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.
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.
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.
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.