People often joke about how bad Superman’s disguise is. Surely people would see past Clark Kent’s glasses and recognise he’s the famous superhero? There’s a scene in the 1978 ‘Superman’ movie that might explain this. Christopher Reeve’s Superman is talking to Lois Lane on her balcony, he stands tall, speaks confidently and smiles before flying off into the night sky. Just moments later, Clark Kent (played by the same actor) knocks on the door of Lois’s apartment and walks in with a slouched posture, speaks with a shaky voice and largely avoids eye contact. The ‘two’ men act so differently that it’s entirely understandable why no one ever views them as the same person.
This is the power of body language. We use much more than just words when we communicate. Our posture and movements can completely change how we’re perceived. Are we confident or are we nervous? Are we inconspicuous and mild-mannered, or are we strong and impactful?
We’ve put together our top six tips to follow to improve your body language, whether you’re in person or working virtually.
1. Stand tall
Studies have shown that a person’s salary increases with every inch they are over average height, with a 6ft tall person earning an average of £100,000 more than their 5”4’ colleague over a 30 year career.1 So, unless you want to start walking around on stilts, what can a more vertically challenged person do?
According to the research, the reason taller people tend to get paid more is because they appear more confident and have a bigger presence. This means you should try emulating this with your own body posture. Walking with a strong, raised stance will make you look more confident.
Stand with your feet firmly on the floor, shoulder width apart and imagine a string connected to the top of your head lifting you up. This will help you make the most of whatever height you naturally have by making you look stable, balanced and comfortable.
The rise in virtual working and video calls has helped level the playing field. New colleagues and clients will have no idea if you’re tall or short if you’ve only ever connected virtually. Sitting up straight, framing your camera well and acting with confidence can have a major impact on how you’re viewed, regardless of your physical stature.
2. Use slow and steady movements
When trying to make a positive and confident impression, make sure every move has a purpose. People who use over-the-top or fidgety gestures come across as nervous, rushed or restless. However, people who use deliberate, slow and smooth movements come across as in control and confident, making much more of an impact.
Additionally, how you act can influence the mood of other people. If you’re leading a team and you always seem rushed, you won’t inspire as much confidence as if you’re able to use more deliberate and slower movements. Your team will be able to see that you have everything under control, which will help them feel more confident about you.
3. Sit up straight
The same principles of body language apply, even when you’re sitting down. Sit up straight in your chair and don’t slouch as it lowers your height, which – as we’ve already seen – can lower your impact.
In person, when sitting at a table, make sure your chair is close to the table edge without it feeling cramped, and rest your hands on the surface. There’s a bit of a technique to this, because if you sit too far back from the table, you’ll end up leaning in too far. A slight lean forwards signals interest and engagement, but too much of a lean looks sloppy and bored.
On a video call, you’re already losing a lot of your physical presence, being limited to your head and shoulders, so don’t lose any more of your body! Make sure you’re sitting fully in frame and centred, sitting upright to show and gain attention.
4. Project confidence through your gestures
Gesturing is an essential part of effective communication. Remaining too still makes you seem passionless and statuesque, whereas the proper use of gestures can add power, conviction and even subtext to your message. Gestures should express dominance, but not too much. You don’t want to start looking aggressive or arrogant.
It’s easy to become self-conscious about what to do with your hands. When standing, it’s best to keep your hands by your side, or loosely clasped just below your belly button. This looks and feels comfortable and confident. When speaking, a good way to show subtle strength is standing with your hands out in front of you, elbows by your side, palms facing inwards and your wrists relaxed. However, relaxed doesn’t mean floppy, as this immediately makes you look less confident compared to controlled movements.
Another technique that politicians often use has your fingers folded into the palm of your hand with your thumb resting rigidly on top of the index finger. This is used when you want to appear determined, but pointing at people would be rude, accusatory or simply too aggressive.
When using a webcam, your hands and gestures can make both more and less of an impact. They’ll likely be off screen for most of the time, so think about when and how to bring them into the picture. Your gestures all need to fit within your camera’s field of view, which means your hands may need to be higher than you’re used it. This also means your hands will become more prominent on screen than you might expect, so don’t let them block your face while you’re talking. Remember not to get too close to the camera either, as you’ll end up zoomed in and uncomfortably large on your audience’s screens.
5. Make good eye contact
Eye contact is essential for creating impact and making a good first impression when you meet someone for the first time. Eye contact helps to create a connection between two people, whereas avoiding someone’s gaze makes you look nervous and as though you’ve got something to hide.
This is also true when talking to someone you already know. While people may understand some amount of awkwardness the first time you meet someone new, they will notice, and this first impression will impact their overall opinion of you.
Eye contact is much harder to establish while working remotely or in a virtual meeting, however it’s no less important. Our brains are wired to catch the gaze of the person we’re talking to by looking into their eyes, but on your computer this is actually the wrong place to look. You need to consider the webcam, not their face on screen, as looking directly at them. Most laptops have built in cameras just above the screen, so you’ll generally be looking in roughly the right direction, but if you’re using an external camera or multiple screens, you need to make the active effort to make sure you look into the camera when speaking, wherever that may be located.
6. Watch the look on your face
One of the easiest ways to maximise your impact is by ensuring your facial expression communicates exactly what you want it to, which often takes deliberate consideration. When we hear something funny, but we don’t want to laugh, it can take a lot of self-control not to at least smile. We are capable of deliberately choosing our facial expressions, but most of the time we let our unconscious mind run on autopilot.
Everyone has a default expression, and many of us will know someone with ‘resting angry face’ or ‘resting scared face,’ which shows that even our neutral expressions can be read as subconscious baseline emotions, which may or may not be how you’re actually feeling. Most of the time this isn’t a problem, but when you’re trying to talk about a serious issue, you don’t want to undermine yourself with an unintended smile or frown.
Again, when speaking or presenting virtually, this is slightly different and even more critical. When you’re in a room full of people, you can stand at the back or a few paces away. There’s no hiding when you’re the only person in your video feed. Furthermore, a camera pointed straight at your face is going to pick up and amplify your reactions and emotions to everyone on the call. Be very careful how your respond – there’s no hiding a yawn or an eye roll. Similarly, if you’re presenting, you can use more subtle movements than if you were standing at the front of a room where you have to be seen by the people at the back.
Our body language is important for how we communicate and come across to others. Whether you’re face-to-face with another person, or you’re part of a large virtual meeting, being mindful and deliberate with your body language, movement and gestures will help you make a positive and powerful impression.
For more practical tips to improve your Communication Skills, take a look at how our Learning Solutions can help you.
1 The Guardian (2015) Do tall people really deserve to earn more?