pitch.
  3. Particular phrase for example, ‘I don’t know’ or, ‘I don’t know really’.

Turn Holding Tells: Hold the floor, you have more to say. Don’t look at the listeners too much as may give the false impression you are about to yield the floor.

Speaker can reinforce the impression he intends to keep on talking by producing narratives or jokes. This is a way of enumerating a series of points.

You can use:

  • Connectives: ‘And’, ‘also’, ‘moreover’, ‘in addition’.
  • Counting with fingers

Retrieve the floor by:

  • Talking loudly
  • Transfix
  • Hold posture you were in when interrupted – become a statue.
  • Back calling – ‘you see’, ‘don’t you know’, ‘know what’. This pushes the listener deeper into the role of the listener.

Nineteenth century England people had their jacket button hole held to stop them walking away.


Talk Tells

Using the pronoun ‘I’ indicates concern with oneself. ‘We’ indicates an inclusive concern.

Attractors: When someone wishes to be the centre of attention they will ‘name/experience/place drop’. Consistency theory suggests that if you like famous person ‘X’ and I tell you I am friends with person ‘X’ then you’re more likely to like me because this keeps you consistent.

Deflectors: Ask questions and only talk about impersonal matters.

Contrastors: Compare, contrast – ‘but’, ‘however’, ‘nonetheless’. They like to point out things aren’t always what they seem. For example, ‘my wife is loving but likes her privacy’. This shows he doesn’t have a one dimensional view of his wife and he disapproves of her privacy.

Softeners: ‘I don’t want you to take this the wrong way but….’ “I hope you don’t think I’m rude when I say….’ This gives the speaker a linguistic bunker to hide inside if the other party takes offence.

Hedges: ‘Sort of’, ‘kind of’, ‘you know’. These are verbal fillers that discourage others from taking the floor. ‘You know’ at the end of a sentence shows a willingness to relinquish the floor.

Posture tells: 3 main areas of tells are eyes, torso and legs.

People tend to be conscious about what they do with their eyes and so therefore don’t relinquish control.

Torso is a good indicator but the best signal of a commitment to a conversation are the legs and feet. Legs in particular because they are associated with primitive impulse to fight or flight.

Parallel stance = non-committal.

Straddle stance = dominant. Widened, presenting genitals, presents a posture of immovability – often found in sports clubs post game. No intention of leaving.

Scissors stance = unintentional because it shows no intention of leaving and devoid of impatience. Submissive feature.

Buttress stance = person wants to leave.


Political Tells

It’s as important for politicians to convince others they have certain principles as it is to conceal that they are prepared to abandon these principles in favour of power, money and fame.

Kennedy vs Nixon 1960s debates: Those that listened on the radio put Nixon ahead. People who watched put Kennedy ahead.

Ronald Reagan was rated the third best president of the US of all time, behind Washington and Lincoln. He was able to produce the right tells.

Friendly Tells: Reagan’s smiles extended to his eyes. Genuine smiles are like magnets, they act at a distance and realign people’s feelings, making them point in the same direction. Mouth and eye smiles are therefore brilliant political weapons.

Vocal Tells: Breathy voice, women have this more than men.

Whisper voice, creates illusion of physical closeness and psychological intimacy.

Anxiety Tells

Psychologists say there are two types of anxiety:

  1. Trait (personality)
  2. State (how you are feeling at that moment)

Sweating tells:

  • Sweating is central to thermo regulation and a response to emotionally charged events.
  • Emotional sweating, concentrated on face and hands – where sweat glands are most tightly packed – once started, difficult to stop. Sweating feeds on itself, once it starts it makes you feel more anxious.

Sexual Tells

Fashion, culture and circumstance highly influence what people find attractive.

David Buss of University of Texas: Men universally prefer women who are young, shapely and unblemished skin. Women place greater value on men’s wealth and ability to provide security. 

But, martial flings are more likely with a tennis coach than banker.

Men are much more likely to pursue a woman who isn’t beautiful but who gives off the right signals, than a woman who is gorgeous but does not appear to be available. In contests between courtship signals and looks, signals usually win. Marilyn Monroe knew how to make signals.

Dominance and submission is often reversed during courtship.

Availability tells: Most sexual advertising is done by women (hair, dress, make-up) but, men used to participate as ‘Dandy’ men and peacocks in the seventeenth century.

We spot talent by scanning and promenading (walking and inspecting).

Broadcasting and narrowcasting can be used in bars to show availability.

Approach tells: Darwin saw courtship as nearly always a female choice but men like to think the opposite. The approach tell is the clearance but mean men approach a woman who hasn’t asked for it. Man’s chance of success is therefore reduced and it robs the woman of control. A man can get around this by being submissive or making the impression that his intention is non-sexual.

Strobe glance: Woman catches man’s eye for 2 seconds then looks away but, not so much to disconnect from whole interaction. Monika Moore suggests if this sequence is repeated 3 times then it’s clearance to approach.

Other examples: Eye lock, hair flick, pout and licking lips, smile (but not full smile as these are reserved from friends and acquaintances).

Flirting Tells – 3 Types:

  • Come-on
  • Hold-on
  • Put-off

Men are very bad at reading these and tend to think all are come-ons. They tend to think put offs are hang-ons and hang-ons are come-ons.

Posture Tells: Upon first meeting if the women coils her legs and folds her arms love it unlikely to succeed.

Leg Tells: Men like long legs because when girls go through puberty they have a growth spurt, leaves legs looking longer than the rest of their body.

Three Barbie Doll strategies women can employ:

  1. High heels
  2. Gym kit with high legs
  3. Walk on tiptoe

Head Tells: Nod, hair flick, head tile to side, neck display – all show submission.

Eye Tells: Dipped head, bigger eyes. Dilated pupils are involuntary.


We are quick to notice changes in environment but not people – change blindness.

University campus, stranger approaches you asking for directions, during which time two people pass between you carrying a large wooden door. After the two people pass you resume giving directions. Stranger thanks you and then declares they are not the same stranger you were speaking to initially. First stranger comes over and stands next to the other stranger you gave directions to, they’re different in dress, height and build. 50% of people subjected to this experiment didn’t notice the stranger swap. Experiment by Daniel Simons and San Levin at Harvard. 

Three reasons we don’t notice tells, failure of:

  1. Observation
  2. Recognition
  3. Interpretation

Darwin solved this by his habit of minute observation.

Warning when analysing people:

  • When analysing tells and body language we must look for multiple tells.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions, make conditional inferences
  • Compare person in different settings

“It is with trifles and when he is off guard that a man best reveals his character.” Arthur Schopenhauer

“Never to trust impressions – but concentrate on the details.” Sherlock Holmes