Body language and nonverbal cues (eye contact, expression, posture, movement etc.) significantly influence what people think and feel about you, especially when meeting you for the first time. In fact, studies have shown that you begin making impressions on others almost instantly (anywhere from a fraction of a second to seven seconds).
Nonverbal communication helps define your personal brand and plays an important role in everyday interactions, including 1:1 conversations, meetings, networking events, presentations and interviews. Physical presence and nonverbal behaviors also impact impressions you make during video-based meetings, interviews and webinars as well as in pictures — especially your headshot.
Make a positive impact in any setting with these 10 essential body language do’s and don’ts:
1. Don’t stare at the floor. Do make eye contact.
Regular eye contact helps make a positive connection with others. Even if you’re a little anxious — like when you answer a difficult question in a meeting or interview, address a large meeting or introduce yourself to someone you admire — look people in the eye when speaking (and listening). This conveys trust, engagement and confidence. (You’ll also benefit from being able to observe others’ nonverbal cues and get a better read on the interaction too.)
2. Don’t slouch. Do sit or stand upright.
Are you tired, unprepared or disinterested in the conversation? If you’re slouching at the conference table, others in the room may wonder that about you. Good upright posture signals that you’re paying attention and ready to participate. When giving a talk or mingling during a networking event, standing tall (shoulders back and head up) signals you’re confident and ready to connect with others. (If you are, in fact, tired and struggling to sit up, focus on contracting your abdominal muscles — this automatically reduces slouching!)
3. Don’t fidget. Do ground yourself.
Many people have nervous habits and don’t realize that they’re obvious to others (swaying, shifting your weight from side-to-side, tapping your foot, running your hands through your hair etc.). Fidgety behaviors not only distract and detract from your message, they also convey anxiety. Others may wonder if you’re unprepared or lack expertise. Even if that’s not an accurate reflection of you, be wary that certain settings can promote fidgeting anyway, like tall chairs (which encourage swinging legs or toe tapping on a foot rest) or swivel chairs (which promote twisting back and forth).
4. Don’t cross your arms. Do open up and relax.
Many of us cross our arms, whether sitting or standing in conversation, because we don’t know what else to do with them. This is also a common self-protective pose, like when meeting new people, preparing for an uncomfortable conversation or getting bombarded with questions. An arms-folded position can make you appear closed off, unapproachable, cold and defensive. Instead, let your arms down by your sides, which presents you as more open, welcoming and comfortable. This goes for headshots too (although some may disagree and suggest this pose is a power stance).
5. Don’t close people off. Do pivot outward.
When talking to people in a group — whether chatting around a conference table before a meeting, standing at an event etc. — be aware of how you position yourself relative to others. If you turn too much toward one person, you may inadvertently close others out of the conversation and make a poor impression in the process. Position yourself so everyone is in view, even if they’re not actively involved in the discussion. When you facilitate others’ ability to see, hear and jump into a conversation, they’ll develop a more favorable impression of you.
6. Don’t talk to the table. Do look up and address the room.
When giving a presentation or leading a meeting, avoid constantly looking down at the table/podium, agenda or your notes. Glance as needed, but then look up and make eye contact with others. This is crucial for developing a positive connection with your audience, whether addressing a room of five people or 50. Physically looking up also enables voice projection so everyone can hear you clearly and feel like you’re speaking to them. Similarly, when meeting remotely, look directly into the computer’s camera when talking.
7. Don’t infringe on personal space. Do give others some room.
When sitting or standing in conversation, be aware of how physically close you are to others. While the amount of personal space may vary depending on familiarity, setting and culture, remember that other people may prefer more space than you do. If someone steps back or leans away when you speak, this indicates that you’re too close for (their) comfort. Even unintentionally, infringing on personal space can signal aggression or intimidation to others. If you need to get closer because you’re in a loud room and can’t hear the other person clearly or want to share something private, say so.
8. Don’t stand like a statue. Do move a little!
Speaking with your hands can help emphasize the importance of a point. While some people speak with their hands naturally, for others this requires some effort. Being expressive helps engage your audience and draw them into the conversation. If you stand stiff-armed without any movement, it can look robotic and communicate nervousness, lack of preparation or even discomfort.
9. Don’t offer a dead fish handshake. Do give a firm one.
The ability to initiate and reciprocate a firm handshake may sound like Business Etiquette 101, but believe it or not, many experienced professionals still miss the mark. A light touch can communicate weakness or leave the other party wondering why you’re so reticent. An overly strong grip can signal a desire to dominate and be in control. Strike the right balance — whether meeting someone for the first or fifth time. Offer a brief, firm handshake with a smile and greeting (or goodbye).
10. Don’t make a foreign faux pas. Do have cultural awareness.
When traveling abroad for business, do your homework on local cultural norms beforehand. The tips provided above have a US audience in mind. Depending where you are, there may be different expectations and interpretations of body language and nonverbal cues, such as with eye contact, handshakes, other hand gestures, crossing your legs etc.
From the moment you walk into a room, sit down for meeting or step up to a podium, you begin providing others with visual cues that will influence the impression they have of you and your personal brand. While what you say is important, how you conduct yourself (through posture, eye contact, a handshake, gestures etc.) is also crucial to the overall impact you make. Optimizing body language ensures that you’ll make better impressions.