(This article first appeared on CommPRO.com.)
The perception of “personal presence” dictates decisions and actions every day. People with presence look confident and comfortable, speak clearly and persuasively, think clearly even under pressure. They act with intention. People with presence reflect on their emotions, attitudes, and situations and then adapt. They accept responsibility for themselves and the results they achieve. People with presence are real. They present their genuine character authentically. What they say and do matches who they are.
And most of these emotions, attitudes, stresses—and even values and competencies––show up in their body language.
Body language overshadows all other attributes of presence mentioned in Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think and Act Like a Leader because it’s the first thing observed—the “gatekeeper” component, so to speak. That is, although values and competence may be the most important over the long-term, if your body language turns people off, they may never take the time to know or trust you.
Forget trying to fake your face. You can’t do it, according to Dr. Paul Ekman, who has been studying facial expressions for more than forty years among cultures all over the world. Facial expressions are created with more than 52 facial muscles. These muscles morph into more than 5,000 expressions that signal others what’s going on inside your mind.
Consider the following examples of negative body language that may diminish you. At best, the various gestures may reveal secrets you don’t want to communicate.
Some gestures show stress: finger-tapping, foot-tapping or shuffling, hair-tossing, sleeve-adjusting, watch-band adjusting, lint-picking, ring-twisting, coffee-cup shuffling, leg twining, hugging yourself, hands rubbing neck, clasping your own hands in front of you or behind you (in imitation of having a parent hold your hand), pacing, waving your hands randomly,
Others clutch props such as a handbag, portfolio, laptop, or file folder in front of themselves for “protection” as they stand or walk nervously in front of a group.
The universally recognized gesture of arrogance or smugness is the raised chin. We frequently hear the cliché, “She walked by with her nose in the air.” Other signs of arrogance: chest out and hands behind the head, steepled fingers, pointing fingers as if lecturing.
C-suite executives often assume what they consider a “laid-back” posture. As I coach them and give feedback that they look tired, they offer this reasoning: “Well, I don’t want to intimidate employees. So I lean or stay low-key to connect better.” A better approach: Stand relaxed, not rigid, but with feet in the “ready position” so your energy shows you believe in what you’re saying.
The sarcastic eye roll or eye shrug as in “whatever” so typically delivered from teens to their parents conveys boredom, sarcasm, frustration, or lack of respect.
So what are the signs of lying? Sweating. Flushing. Increased swallowing. Irregular breathing. Hand-to-mouth and hand-to-nose touching. Either frequent blinking or a stare (the opposite of what’s typical for the person). A frozen face (an attempt to be expressionless and not give away any secrets). Over time, such signals diminish personal credibility.
Whether subconsciously or intentionally, women suggest their femaleness by glancing over a raised shoulder. Or they dip their head to the side and peep upward. This gesture makes a person look submissive, smaller, more vulnerable. When women feel attracted, they often expose the inside of their wrist and display the silky smooth skin.
When men feel attracted, they proudly hang their thumbs over their waist-band to frame their frontal area, as if to say, “Look at me.” Women often add the pelvic tilt to this hands-on-hip gesture (think fashion model on the catwalk) to deliver the same flirting message!”
Body language always trumps words. Make sure your body doesn’t betray you.
Learn more about what your body language says about you in Creating Personal Presence: Look, Talk, Think and Act Like a Leader.