Effective Body Language

It begins even before you say your first word.

As the client or prospect walks toward you to shake hands, an opinion is already being formed.

And as you sit waiting to “sell” what you have to say, you are already being judged by your appearance, posture, smile or your nervous look.

We all want to appear confident and successful, but often forget how much body language affects how others perceive us.  It’s important to raise our self-awareness and understand the nonverbal signals we send.  Often it’s not what we say that influences others, but rather what we do not say.  The clues we send nonverbally suggest attitude, understanding, empathy, and ethics.

Janine Driver, in her book You Say More Than You Think: A 7-Day Plan for Using the New Body Language, cites the “7%-38%-55% Rule,” coined by psychologists who claim that the impact we make on others depends on what we say (7%), how we say it (38%), and most importantly, by our body language (55%).

Whether sitting, standing, or making eye contact, we are always communicating nonverbally. If you’ve spoken to a group or participated in a meeting lately, you’ve undoubtedly noticed body language at play.  Here are 5 nonverbal messages to be aware of – for both speakers and participants.

As a speaker

Strong and effective body language can help establish an immediate rapport with an audience, signaling confidence in your message.

  • Vocal expression.  Does your voice project warmth, confidence and enthusiasm, or is it flat, strained and blocked?  A voice that has a lot of variety in tone, pitch, rate of speech, and expression is the opposite of a monotone, which quickly becomes boring.  A moderate rate, punctuated by appropriate pauses is also important. Mastering just these 2 aspects of the voice will infuse your delivery with a level of power and energy that will engage participants.
  • Posture.  If you are standing, certain positions can be viewed as aggressive. Arms crossed over chest may be viewed as defensive, and hands on hips translate to “You can’t tell ME what to do.” Keeping your hands stiffly by your side or stuck in your pockets can give the impression that you’re insecure whether you are or not.  Stand in a comfortable body position that is not slouching in order to convey confidence and openness. Use slight hand gestures while speaking to suggest energy and emphasis.
  • Eye contact.  It’s important to build rapport with your audience by looking at them. If it’s a fairly small group (20 or fewer), you should try for contact with each person. In a large group, take in small groups. Aim for 3-5 seconds per contact.  If you don’t look people in the eye, they may feel that you are insecure or aren’t being truthful.
  • Movement.  Great speakers move around the room, pointing to a slide instead of reading from it, placing their hands on someone’s shoulders instead of keeping their distance. Don’t animate your slides – animate your body!  Standing in one spot makes you seem stiff and uninteresting.  Pacing back and forth shows your nervousness and insecurity.  Moving around comfortably conveys confidence and a sense of ease
  • Use your hands.  When you’re speaking, let your hands support your message. Positive hand gestures convey confidence and strength.  Great speakers use hand gestures more than average. Watch charismatic speakers like Bill Clinton, Colin Powell, or Barack Obama. You’ll notice that they punctuate nearly every sentence with a hand gesture. To support messages about things that are spiritual or uplifting, raise your hands shoulder level or above (note how a church minister will raise his hands in blessing).  Regular messages are supported by gestures at the middle level of your body, and gestures below the waist support unpleasant or less than desirable messages.

To get a sense of strong, positive body language, look back at memorable speakers you’ve heard. Which ones stand out? The ones who were more animated and entertaining, or the ones who just gave out information?

As a meeting participant or listener
You may only be listening, but your nonverbal signals can speak volumes.

  • Posture.  Sitting in a straight but relaxed position in a chair during a meeting signals that you’re open and attentive, and leaning forward slightly indicates that you’re interested and engaged with what’s happening.  This quickly changes if you slouch in your chair or lean back with your hands behind your head.  Suddenly you’re expressing disinterest, boredom or superiority.  Cross your arms in front of your chest and you may be expressing insecurity or a defensive position.
  • Eye contact.  Rolling the eyes, checking your watch, not focusing on a speaker or not making eye contact can all be viewed as workplace body language that says “I’d rather be doing something else,” and expresses disinterest.
  • Active listening.  Smiling and nodding are appropriate workplace body language when talking with others. They are a form of active listening that says, “I get you, and I agree with you.” (When you don’t agree with someone it’s usually not appropriate workplace body language to smile and nod, and it will seem like a contradiction.) Leaning forward or in more closely to a speaker also shows interest.
  • Don’t fidget. There is nothing worse than people playing with their hair or jewelry, tugging at their clothes, clicking pen tops, tapping feet or unconsciously touching parts of the body.  This type of body language can express insecurity, boredom and disinterest, and immaturity.  Offer your speaker respect and don’t distract others by fidgeting.
  • Put away the electronic devices.  Yes, we’re a tech savvy world.  But tech devices have their place and it’s not in a meeting.  Checking email and banging away on a laptop is disrespectful to the speaker and sends the signal that you’re bored, not interested, or not fully engaged in the meeting.  If you must reply to an urgent email, do so at break or politely excuse yourself.

What types of body language have you observed, or what nonverbal signals do you want to work on?  Post your comments.


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