Body Language

by Mary-Louise Angoujard

Confidence and enthusiasm

  • How can I appear more confident?
  • How can I get senior management to notice me?
  • My team ignores what I say – how do I learn to ‘look’ like a leader?
  • My manager tells me I need to show more enthusiasm, but I really feel enthusiastic – how do I show it?
  • I’m getting promoted and need to develop a stronger/better image to show more leadership. How do I do this?
  • How can you come across with more impact in interviews?

Body language alone is not enough

If you want to appear confident and enthusiastic, body language along won’t do it, so in general you need to be congruent mentally as well as physically.

  • Be proactive – take the initiative. Don’t wait for someone to suggest a course of action! If you know how to take things forward, say what you will do next. (Caveat: be smart and on anything that will take major time and/or funds, you should obviously present the idea to your boss first, to get their agreement.)
  • Take every opportunity you can to take the lead – volunteering for presentations and doing a great job will help you get noticed in a positive way.
  • Ask your boss for specific feedback on how you are doing – what you are already doing well, and how you can improve/strengthen your performance or candidacy for that promotion.
  • Present your boss with solutions rather than problems.
  • Use positive or neutral, rather than negative, words and phrases.
  • Talk about your activities in a positive way – to let people know/remind them of what you are achieving, without bragging of course!
  • Suggest and/or volunteer for special projects – do a great job on them, and then offer to present the results to interested parties.
  • Build relationships with key people in other areas of the business – don’t limit your interaction and impact just to your own department and managers.
  • Ensure your mental attitude is positive and focus on how you can support/engage/connect with others in a way that is helpful and positive for them!
  • In particular, set a good example to your own and other staff – be inspirational, encouraging and motivating, where possible.

Body language

Provided you are doing all or some of the above, good use of nonverbal communication will enhance and strengthen your communication.

  • Hold yourself upright, with your back straight and your shoulders ‘square’ rather than slumped forward (note that upright does not mean holding yourself stiffly) – even when seated at your desk.
  • Walk energetically and purposefully – don’t amble or shuffle or, conversely, appear to hurry.
  • Show interest in others, in their motivations, concerns and priorities, by asking good quality open questions.
  • Really listen to people when they speak and ask good quality questions.
  • Face people and focus on them rather than yourself when you are in communication.
  • Speak without hesitation and naturally – in other words, with animation. Nobody speaks in a monotone when they are relaxing with their friends – animation is natural for people when they are relaxed.
  • Smile in appropriate situations.
  • React to what others are saying when they speak, as this is a signal that you are ‘with them’ in the communication.
  • Meet people’s eyes without fear or embarrassment – without either staring or avoiding eye contact.

Top tips for confident body language

  • Good posture appears balanced and confident. By ensuring your back is straight and your shoulders are not slumped, you will improve the way you come across and you will also feel more confident.
  • Keeping your head position straight (neutral), not rigid, indicates greater confidence and impact than tilting it to one side or tilting your head down toward someone else.
  • Remember to put appropriate animation and expression into your face while speaking.
  • Your body positioning when seated is important: sit full-on towards the table when you need confidence and authority, and at an angle when you are seeking collaboration or to avoid confrontation (for example, in a one-on-one situation).
  • When gesturing for emphasis, use definite gestures. Vague, fluid gestures look less powerful and lead the viewer to perceive the ideas behind them are equally vague. This applies both to public speaking and to meetings in which you wish to build your personal presence and make an impact, such as in management meetings.
  • Use good eye contact, which means meeting someone’s eyes and the central area of the face for a period of a few seconds at a time. Eye contact is important, perhaps especially when you feel uncomfortable.
  • Energy in front of the group: when walking, pick up the pace and walk tall. Move with purpose and avoid the temptation to wander around. Transitions are a good place to change your position in front of the group – for example, by turning at an angle of between 35 and 45 degrees, taking a few steps to one side (continuing to face the audience) and then planting your feet once again, until there is another reason to move. Another variation on this is to take two steps forward, stop, make the point and then take two steps back. (In theatre, actors only move when there is a reason to do so and it is the same whenever we are doing stand-up presentations in front of an audience – otherwise we lose power.)
  • When standing, ensure you are stable, with feet shoulder-length apart, and bring animation into your face and gestures.
  • In an open-plan office particularly, you are always being observed by someone, so don’t amble or shuffle along aimlessly – it is better to walk with energy and purpose. Pick up the pace a bit, although you should avoid appearing to hurry. People who are in control are never in a hurry unless it is a genuine emergency, such as when someone shouts ‘Fire!’ (or, possibly, ‘Free drinks!’). So, when walking, pick up the pace and walk tall, with purpose.

Avoid

There are certain body language faults that will definitely detract from your image.

  • Defensive-looking body language includes behaviour such as leaning on and over a table while sitting, or folding your arms across the body. The first puts you at a lower level than others present, physically and also figuratively (!) and the second appears to indicate the need to protect yourself. Both behaviours tend to detract from your authority, because they do not present a confident attitude.
  • Avoid shoulder slumping, sitting with your body leaning to one side in the chair (although your chair can be placed at an angle in a one-on-one situation if you are seeking collaboration and wish to avoid confrontation).
  • Also avoid leaning over the table with your head, shoulders and torso at a lower level than others present, as this robs you of power as well as leaching your own inner authority and confidence.
Key tip

Consider how you wish to be perceived (in other words positive, confident, purposeful, strong, authoritative, a leader, interested, energetic and so on) and adopt the kind of mental attitude that fosters these qualities – your body language is likely to reflect this mental attitude, and you will be perceived more by others as possessing these qualities. Consistency is key, so develop the habit of having a strong, positive mental focus and carrying yourself well.