I’ve spoken to over 200 business, university, association, and government audiences and, in the process of preparing to address these very savvy professionals, I’ve discovered even more about the role of body language in business success.
Here are my 10 simple and powerful body language tips I’ve culled over the years:
1) Before an important meeting, breathe through your mouth
Right before you enter the meeting room take a deep breath and exhale through your mouth. (If you are unobserved, make a soft “ahh” sound.) Doing so releases the tension in your neck, shoulders and jaw that can make you look rigid or aggressive.
2) When making a formal presentation, move then pause
Human beings are drawn to movement. If you move when you speak, you’ll get people’s attention. It can be especially effective to move toward the audience before making a key point, and away when you want to signal a break or a change of subject. You can also use space to reinforce your ideas. For example, if you’re presenting three issues, talk about each of them from a different physical position. Or if you have “bad” news and “good” news, you can present each from different sides of the stage or platform. (Just be sure to make your closing remarks while standing on the “good” side.) But don’t move while making a crucial comment. You have the most impact when you combine movement with physical pauses in which you stand absolutely still to highlight your most important points.
3) To look decisive, rotate your palms down
In essence, gestures with palms exposed show that you are open and willing to negotiate on a particular point, while palms turned down indicate that you are closed to negotiation. But people also automatically turn their palms down when they feel strongly about something. In fact, a definitive gesture of authority when you speak is placing both hands, palms down, on or right above the conference table.
4) If you want to be taken seriously, speak up early
When you hang back in a meeting, only to offer your opinion toward the end of the conversation, your input is more likely to be discounted. By speaking up early, even if it on some trivial matter, you establish yourself as someone who is “at the table” and ready to participate. Then later, when you present your insights and suggestions, they will be better received.
5) To know when people want to leave, watch for seated readiness
People often signal that they are ready to end a conversation by assuming the position of someone ready to rise. (They may move to the edge of the chair, or lean forward with hands on the arms of the chair or hands on knees.) If you are aware of someone assuming these postures while you are speaking, you should respect that signal by quickly finishing what you are saying.
6) To sharpen your negotiating skills, notice how fast you can make or break rapport
While seated at a conference table across from your counterpart, push back from the table and lean away from him or her. You’ll most likely see your counterpart react in kind by backing away from you. Now lean forward and put your hands on the table (with your palms showing), look him or her in the eyes and smile. Watch as the interaction warms up and is much more friendly and open. That’s how fast your body language can help you build or break rapport.
7) When you want your team to collaborate, start marching
Ensemble marching, singing, dancing, and drumming are all examples of activities that lead group members to act in synchrony with each other. Stanford University conducted research that showed that synchronous activity motivates members of a group to contribute toward the collective good. Across three experiments, people acting in synchrony with others cooperated more in subsequent group economic exercises, even in situations requiring sacrifice on a personal level from the group.
8) To sound dynamic, widen your stance
Your voice comes from your entire body, not just your mouth. Your body helps you become a more dynamic speaker when it is grounded – feet planted firmly on the floor, a hips-width apart, with your weight evenly distributed. A broad stance like this calms your nervous system, allows you to breathe with ease, and amplifies your voice. (This tip comes from Rhoda Agin, a speech and voice therapist.)
9) To stay in control, back up
Research at Radboud University, Netherlands, showed how backward motion was a powerful way to enhance cognitive control. The researchers found that when people encounter a difficult situation, getting them to step back (literally) boosted their ability to cope.
10) To increase team productivity, keep your body language open
People are constantly monitoring their leader for emotional cues. If your body looks closed, depressed or angry, these postures (and their corresponding emotions) will be subconsciously picked up and mimicked by your team. It’s a process called “emotional contagion” – and it can also work in your favour. If you keep your posture relaxed, inclusive and open, your team will respond by being more cohesive, positive and productive.
By the way: Just because these 10 tips are simple, don’t underestimate their power. Small nonverbal changes can make a big difference in how people perceive and relate to you.
Carol Kinsey Goman, PhD, is an executive coach, consultant, and international keynote speaker at corporate, government, and association events. She is also the author of STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence.