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What You Say Without Speaking

During a recent radio interview I was asked to comment on the body language of Marketplace host Kai Ryssdal. He was a very good sport about being critiqued in public, and he quickly understood that in order to change your body language you must first be aware of what your body is saying.

But be warned: this isn't as easy as you may think. Take Sara, for example:

Sara was a vice president at a utility company. She complained that she was consistently overlooked for senior positions. "I don't know what I'm doing wrong," she told me. "I'm smart, enthusiastic, and hard-working. I can't figure out why people don't warm up to me."

Well, maybe she couldn't figure it out, but if you saw her in action, you'd know exactly what her problem was.

During my session with Sara, her eyes darted around the room as if she were searching for the nearest exit, her hands made choppy gestures, and she drummed her fingers on the conference table. I'd been with the woman for only 20 minutes, and already l was feeling jumpy. Sarah perceived herself as projecting enthusiasm and energy. But the nonverbal cues she displayed were sending a loud and clear message of impatience and nervousness.

This is a common situation with body language. Often, your nonverbal signals don't convey what you intend them to. You may be slouching because you're tired, but people read it as a sign of disinterest. You may be more comfortable standing with your arms folded across your chest (or you may just feel a chill), but others see you as resistant and unapproachable. And keeping your hands stiffly by your side or stuffed in your pockets can give the impression that you're insecure, whether you are or not.

With nonverbal communication, perception is everything: it's not how the sender feels that matters most, but rather what the observer thinks the sender is feeling. And these interpretations are often made deep in the subconscious mind, based on a primitive emotional reaction that hasn't changed much since humans first began interacting with one another.

So, the next time you're preparing for a job interview, an important meeting, or a big presentation, try rehearsing in front of a video camera. Then view the video, remaining as objective as possible. (If you can hire a coach to help you, that's even better.)

Just be kind to yourself. My clients are often stunned by their body language when they watch a video of themselves for the first time. After viewing his recording of a mock job interview, one incredulous client exclaimed, "Hell, I wouldn't hire me!"

Remember—whether you are speaking to a business audience of 500, pitching a product/service to a potential buyer, or presenting your idea at a team meeting, you are "on stage." And whenever you are on stage, you must pay attention to your nonverbal signals. People will judge you by your appearance and your body language—and they'll do it quickly. They may come to a conclusion about you before you've had a chance to dazzle them with your brilliant speech.

I don't mean that your words don't matter. Obviously, if you want to convince people or motivate them to act, you need relevant and meaningful content when you address them. But since body language sends its own set of messages, you'll also need to gain the nonverbal advantage.

Here are some nonverbal behaviors that send positive messages:
  • When someone else is talking, face that person directly. Even a quarter turn away signals your lack of interest and can cause the speaker to shut down.
  • Remove barriers between you and the other person. Take away items that block your view. Move the phone or stacks of paper on your desk. Better still, come out from behind your desk.
  • Maintain eye contact. People will assume you are not listening (and not interested) if your eyes scan the room or if your gaze shifts to your Blackberry or computer screen.
  • Show your hands and use palm-up hand gestures when speaking. Hidden hands signal that you may have something to hide, while open palms send a message of candor and openness.
  • Synchronize your body language with the other person. Subtly match his or her stance, arm positions, and facial expressions. (You do this unconsciously with your friends all the time.)
  • Nod your head. This signal encourages people to continue speaking and tells them that you appreciate their comments.

Our brains are programmed to read each other's body language, and your colleagues, clients, and customers will be watching yours to gain insight into your underlying motives and concerns. Now that you’re aware of the importance of body language in communication, make sure your actions serve and support your words.