The Power of Body Language in Business

Part two of three Publications posts discussing etiquette.  This series is intended to help students and new professionals navigate the social expectations of our profession and provide a few useful tips that can set you ahead of other job candidates.

Body language is a very powerful statement that underlines our deepest thoughts and feelings.  We want to be mindful of our body language so that we are not sending mixed signals that may confuse others or give them a false impression.  I tend to cross my arms over my chest quite often because I get cold, to keep myself from fidgeting when I am nervous, and I realize that I talk with my hands a lot so I try to hold them down sometimes when speaking.  I don’t want to accidentally hit another speaker in close quarters when one of my hands flies out as I am making a point because that would be incredibly embarrassing.

When taking a speaking class in school – I was floored to learn that my fellow classmates gave me feedback that they perceived me as being a very closed off person, an angry person, and possibly hiding something which could not be further from the truth.  I am generally a happy person so I started talking to people in my class to find out where this false impression came from and realized it started and ended with me crossing my arms all of the time.  I started standing straighter when speaking (good posture is important when sitting or standing), making eye contact with the audience, and making a concentrated effort to keep my arms relaxed by my sides.  The feedback at the beginning and end of that class was a drastic difference.   When the class ended – the impression of me changed to a warm, engaging, open, and funny speaker.  I was pleased but I began to wonder how many times I may have sent out the wrong signal in an interview, when speaking to potential employers, or even those around me who may have become good friends.  Body language experts have shown that the person you are speaking to will retain as much as 38% more of the conversation if you speak with an open posture which means not crossing arms or legs.  This is because they are more interested in what you have to say because they feel you are unconsciously welcoming them in to the conversation.

One little gesture completely changed other’s perception of me so I became very interested in other ways that I could better express myself without words.  Did you know that by making contact with another person through a handshake, fist bump, or pat on the back that you can establish an emotional bond by contact as small as 1/40th of a second?  The Income Center for Trade Shows conducted a study on shaking hands and one of the outcomes of the study shows that people are twice as likely to remember you if you shake their hand.  The participants of the study were more open and friendly with someone willing to shake their hand.  A hand shake should be firm and brief – don’t crush the person’s hand and don’t wobble like a wet noodle (as that has a connotation of being untrustworthy).  Practice with family and friends to make sure you get your hand shake down on a consistent basis.  If you are nervous then it might be a good idea to wash your hands before an interview or professional meeting to ensure your hands are not sweaty or clammy to the touch.  The more you practice…the more natural it becomes and it will blend seamlessly in to your professional demeanor.

Smiling at someone can actually alter their emotional state because it is their instinct to return the smile and smiling makes both of you happy – it might start out as fake or an automatic response but smiling does lift your mood.  Having a smile on your face makes you so much more approachable to other people and gives the unconscious impression that you can be trusted and that you are competent.  There is no need to plaster a fake smile on your face until you feel like your face will crack open and “fake it until you make it” because no matter how good you are at hiding your true feelings it will still look somewhat gruesome on your face if you try to hold a huge toothy smile long past the point where it is appropriate.  A small smile is a good way to start and it helps if you can hold on to a thought that makes you happy so that it comes across as genuine.  This may seem simple to some people and insurmountable to those where smiling is not their natural expression.  I practiced smiling when with family and friends so that it could come more naturally to me during conversations.

Maintaining eye contact with someone you are speaking to is important to convey that you are trustworthy and proceeding with a purpose.  A trick to not overdo it is to make eye contact long enough to be able to gauge the other person’s eye color.  You should make eye contact when greeting someone else and when you are making important points in the conversation.  Businesses in the US, Australia, and Europe generally expect someone to maintain eye contact for roughly between fifty and sixty percent of the conversation but this can be considered rude or confrontational in other cultures therefore it is important to know your audience.

Body language is important in helping you present yourself in a professional manner.  It is also a way to assure the person you are speaking with that your thoughts mirror your words to help build trust and confidence.  Bad body language can completely ruin a brilliant speech, a job interview, or a meeting with a potential employer.  People often make logical inferences from your body language that speak much louder than you do.  For example, if I don’t respect the three foot radius rule for personal space around someone when I am talking to them then they may assume that I am acting in an unprofessional manner.  Anything I say after it is noticed that I am invading their personal space is null and void no matter how brilliant or sophisticated it may be in my mind.  We want to present the best version of ourselves when speaking to potential employers so that our inherent abilities are noticed, appreciated, and considered.  Are you making your body language work for you?

Author: Pamela J. Lail, MHA, RHIA, CHDA, PMP, FAHIMA