Body Language – Managing You, So You Can Deliver Your Message


Your body can give away secrets you’d never dream of sharing, so when going into a meeting or presentation, take the time to note your body language and the body language of those around you.  Even if you are presenting to a large gathering, you can get a sense of the room based on the level of buzz that happens before you present. Are people laughing and standing close together? Whispering in groups of two and three? Are they standing as individuals and making little contact? If the mood of the room is solemn, then you may want to rethink starting with a dirty joke. Noting your own body language ensures you are not delivering conflicting messages. You could be saying one thing, while your body is saying something else. I’d trust the message your body was delivering since it is more likely, to be honest.

Your body tells when you lie

I once had a meeting with a client who was trying to gain the support of another organization for a government relations campaign.  The gentleman from the other organization sat  with his arms folded across his chest and as my client spoke the other gentleman continuously shook his head in the negative as he verbally indicated that we could count on his support. I knew before he left the room that he would be an obstruction to my client’s objectives. I also knew that he was willing to be dishonest about it.  That said a lot about his character (I probably wasn’t the first professional contact he’d lied to) and it provided me with enough information to better equip my client. Our communications materials were altered to reflect this consideration and in subsequent meetings with government officials when my suspicions were proven true, we were prepared.

Your body tells when you’re bored

Body language also provides you with indicators about whether or not you should continue a meeting or end it. I have sat in meetings with clients where  officials have gone from attentive to glazed, to outright bored. They began looking at their watch, folding and unfolding their arms, fidgeting in their seats and in one case; they even began to read the material provided by the client while the client was talking. If the person you are meeting with has had enough, then you’ve said enough. Believe me, no matter how long you keep talking after they stop listening, they are not getting the message. If you are going into a meeting as a team try to determine signals for bringing the meeting to an end or moving it along in advance. Then listen when you get the signal.

Your body can interpret other people’s secrets

Mimicry can also help you to understand the body language of the person you are meeting with.  This is simply copying their body language in a non-offensive way.  If they sit forward, you sit forward, if they lean back with their legs crossed, assume a similar pose.  Not only does this help to build better rapport with the person you are meeting, but it also means that you are sending your brain quiet messages about how effective your communications are and whether you need to change tactics.  If at some point you find yourself leaning back with your arms and legs folded, then you know that a message is being blocked or something about the message isn’t sitting well. Just remember not to over do it or you’ll weird them out.

A few more physical tips:

  • When shaking hands match the strength of your grip to theirs.
  • Face your audience head-on.
  • Avoid crossing your arms.
  • Don’t slouch in your seat or appear too passive.
  • Avoid putting your hands in your pockets.
  • Do not fidget with your hair, pens, coins …
  • Use gestures sparingly, keep them natural and spontaneous.
  • Don’t point a finger or raise a fist.
  • Don’t bang on the desk or the arm of your chair.
  • Keep facial expressions natural and friendly, don’t frown or raise a brow at a comment or question.
  • Keep your presentation fresh by altering your vocal pitch, volume and rate of delivery.
  • Speak clearly, enunciate, emphasize or punch certain words.
  • Use simple language, avoid jargon and acronyms.
  • Keep humour gentle.

Maintaining good eye contact is also an important component in face to face meetings.  Eye contact is a tool that helps you appear sincere, demonstrates confidence, engages your audience and can help you confirm understanding or detect other signals. Don’t stare (that’s just creepy) but hold the connection for a few seconds or while you complete an idea.

Finally, be polite to everyone. Aside from being the kind of thing most civilized people learn in kindergarten, being impolite can have unanticipated consequences. How believable is your message that you are client centred or community focused, if you have just blown off the receptionist and blustered your way past the assistant?  Remember the story of the airline executives (Every Contact Counts) and the impact their behaviour had on their government relations efforts. Based on inappropriate treatment of a staff member, I’ve seen rude visitors greeted by a Minister with a coldness that could chill wine. The way you behave when it doesn’t count says more about you than what you do when you’re in the spotlight.


35 responses to “Body Language – Managing You, So You Can Deliver Your Message

  • Body says it all. Another gesture that shows confidence is standing with your hands on your hips. Don’t cross your legs and don’t kick your legs back and forth as that shows boredom. Rubbing your eyes means doubt. My teachers would take their hands and clasp them behind their back, which was a display of anger and frustration. Great article.

    • This is great! Thank you for the contribution. You are absolutely right about the power pose of putting your hands on your hips. There is a TED talk delivered by Doctor Amy Cuddy called, Your Body language Shapes Who You Are, that explains the biology behind the power of putting your hands on your hips that I think everyone should see.

  • Also, I would love to read a detailed article about altering your vocal pitch, volume and rate of delivery during a presentation.

    • I think that’s a great idea. Hmmm, perhaps in the next couple of weeks I’ll work on, “Avoiding Droners to Stoners, Delivering a Pitch Perfect Presentation”. 🙂

  • Hi Debra.Extremely useful article. After reading this post, I remembered that people told, in more than one occasion that I am extremely expressive, but I did not believe them until I had to record myself for a CV video application. I believe that I may have frowned during a Q&A session, following the pitch, but I don’t know. I sometimes cannot control my mimicry. Hope this wont happen in the future!

    As a PR student, I had to do many presentations either in front of my tutors or live clients, and in some cases, I did exactly as you said: made a few jokes that unfrowned their faces and allowed them to better listen to what I was saying. Not once I have found myself in the position in which I had to start a presentation, but my whole face and my upper body turned red. However, once I have started talking and presenting, I started feeling very comfortable and relaxed and adopt an open posture, and not having my arms folded across the chest, which as you said, denotes unprofessionalism.

    Great article! I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Thanks Andreea. Although its not the most comfortable sensation, that nervous energy you have when you are starting a presentation can do wonders for you. It brings an energy to the process that I think audiences pick up on and respond to. So consider your red face an asset. 🙂

      Oh and I still don’t like looking at myself on film.

  • Leslie Turcotte says:
    April 4, 2013 @ 02:16 pm

    I am going to use this article as a conversation starter. Sometimes people in leadership positions forget – this is a good tool to use to open the door to a talk about their body language. Thank you!

    • I hope it helps. I’ve had to unfold a few CEO arms and its always interesting to see how surprised they are to learn that their arms were folded in the first place.

  • Great tips! My nerves usually get the best of me so I’m sure my body language is awful. I have a tendency to play with my hair and probably make odd faces because I am thinking of what I am going to say next. This is a great post for me!

    • Thanks very much. Managing facial expressions is one of the toughest challenges. I use it rather than try to fight it now. Its amazing what you can say without ever opening your mouth 🙂

  • becc03 says:
    April 2, 2013 @ 12:15 am

    Body language is a fascinating subject. I could read about it for days. Thank you.

  • At meetings I tend to relax the atmosphere with some soft jokes. I look for the opportunity to find the human in my target person. Sometimes works and well if it doesnt that life!

    • I’m a big fan of using humour to manage the mood of a room. I like the way you said you look for the human in the target person. It really does change the tenure of the exchange if you can find something to connect to.

  • Great advise. I am in the process of beginning public speaking, so I appreciate these tips. Gonna refer back to this post very soon 🙂

    • Thank you. Have fun with your public speaking, it is one of the things I enjoy the most about doing communications work. There is a real energy you can get from a crowd not to mention amazing insights.

  • Great post!!!!
    The tips are very useful!!!!

  • These are things that take so much practice to achieve! Only after two years of teaching did I even start to feel minimally competent, but after six years, I certainly knew my strengths and weaknesses. I tend to make lots of gestures for lack of anything else to do with my hands. No matter how many classes a person has to take that involve presentations, there is no better teacher than the real workaday world.

    • I couldn’t agree more. It is very much a case of practice makes perfect…or sort of perfect. 🙂 My family is from Barbados and I grew up in Montreal, so telling me not use my hands or use them less while talking is like asking me to keep my mouth closed while talking.

  • Great article that I fully agree with Debra.

    Are you good at reading eyes – subtle and swift changes in them, I should say. In the Gulf they love wearing sunglasses for meeting for that reason:-)

    Don’t you find leaders of governments easy to deal with. It’s the people surrounding them that are difficult.

    Active listening i.e. with all your senses works for me. It facilitates understanding what they are really saying and what drives and motivates them.

    • Thanks Catarina. I’ve never thought about how sunglasses are used, I love the insight…pardon the pun. It makes me wonder how other props can be used to help or hinder messages.

      A couple of years back my CEO was meeting with the leader of the opposition party here in Canada. She spent the meeting talking to the leader, I spent the meeting watching his team. 🙂

      As to active listening, I think a whole blog could be dedicated to that subject or at least a few posts.

  • Great post. Body language and actions actually convey more messages that the things we say. How you stand, sit, our facial expressions and the way we interact with others say SO much about who we are and how we are feeling about a situation. I think my ability to read people and situations is really well developed and is very beneficial in feeling out how to act.

    • Thanks Kelly. Its one of the reasons why I am amazed at successful sales people. They not only have to constantly manage their own non-verbal messages, but they are always reading and responding to other people’s. That takes a lot of control, but it can help you to avoid a lot of grief.

  • rcutting says:
    March 26, 2013 @ 04:56 pm

    It’s so difficult to fix something that you are unaware of. I noticed several things about myself from video-taping myself and from photographs. when people criticize us we tend to take it as an attack, or we dismiss them as being frivolous or jealous. I always listen when people tell me stuff about my body language, because if a few people come to me with something then it can only be true.

    • I hear you. I started to think about it because a few years ago colleague of mine put up a sign for my eyes only in the middle of a board meeting that read, “sullen”. I realized I’d crossed my arms, started to slouch in my chair and generally deliver a bad attitude while my board members were talking. Talk about a career limiting error. We’re still friends and I’ll always be grateful to her for snapping me out of it.

  • There is a problem inherent in this knowledge. Learning to tell the difference between a person’s normal body language and the subtle clues that are the “text book” behavior. When you are going in blind with someone the subtle clues you are reading might not be what you think you are reading.

    • That’s a good point Jon. One of my old CEO’s would cross his arms over his chest when he was thinking…I can’t tell you how much grief that caused in government meetings. He was giving careful consideration to what was being said, they were seeing disinterest or argument. Either way, being conscious of what your body is doing and how it might be interpreted is important.

  • I smiled all the way through your post. As a former executive of a large sales organization you could tell al lot about where a sales rep or manager’s head was by just watching their body language. It was a great indicator as to how to proceed with a conversation and what to say to prompt a reaction. They always thought I could read their mind… LOL. I could tell some funny stories about that. 🙂

  • I love this succinct overview. I once met with a potential customer who had been ordered by his management to meet with me, as was obvious by his body language – crossed arms, leaning back in a “prove-it-to-me” attitude. But, within 20 minutes, he’d gotten so engrossed in our product that they ended up buying hundreds of them.

  • Natalie says:
    March 26, 2013 @ 01:31 pm

    so true!Body language says much more than we think. Great points.

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