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Is Your Body Language Sabotaging Your Leadership Presence?

Your success at influencing others and projecting presence is strongly influenced by nonverbal factors including: your posture, your gestures, your facial expressions, your tone of voice and your energy level.

In any business meeting, you’re communicating over two channels: verbal and nonverbal. If your body language is in alignment with what you’re saying, you come across as sincere and credible.

But, if your body language sends a contradictory message to your verbal one, and people are forced to choose, they will most likely disregard what they hear and believe what they see.

Here are three body language strategies that support your leadership presence:

  1. Master the art of a positive first impression

Did you know that within the first seven seconds of meeting investors, they have already decided if you are competent, confident, likeable and trustworthy?

Because they are primarily based on nonverbal signals, first impressions are superficial and often inaccurate - but these lightning-fast judgments are also powerful. If your audience (big or small) instantly likes and trusts you, they'll look for the best in you. If they don’t like you or trust you, they’ll look for signs of deception.

You can't stop people from making these snap judgements because the human brain is hardwired this way – you just don’t have total control over the impression you make. But you do have more control than you may think.

In those first few seconds, here’s what is totally in your control:

  • Before entering a meeting room, think about the impression you want to make and let your facial expression reflect the appropriate emotion.
  • “Dress for success” greatly depends on the industry you’re in, but being neat and well-groomed is always in style. Wear something that helps you look and feel your professional best.
  • Posture says a lot. If you slump or condense your body, you appear to have low confidence and low energy. If you stand with your shoulders back and your head held high, you look confident and energized.
  • Eye contact. Eye contact is one of the most positive ways to make a personal connection, show interest and project confidence. Improve eye contact by making a point of looking at someone’s eyes long enough to notice their eye colour.
  • Because we tend to speak in a higher vocal range when we’re nervous, you’ll sound more relaxed and assured if you lower your tone of voice. Right before you pitch, take a deep breath and on the exhale, relax your shoulders and throat.
  • It may take time before people are comfortable shaking hands, but without this simple ritual, we lose the chance to build rapport with such a compelling force, and even momentary touching can create a human bond.
  1. Talk with your hands (but know what they are saying)

When someone is preparing for a business presentation, the body language question I get asked the most is, what should I do with my hands?

My answer is: “Use them.” Brain imaging has shown that a region called Broca’s area, which is important for speech production, is active not only when we’re talking but when we wave our hands. Since gesture is integrally linked to speech, gesturing as we talk can power up our thinking.

In fact, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to hide your hands in your pockets, behind your back, or beneath the conference table. Hidden hands make you look less trustworthy, one of the nonverbal signals that is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. Although today the threat of hidden hands is more symbolic than real, our ingrained psychological discomfort remains.

Arms held at waist height and gestures within that horizontal plane help you feel centred and composed. Between gestures, try keeping your arms at waist level and bent to a 45 degree angle (accompanied by a stance about shoulder-width wide). It helps keep you grounded and focused.

Hand gestures can also help reinforce your message. Use gestures to physically illustrate a point: rotating your palms up to display candour, moving your hands wider apart when talking about a big idea, or pinching your thumb and index finger together to indicate that this is a small issue. When you want to project conviction and sincerity about a point you’re making, try steepling: touch the tips of your fingers but keep your palms separated.

Gestures to minimize or avoid are those that show you are under stress or are becoming aggressive or defensive. These include self-soothing gestures, like rubbing your hands together, playing with jewellery, ventilating by loosening your collar or pulling your hair back from your neck.

Aggressive signals include standing with hands-on-hips, finger-pointing and clenching your hands into fists. You’ll look defensive (whether or not you are) if you block your body with crossed arms.

There’s also an interesting equation of hand and arm movement with energy. If you wanted to project more enthusiasm, you could do so by increasing gestures. However, over-gesturing (especially when hands are raised above the shoulders) can make you appear erratic, less believable and less powerful.

  1. Project the dual signs of leadership presence

There are two sets of body-language cues that we instinctively look for in leaders: warmth and authority.

When you use warm, “pro-social” body language, you send signals of likeability, empathy, candour and connection.

The most effective sign of warmth is a genuine smile. It makes you feel better and signals to others that you’re approachable, cooperative and friendly. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles the corners of your eyes, and lights up your face. A fake or “polite” smile comes on quickly and never reaches the eyes.

The second set of body language cues project power and authority, and are displayed through height and space. If you are tall, it’s an advantage because you look more powerful. If you are short, then standing tall with shoulders back, head held high, keeping your body symmetrical will create the illusion of height.

A side benefit is that great posture will not only make you look more powerful, but it will help you feel that way too. Using broad gestures and moving from time to time is a nonverbal way of claiming space.

Body language can also help you display confidence and composure when answering difficult or challenging questions. Here’s how to maintain your poise under pressure:

  1. Turn your body toward the person who is asking the question.
  2. Maintain eye contact.
  3. Don’t fidget or rock side to side.
  4. Lean slightly forward so that you look receptive.
  5. Keep your body and your gestures open.
  6. Take a breath and on the exhale relax your shoulders. This will give you the time needed to choose how you want to respond.

Don’t let your body language sabotage your success. Instead, be more mindful and look inward to see which of these leadership presence actions can be incorporated in your day-to-day habits.

A version of this article was initially published in the author’s newsletter hosted on  LinkedIn.

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