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. You make impressions on others almost instantly (anywhere from a fraction of a second to seven seconds, according to various studies). This means that you need to make a great impressions right from when you first enter a room or appear on video, before even saying hello.
Nonverbal communication is part of your personal brand so be aware that everyday interactions on video and in person influence what people think about you. Here are 10 body language do's and don'ts to make best impressions.
Regular eye contact builds a positive connection with others. Even if you’re a little anxious -- like when answering a difficult question, addressing a large meeting or introducing 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.)
Are you tired, unprepared or disinterested in the conversation? If you’re slouching, others may wonder that about you. While it's certainly obvious around a conference table, it's also obvious on screen too. 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!)
Many people have nervous habits and don't realize that they're obvious to others (moving around in a chair, 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).
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).
When talking to people in a group, like chatting around a conference table before a meeting or standing at an event, 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.
When giving a presentation or leading a meeting, avoid constantly looking down at your notes (or when in person, at the table/podium). Glance as needed, but then look up and make eye contact with others. When presenting on video, look directly into the camera. This is crucial for developing a positive connection with your audience, whether addressing a group of five people or 50. Physically looking up also enables voice projection so people can hear you clearly and feel like you're speaking to them.
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Read how to best prepare for giving presentations, here.
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 -- especially after experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic. 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.
In virtual settings, giving others room means giving them the opportunity to speak. If you find that someone is struggling to get a word in because you or others constantly talk over them, take a moment to welcome that person's thoughts to the conversation (which will signal to others to wait and listen).
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. Standing stiff-armed, without any movement, can look robotic and communicate nervousness, lack of preparation or even discomfort. While there are no constraints on hand gestures when speaking in-person, be careful not to overdo it on video because all that motion is amplified within the virtual rectangle. If you tend to talk excessively with your hands, keep them below camera view as much possible, or even sit on one hand occasionally.
Although the handshake has been a staple in business relationships since forever, the pandemic has changed people's comfort with initiating and reciprocating them. Whether meeting someone for the first or fifth time, go with your comfort first, but be aware that it may not be reciprocated in that format -- or at all. If you're uncomfortable with a handshake, you can initiate an elbow bump or simply smile and wave. If you're ok with a handshake, extend your hand but ask if it's ok and offer the alternative of an elbow bump or smile and wave instead. Reciprocation will vary, which has nothing to do with you; be respectful of others' preferences. Do follow the same etiquette of a handshake regardless of format and anxiety around it and offer a smile and greeting (or goodbye) with it.
For business travelers, displaying cultural competency regarding business etiquette (including greeting and body language customs) impacts impressions. The tips provided above have a US audience in mind. Before traveling abroad, research local cultural norms and/or seek out expert advice. Depending where you're going, there may be different expectations and interpretations of body language and nonverbal cues, including eye contact, handshakes, finger pointing and 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 provide others with visual cues that will influence the impressions 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 your impact overall. Optimizing body language ensures that you’ll make better impressions.