Body Language 101: Building Your Credibility and Coolness Factor

Did you know that most people are barely listening to a word you’re saying? But, man oh man, they are picking up on your body language big time. It’s estimated that about 55 percent of communication is body language, 38 percent is your tone of voice and only 7 percent are the actual words coming out of your mouth. Using the right body language is your key to greater communication and success in life and your career. It can help you develop positive business relationships, increase your influence, bond with co-workers, and present your ideas more persuasively.

Here are 10 tips for using body language to project confidence and credibility and to build a more charismatic personal brand:

1. Stand tall and take up space 

One of the most imposing figures I ever knew was my father’s best friend who was maybe 5’8” and 155-lbs soaking wet. However, he was a lifelong salesperson and then a VP of Global Marketing for an international manufacturer by the age of 45. He knew that height and space confer power, status and confidence. By standing up straight with his shoulders back and head up only added to his authority. If you widen your stance, relax your knees, and center your weight in your lower body you will look more “solid” and confident. If you stand, you will look more powerful and assured to those who sit. Then, when you move around, the additional space you take up adds to the strong impression you make.

If you are sitting across from someone such as during a negotiation, try these tricks: Keep both feet flat on the floor, widen your arms away from your body (or hook one elbow on the back of your chair), and spread out your belongings on the conference table to claim more territory.

2. Get that voice down

Ever hear anyone say that singer Barry White is a wimp? No … no you haven’t.

In the workplace, the quality of your voice can be a deciding factor in how people perceive you. People judge speakers with higher-pitched voices as less empathetic, less powerful and more nervous than people with lower pitched voices. If you think your voice is a bit high or nasal, put your lips together and say, “Um hum, um hum, um hum” for a few minutes right before you give a presentation or go to a meeting. It’s even more critical to do it before important phone calls where your voice is the only thing you have with which to communicate.

3. Prime the pump  

To come off as upbeat, positive and show confidence, think of a past success that fills you with pride and poise. If it’s work related, that’s good, but it can come from your personal life as well. Think about the time you finished that half-marathon when the year before you were 40 pounds overweight. Or, how about when you built that deck in your back yard by yourself. Also, close your office door and adopt the “power stance” by standing up straight with hands on hips, like Superman or Wonder Woman. Don’t laugh, experts know that doing this stimulates your body to produce testosterone, which is a powerful hormone.

4. Maintain eye contact   

For right or wrong, you may be an introvert, you may be shy, or your cultural background may have taught you that extended eye contact with a superior is not appropriate, but businesspeople from the U.S., Europe, Australia, and many other parts of the world will expect you to maintain eye contact 50 to 60% of the time. Here’s a simple technique to improve eye contact: Whenever you greet a business colleague, look into his or her eyes long enough to notice what color they are.

PERSONAL SOAPBOX TIME!!! Having said this, I know from first-hand experience that eye contact is difficult at best for people on the autism spectrum. My youngest son is a high-functioning Asperger’s adult who recently completed a four-year stint firing artillery for the U.S. Army. He can accurately nail a target 60 miles away with a howitzer. However, to maintain eye contact with someone three feet away for more than a few seconds causes him distress and even occasional physical pain. If someone is having obvious trouble maintaining eye contact with you, it might be a physical problem and not a sign that they’re shifty and devious.

5. Talk with your hands

Science shows us that there is a region of the brain called Broca’s area that not only is important for speech production, but it is active when we speak AND when we move our hands. Therefore, making gestures powers up your thinking. Studies have shown that participants that incorporate hand gestures into their speaking habits, their speech becomes less hesitant and they didn’t use as many speech fillers (“likes”, “ums” and “uhs”). Experiment with this and you’ll find that the physical act of gesturing helps you form clearer thoughts and speak in tighter sentences with more declarative language.

6. Use open gestures

Keeping your movements relaxed, using open arm gestures, and showing the palms of your hands (the ultimate “see, I have nothing to hide” gesture) are silent signals of credibility and candor. Individuals with open gestures are perceived more positively and are more persuasive than those with closed gestures (arms crossed, hands hidden or held close to the body, etc.) Also, if you hold your arms at waist level, and gesture within that plane, people are more likely to perceive you as assured and credible.

7. Let your fingers do the talking

It is arguably one of the most powerful hand gestures you make. And … politicians and Bond villains have favored it for decades. It’s called the “steeple” and it is incredibly effective to use when you’re emphasizing a point. It’s where your fingers form what looks like a church steeple—where the tips of your fingers touch, but the palms are separated. Try steepling next time you want to project conviction and sincerity about a point you’re making. Or, you know, when you’re blackmailing the world for a billion cajillion dollars to not set off the nuclear bomb.

8. Eliminate nervous gestures

When we’re nervous or stressed, we try to pacify ourselves with some form of self-touching, nonverbal behavior: We rub our hands together, bounce our feet, drum our fingers on the desk, play with our jewelry, twirl our hair, fidget, and so on. When we do any of these things, are statements immediately come across as less credible. If you catch yourself indulging in any of these behaviors, take a deep breath and steady yourself by placing your feet firmly on the floor and your hands palm down in your lap, on the desk or on the conference table. Stillness sends a message that you’re calm and confident.

9. Smile … because then no one knows what you’re up to

Smiles have a powerful effect on people. The human brain prefers happy faces, and we can spot a smile at 300 feet—the length of a football field. (Impressive, but not as much as a husband spotting his significant other’s frown from a mile away.) When you smile, you not only stimulate your own sense of well-being; it also tells those around you that you are approachable and trustworthy.

Smiling directly influences how other people respond to you. When you smile at someone, they almost always smile in return. And, because facial expressions trigger corresponding feelings, the smile you get back actually changes that person’s emotional state in a positive way.

10. Perfect your handshake

Touch is the most powerful nonverbal cue, so practice your handshake. The right handshake can give you instant credibility and the wrong one can cost you big time. So, no “dead fish” or “bone-crusher” grips, please. The first makes you appear to be a wimp and the second signals that you are a bully.

One word of caution: Handshake behavior has cultural variations. Therefore, if you are traveling abroad for business, do some research about what kind of handshake is acceptable in the country you’re visiting. For instance, in Brazil you should expect a firmer than usual handshake that lasts longer than you might be comfortable with. In Australia, women tend to not shake hands with other women and if a woman shakes hands with a man, she should offer her hand first.

The ideal handshake in North America means facing the other person squarely, making firm palm to palm contact with the web of your hand (the skin between the thumb and first finger) touching the web of the other person’s hand, and matching hand pressure as closely as possible without compromising your own idea of a proper professional grip.

By the way: While a great handshake is important for all businesspeople, it is especially key for women. Their confidence is evaluated by the quality of their handshake even more than it is with their male counterparts.

So … there are 10 important body language tricks everyone should know. Some will undoubtedly require practice, but most you can get right away and start increasing your confidence and credibility immediately.


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