Thursday, July 25, 2024

Do You Shout – Even When You Are Silent?

There is a language that we all speak, but few are conscious of: the language of our bodies.

When we are talking to others – either face-to-face, or from the front of the room, our posture, gestures, eye movements and general demeanor communicate far more than our words.

It is said that women interpret up to 80% of the meaning of a conversation by non-verbal means. Men fall a bit behind and ‘only’ rely on non-verbal clues for about 30%. However, in either case, if you are unconsciously giving out the wrong signals, the meaning behind your intended message will be weakened or lost.

Body language is a vast, fascinating subject, but from a business point of view, there are several pointers that can help to strengthen your message. The aim is to match your audience’s unconscious template of what makes a person trustworthy and believable.

Try out these five tips and see if they help you:

1. Personal space. Everybody has a personal space threshold. Generally, Americans and Northern Europeans prefer to stand about a meter (3 feet) apart. People from Southern European and Asian countries are comfortable a little closer. Folks who live in rural areas like a little more space. Social situations allow closer proximities than non-social.

Be aware if the person you are talking to is backing up, and try not to intrude on their territory. Otherwise the reaction will be defensive or hostile.

2. Eye movements. Many people are nervous about making eye contact – it is vital to overcome that fear if you want to be respected and believed. An evasive or indirect gaze sends out a strong signal of untrustworthiness.

When speaking to a room full of people, it is essential that you allow yourself to make – and maintain for a few seconds – eye contact with everyone in the room, over and over.

True Story

I was recently invited to America to give a presentation to about forty business people, few of them known to me. The meeting went well and I made as much eye contact as possible. Afterwards, a guy who had been sitting off to my left came up to me and thanked me for a useful and entertaining talk. Then he said something strange: he apologized for offending me.

Puzzled, I assured him that it wasn’t so, and asked why he thought so. This is what he said:

“Oh, I had a very late night last night, and after you had been talking for twenty minutes or so, I couldn’t help myself yawn. After that, you didn’t make any eye contact with me for the rest of the session, so I figured I’d upset you.”

The truth was, I hadn’t seen the yawn. He had been sitting just outside my comfortable visual area, and I had been concentrating on eyeballing everyone else in the room so hard, that I had missed him out.

I gave him a lot of attention he went away happy. But I couldn’t help think that that guy might have been the most important person in the room and I could have blown the whole trip with that stupid act of inattention.

3. Appearance. It seems old-fashioned to talk about the need to be ‘well turned out’, but the axiom that ‘you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression’ is as true today as ever.

Experts say that the first five seconds of a meeting are more important than the next hour. Check all the obvious things like hair, teeth, fingernails, shoes, breath, immediately before the meeting. But also make sure you are putting on your best front, well in advance.

Even if the dress code is casual, there is a world of difference between dirty jeans and a crumpled T-shirt, and freshly laundered casual trousers and a polo shirt. Remember – dress to respect yourself and you automatically respect your audience.

4. Hands. Your hands are like semaphore flags. They send a message whatever position they are in.

Take a look at prominent politicians – they almost all use their hands to reinforce their words. Whether it is a chopping motion, like John F. Kennedy, or an open handed gesture like the English Prime Minister Blair, they are all intended to send visual signals directly to the right-brain of the listener to augment the words which normally address the left-brain.

One of the things I am asked most often when teaching presentation skills is ‘what do I do with my hands?’

The easy answer ‘just be natural’ is not only unhelpful, but also completely wrong. You have to think of your hands and arms as every bit as important as the charts and slides you are presenting.

There are five places your hands can comfortably be:

* In your pockets. Don’t do it! It might feel natural, but the signal this gives is anything but. You will look uncomfortable, casual and unsure of yourself.

* Clasped behind your back. This looks aloof and superior, and should be avoided.

* Relaxed, by your side. This feels very unnatural to most people, but actually looks good to the audience. It makes you seem to lack tension.

* On your hips. This is a very positive position. It sends out a message that you are comfortable and self- assured. Don’t overdo it. This stance is best used at moments when you stop speaking and are allowing the audience a moment to absorb your message.

* Gesticulating. Learn the messages that your hands convey and use them to emphasize your points: an open hand denotes honesty; a closed fist, aggression or evasion; a pointing finger, hostility. Also be aware of cultural differences. The American thumb and forefinger gesture meaning ‘okay’ may be insulting in Denmark.

5. Read the room. You are not the only one who is communicating non-verbally. Learn to recognize the unconscious signals that your audience is feeding back to you.

* A tilted head and direct eye contact indicates attentive approval.

* Raised eyebrows and forward-leaning posture denotes attentive alertness.

* Indirect gaze, accompanied by pen or finger biting show uncertainty.

* Folded arms can indicate hostility.

* A hand to the chin show that you are being summed up.

Finally, learn constantly. Whenever you watch a presenter, try to work out why they are good or bad. Every time you make a presentation, try to detach yourself and see how you can be even better next time.

And remember, applause doesn’t always mean you are great – the audience might be being polite, and gentle snoring from the back of the room doesn’t always show that you need to work on your technique – the CEO probably just had too good a lunch!

Martin Avis is the author of the best-selling ‘Unlock the Secrets of Private Label eBooks’ – a complete blueprint to private label rights success. Visit to see how you can tap into this goldmine for yourself.

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