Every mannerism you make communicates something. And you’re being judged for it. How you’re standing, how you’re dressed, your eye contact, etc. – you are being judged. In fact, my own research suggests that people make decisions about you in the first seven seconds they see you. A little overwhelming if you think about it too much. But, that’s the reality – so much of what we communicate to the outside world is actually not verbal in nature.
In fact, Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, conducted several studies on nonverbal communication. He found that 7% of any message is conveyed through words, 38% through certain vocal elements, and 55% through nonverbal elements (facial expressions, gestures, posture, etc). That means, based on his findings over 90% of our communication doesn’t have to do with the words we speak.
Regardless of the actual percentage, it could be argued that a majority of communication is done non-verbally. And yet, so many executives who come to me for improvement in communication aren’t even thinking about this aspect of “speaking.” Instead, they spend hours honing messages, seeking to choose exactly the right words, only to pay no attention whatsoever to the visual judgments everyone makes every time they enter a room, start a meeting, or deliver a presentation.
Actions Do Speak Louder
While I have traditionally spent a great deal of time working with executives on their verbal communication…non-verbal communication is just as, or more, important. Often awareness of our non-verbal cues is what allows us to be more emotionally intelligent with those around us.
We all know the old adage, “actions speak louder than words” – and when it comes to speeches and body language, that can certainly apply. How you move your body, use your eyes, utilize your arms, etc., all send messages to those around you and impact how they feel.
Do you come off as an open individual – interested in what you’re communicating and interested in the reactions of others? Or do you look like you’d rather be elsewhere, or that you’re unsure of what you’re saying? Either of those impressions will destroy your message and ensure that no one walks away inspired or motivated to act on your words.
What Our Posture Says About Us
One of the best TED talks available is given by Ann Cuddy, who speaks to the fascination we have with others’ body language, as well as importance of our body language and how it not only affects how others feel about us, but also how we feel about ourselves in our thoughts, feelings, and physiology.
In her presentation, she shares the exploration of her hypothesis that individuals can influence their feelings and behaviors by changing their body language. She wondered, is it possible for people to “fake it till they make it” – can someone take on certain body language characteristics to then influence their behavior? Her findings found that our nonverbals do in fact govern how we think and feel about ourselves.
Imagine the power in that. Imagine the power you can leverage by actively understanding the impact of your verbal AND non-verbal messages. Do you want to be powerful? I don’t mean the “powerful” our child-like self may be envisioning: the all-knowing sorcerer who can destroy the world with a maniacal laugh. How about the persuasive, respected individual in the boardroom, your office, or anywhere for that matter? The power to inspire and motivate action from others. I’ve addressed this previously with those who have executive presence.
You have the ability to harness that power – you are in control of you. And since people are already reacting to your body language, they will respond to how you feel about yourself which will manifest itself in your posture. So, be aware, be in control, and become more powerful.
As I said before, you are in control of you; but, how do you know what those postures and nonverbals are communicating? When it comes to body language, you are either giving a closed or open vibe. Consider the following posture stances and compare them against your tendencies; what messages are you inadvertently giving? Every posture either gives an open or closed message to those around you.
- Aggressive: Closed. These postures tend to happen when someone is unsure of how to answer a question or when they try to project too prominently with their bodies. Examples of these are:
- Hands on hips
- Standing/talking too close
- Aggressive gesturing like finger-pointing
- Overly firm handshake
- Defensive: Closed. When you think about the defensive posture, think about a boxer who uses his gloves to protect his face. His fists are up because he’s about to get punched by someone in the nose.
- Crossed arms or legs
- Hunched shoulders
- Poor eye contact
- Leaning away
- Nervous: Closed. These positions occur when you feel compromised and weak; you lose your composure and power by using these gestures:
- Nail biting
- Dry throat (swallowing/coughing)
- Weak handshake
- Avoiding eye contact
- Bored: Closed. When the following gestures are made you are giving the impression that you are obligated to be there – delivering a speech or presentation out of necessity, not your own desire:
- Looking around
- Looking at watch
- Drumming fingers
- Interested: Open. These are positive postures that project friendship, concern, or empathy. The more you can show people that you are listening to them or are interested in their ideas, the better. Examples of these are:
- Firm handshake
- Good eye contact
- Confident stance and gestures
- Showing interest (head nod, slight lean in)
As you can see, a majority of these are negative, which means there’s a greater chance in doing more harm than good. However, being aware of these mannerisms can make all the difference in helping you avoid the negative non-verbals individuals tend to do without even realizing it.
Take a Look in the Mirror
So often we are unaware of the postures we find ourselves in most. In fact, many of us convey messages we don’t intend to simply by being unaware of how we hold ourselves and what we look like. Try practicing hypothetical conversations – important and insignificant – in front of the mirror. Be open and honest about what you see. Make note of those tendencies and whether they support or distract from the message you are trying to share.
In addition, take an honest assessment of how you look. The way you look makes a very strong visual statement about how you see yourself. Do you look knowledgeable, confident, kind, responsible? Avoid negative impressions and build on positive interactions by paying close attention to you. While you’re practicing hypothetical conversations in the mirror, imagine seeing you as you speak. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What do I look like? Don’t be overly critical of your appearance but be objective. Did you cut yourself shaving? Clean it up. Are you wearing a suit or ensemble that doesn’t quite fit right anymore? Find another set of clothes. Having a bad hair day? Take the time to fix your hair. Smudged makeup, food in your teeth, a spot on your blouse or suit – really look at yourself.
- Is how I look potentially distracting to someone I’m speaking to? Maybe you’ve dyed your hair blue on purpose to make a point – in which case that’s a part of your plan. But, what you don’t want to do is miss parts of your appearance which will unintentionally distract like for instance, “Hmmm … something’s out of place here. His tie is too short. His button is unbuttoned. Her blouse is covered with lint.” Because once someone starts thinking about your appearance, they’re not going to remember a word you say.
We are all unique individuals with differing styles, habits, and characteristics – these all contribute to who you are, your brand, your message. The important takeaway is be aware and deliberate about the message you are projecting.
Help Your Body Help You
So, your nonverbal cues and how you look are extremely important – we’ve established that. But, your verbal communication is still significant. The combination of successful verbal and non-verbal skills will be the differentiator between you and the rest. How do you align these two essential pieces of communication? Awareness is key. Awareness of not only yourself, but of those around you. The following are some techniques to employ that will help you maximize your body language and generate more effective verbal communication:
- Ask yourself what you want to convey. Many people call this your “vibe.” You see it in musicians—the proverbial “rock star” vibe. Before you speak, whether you’re walking into a boardroom or stepping on stage, think about the situation that you are in and make a clear choice about the attitude you want to project. Do you want to look powerful? Vulnerable? Confident? How does your look support this before you even open your mouth?
- Where and how you stand in space: Status and power are nonverbally conveyed by height and space. Standing tall, pulling your shoulders back, and holding your head straight are all signals of confidence and competence.
- Approach: After giving a presentation, or leading a meeting, when the “camera is off” as they say, is when the magic usually happens. You’ve delivered a message, and if you provoked a reaction, someone is going to want to approach you. So, smile. Your smile is a sign to the world that you are friendly and approachable – that you want to engage.
- Eyes speak: What are your eyes saying? The eye can be a window into your soul. If you are looking straight into someone’s eyes, it’s very difficult for them to look away. They feel an immediate attachment and they look back. Try making a practice of noticing the other person’s eye color, which is one way of staying focused.
- Shake hands: It’s the quickest way to establish rapport. It’s what we use to reach out and say, “I am happy to meet you. I’m pleased to meet you. What a pleasure.” Shake their hand, not too tight, not too loose. It shouldn’t be limp because that’s what they’re going to remember. Just a firm handshake.
- Gestures: Avoid looking rehearsed, like you’re a trained robot. Remember the time you’ve spent evaluating your common gestures and postures. Use your hands when you are speaking just as you would in ordinary life. Just be natural.
We make statements before we even say a word, not only in how we dress but with our posture and body language as well. The fact is, how you present yourself visually will affect your effectiveness as a leader and impact your ability to be persuasive, inspirational and trusted. So, go ahead and take a look in that mirror…and SEE what you’re saying when you’re VERBALLY not saying anything at all. Learn more about how my on-site workshops and keynote presentations help individuals become better communicators – both verbally and non-verbally, immediately.