The ability to walk into a room and exude a self-confidence that communicates your commitment and trustworthiness is essential in business interactions. After all, each gesture can say a lot about who you represent, how you’re feeling, and whether you even want to be in that boardroom or pitch meeting.
"You are in control of [the message] you are sending out," Barbara Pachter writes in her book The Essentials of Business Etiquette. "I believe that if you project a confident, credible, composed image, people will respond to you as if you are all those things. Who cares what you are feeling on the inside?"
Because so often, it’s not what you say, it’s what your body language is communicating while you say it. Are your nonverbal cues connecting with others and sending the right message about why you’re there? Do you appear confident and approachable by maintaining eye contact and by using gestures that make others feel at ease? Are you leaning forward to show that you’re listening or stepping back to indicate that you’re looking for a way out of the conversation?
Those outward reflections can open up opportunities in the world of business—or they can create unnecessary barriers if you’re not careful. The last thing you want is for your body language to be projecting a very different image than what you intend.
Consider the following seven tips on body language that can lead to big changes and increase your chances of success.
1. For projecting better self-confidence, maintain an assertive posture.
How can you build confidence in a matter of seconds? One effective strategy for building confidence is to look confident by maintaining an assertive posture, which makes you appear more balanced and grounded.
When standing, keep your feet planted firmly on the ground, shoulder width apart from each other and distribute your weight equally on both legs. Keep in mind that you should angle your feet outward and in the direction of the person you are speaking with, to signal that you are receptive to hearing that person’s ideas and opinions.
"This is an assertive posture," Pachter explains in her book. "It is a posture that projects confidence, not insecurity. You are open to the person to whom you are talking. And you can stand tall, regardless of your height."
When standing, imagine a string pulling your head up toward the sky, and a straight line should exist from your earlobes through your shoulders, hip, and the middle of your ankles.
Avoid standing in a "submissive position" with your legs crossed, hands folded in front of you, or weight pressed down on one hip.
If your work requires you to sit in a chair the majority of the day, consider practicing good posture while sitting. When you sit, do so with your back straight with your rear toward the back of the chair, and your feet planted firmly on the floor. In this position, you should be able to stand straight up without having to lean forward first. This kind of sitting position puts the least amount of strain on supporting muscles, keep you from back and neck pains and help you develop a strong core—all essential for good standing posture.
Additionally, good posture opens your airways which ensures proper breathing.
2. Change body language by using power poses.
It’s the day of your big presentation or the meeting with some important people, and you need to believe that you’re confident and deserve the opportunity right in front of you. The social psychologist Amy Cuddy says learning how to be confident can start with just two minutes of various power poses.
In her TED talk on body language, Cuddy says that power poses, much of which involves open body positions that take up space, can send signals to the brain that you’re feeling confident, and, in turn, the brain produces more testosterone and lowers your cortisol levels, also known as the stress hormone.
Cuddy further explores how power-posing can shift our attitudes in her book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, in which she writes that when your body is mimicking gestures that a powerful person would do, your brain starts to believe that you’re powerful. Those body-mind nudges, she says, allows you to skip over any negative talk and unproductive thinking patterns that can impact you psychologically.
Below are a few situations where powerful poses can be useful.
When you’re closing a deal:
Place both of your hands on the table and lean forward to show that you’re engaged. This is a position of dominance, according to Cuddy, and can help you command a room. Wondering how to show confidence with this pose without coming off too aggressive or arrogant? Consider practicing it before you do it in front of others.
When you’re pitching an idea:
Prop your feet up on the table, place your hands behind your head and lean back. This pose is a tough one to pull off if you’re in someone else’s office, so make sure this is one that you save for your own space. Consider striking this pose before your guests arrive or if you’re pitching your idea over a phone call. Power poses like this one, according to Cuddy, can help increase your risk tolerance—something you need to push forward with your next big idea.
When you’re going to give a presentation:
Wondering how to build confidence before a big presentation? Strike a quick pose right before you’re in front of your colleagues and all of those investors. Throwing your hands in the air and standing with your feet wide apart for two minutes can increase your testosterone levels and help you feel powerful. While you’re at it, imagine a standing ovation just for you as your hands are in the air.
3. Watch your hands.
We all know the power of a good handshake, but your hands can say a lot more than just “hello.” They can help enhance your verbal message, invite dialogue and convey respect.
Universally, gesturing with an open hand, palm facing up, has a positive effect on others, communicating acceptance, openness, cooperation and trustworthiness. The last thing you want to do is offend someone by jabbing a finger in his or her face. Pointing can seem aggressive, but many people do it without understanding how intimidating it may be to others. Instead, when you're explaining an idea, "point with an open palm, and keep your fingers together," she writes.
On the other hand, placing your hands on your hips—a popular position for many—can actually give off an air of arrogance or impatience, while crossing your arms communicates that you’re feeling uncomfortable, defensive and closed off.
4. Pay attention to your face.
What are your facial expressions communicating during business meetings and interactions? If you tend to furrow your brows or squint your eyes when you’re listening to someone speak, your nonverbal cues might be conveying a message you’re not intending to.
What can you do? Pay attention to the comments your friends and colleagues make when you're listening to them. Do they think you're upset because your facial expressions tend to be stern? If this is the case, try to relax your muscles or smile more often when meeting new people.
5. Maintain appropriate eye contact for effective business communication.
When you’re able to maintain appropriate eye contact, you’re communicating that you’re honest, approachable and confident. You’re telling others that they have your full attention and that you respect what they have to say. In the case of a disagreement, maintaining eye contact communicates that you can stand your ground.
Just make sure that your eye contact is appropriate and doesn’t become too aggressive, making others uncomfortable. In his book The Power of Eye Contact: Your Secret for Success in Business, Love, and Life, author Michael Ellsberg says that “in order for eye contact to feel good, one person cannot impose his visual will on another; it is a shared experience.”
Those who aren’t able to maintain eye contact, or are the first to break eye contact, may be signaling that they’re hiding something, feeling uncomfortable or they're projecting a lower status than or submissiveness to the person with whom they’re speaking.
6. Mirror the body language of others.
One effective way to bond with others quickly is to mirror their gestures, postures, vocal qualities and mannerisms. These small movements indicate that you’re interested in their company and want to build an understanding and connection with them.
For instance, if someone is sitting in a certain way, consider sitting in a similar position. If that person likes to speak with their hands, you might want to incorporate similar movements into the conversation. If that person tends to speak slower, try matching their pace and volume vocally.
But it’s not enough to mimic or copy someone else’s body language; you also need to know when it’s not appropriate to do so. The success of mirroring comes down to doing it in a way that feels and seems natural, not to imitate or irk those around you.
7. Try not to fidget.
Whatever it is that you do—jingle coins in your pocket, tap your foot repeatedly on the ground or play with your hair—stop fidgeting as it is unproductive when it comes to projecting self-confidence. These movements can come off as signs of nervousness, frustration or boredom, which take away from the message you’re trying to communicate and distract people from getting to know you.
If you tend to play with your hair, tap your nails on tables or jingle coins in your pocket when you're in front of a group, pay attention to what triggers those habits so that you can replace them with more productive ones. For instance, if you tend to play with your hair, then consider putting it into a bun or combing it away from your face (and out of reach of your fingers). If you jingle coins, then make sure you don’t have any in your pockets, or better yet, wear clothes with no pockets. If you tend to fidget with pens, make sure you don’t have one in your hand while speaking. Instead, try working on hand gestures that can have positive effects on others.
Some of us fidget because it helps to calm us in stressful situations; others do it because they have excess energy. If your fidgeting habits are brought on because you are feeling stressed or nervous, then consider taking a few deep breaths right before your event to calm your nerves and get you back to your baseline. If your behavior is brought on by the adrenaline rush that can come before a big speech or an important meeting, then consider doing activities to help you get rid of that excess energy. For instance, try going on a run or doing push-ups before your presentation.
Now that you’re aware of the following tips, the question of how to appear more confident should be easier to answer. The key is to not let your body language undermine what it is that you want to do as a leader. Since most of the information that we receive comes from nonverbal cues, remember to pay particular attention to the types of messages that your body language is conveying. You can certainly teach yourself over time how to be confident. But when you're in a pinch, consider the above tips to help you feel that you're up for whatever challenge you’re facing.
A version of this article was originally published on August 20, 2013.
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