The words that CEOs and business owners communicate to their stakeholders should always be carefully chosen, since their messages can impact a wide array of constituencies. But what some business leaders fail to understand is that their body language—the sum total of their posture, gestures and facial expressions—also conveys an important message.
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And if they don’t pay close attention to this body language, the desired effect of the words they’ve carefully prepared may be lost.
In other words, when you address a gathering of employees, make a presentation before investors, or engage in an informal one-on-one with a member of your executive team, the way you talk and how you come across is just as important as what you actually have to say
“First impressions are made in less than seven seconds,” notes Forbes, “and are heavily influenced by your body language.” As studies show, “nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say.”
With this in mind, are you doing everything you can to reinforce your message with nonverbal cues?
Be aware of what you do (as well as what you say)
Openness is a form of nonverbal communication that can dramatically influence how others see you. An open facial expression indicates that you are completely focused on the person or group of individuals whom you’re addressing.
Openness includes making steady eye contact with whomever you interact with. As The CEO Magazine notes, there are two times when it’s vital to look a person directly in the eye: “when you’re giving instructions, and when you’re sharing information.” Of course, reasonable eye contact is desirable in any conversation, as long as you remember to sometimes “break eye contact, just a tiny bit, or you’ll look intimidating and aggressive.”
In a group setting, spread the eye contact around. Never stare at a particular audience member; instead, comfortably look out across the venue in which you’re making your presentation (or engaging in a Q&A) and make contact with different people. This approach ensures that everyone in the room is to some extent engaged with you, or at least feels included in your address.
Posture is equally important. The way you stand, sit, gesture, etc., says a lot about who you are, what you think of your audience, and what impression you hope to make. Some points to keep in mind:
- When sitting, place your hands in your lap or on a desk surface.
- When standing, have your shoulders back and feet set somewhat apart.
- Avoid fidgeting, rummaging your hands in your pockets, or otherwise suggesting your attention is elsewhere.
Remember how quickly your audience “sizes” you up. To make a favorable impression, it’s crucial to be aware of body language at all times.
Watch the gestures you make
Many people (business leaders included) “speak” with their hands. They gesture, point, mimic actions, and so on. Up to a point, this type of demonstrative behavior is fine, suggesting that the speaker wants to make sure his or her points are clear and easy to understand.
Unfortunately, when it comes to finger-pointing, “executives use this gesture in meetings, negotiations, or interviews for emphasis or to show dominance,” as Forbes notes, but “over-gesturing (especially when hands are raised above the shoulders) can make you appear erratic, less believable, and less powerful.”
As anyone who’s had the experience can tell you, having a finger pointing at you (or worse, feeling it’s aimed at your face) does not generate a sense of inclusiveness. Rather, it suggests someone who’s lecturing you or otherwise trying to dominate a conversation.
For almost all interactions, it’s preferable for a CEO or business owner to convey the impression that they are welcoming and open to what others have to say—not that they must control others’ reaction to them.
Some additional action steps to take to boost the effectiveness of your body language:
Be active during a public speaking engagement. Add gestures during key points of the speech. Hold up your fingers if you’re counting off a number of statements. Audiences respond to movement, as well as content. Walking around the stage while speaking communicates confidence and keeps people’s attention on what you’re saying.
Beware of minor tics. Some leaders betray their authority with minor tics like nervous laughter, repeated throat clearing, or a tendency to raise their voices at the end of a sentence. Nervous laughter suggests that what you’re saying isn’t intended for audiences to take seriously. Making a statement that sounds like a question can confuse others about your meaning and intentions.
Refrain from interrupting. Once upon a time, it was considered impolite to interrupt when someone else was talking. That common courtesy seems to have fallen by the wayside. But CEOs and business leaders should carefully guard against this reflex. Interrupting someone who’s talking suggests that (a) what that person is saying has no interest for you, and/or (b) you don’t have time to hear them out. Don’t jump in and finish another person’s sentence for them. Allow the speaker enough time to complete their thoughts.
Smile! Are you conscious of looking stern or disapproving when walking around the office or interacting one-on-one? As a leader, it’s irrelevant what’s going on in your private life. You’re obligated to always appear upbeat and showing it with a smile. This enables people to feel you’re approachable and, more importantly, is simply a prerequisite for aspiring to leadership. It’s your job to uplift and inspire others every chance you get.
Everything you say and do as a leader has an impact on others. Your body language and your words carry equal significance, whether you’re talking to your executive assistant, answering questions at an employee gathering, or making the case for more resources in front of the board of directors. People watch as well as listen. Practice “leadership body language” and you’ll be more effective at what you do.