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Body Language: Mastering the Silent Language of Leadership


Carol Kinsey Goman is an executive coach, author and keynote speaker who addresses association, government, and business audiences around the world. Her latest book and program topic is The Nonverbal Advantage: Secrets and Science of Body Language at Work.

All leaders express enthusiasm, warmth and confidence as well as arrogance, indifference and displeasure through their facial expressions, gestures, touch and use of space. If an executive wants to be perceived as credible and forthright, her or she has to think "outside the speech" and recognize the importance of nonverbal communication.

Whether you are a business executive promoting a vision for your company or a politician promoting a vision for the country, people interpret what you say to them only partially from the words you use. They are picking up most of your message (and all of the emotional nuance behind the words) from your nonverbal signals.

Here are five video clips that show the role of body language in leadership:

Watch those facial expressions

In last year's presidential debates, both candidates made facial expression errors. (Then) Senator Obama minimized his emotional reactions and reinforced the impression that he was remote and "cold." Senator McCain's forced grins and eye rolling in the third debate sent a negative signal that was reflected instantly in polls rating likeability: Obama scored 70% to McCain's 22%.

Talk with your hands if you know what they're saying

When people are being deceitful or guarded, they tend to use hand and arm gestures less than usual. They may keep their hands by their side, stuff them in pockets, clutch an object tightly, or clench their fists -- all gestures which are saying, "I'm holding on to something and I'm not going to open up to you."

When being truthful or forthcoming, people tend to use open gestures, showing their palms and wrists and spreading hands and arms away from their bodies, as if saying, "See, I have nothing to hide." Watch former eBay CEO (and current California gubernatorial candidate) Meg Whitman use these open and inclusive gestures as she addresses the Commonwealth Club.

Show your whole body

In this fast-paced, techno-charged era of email, blogs, wikis and IMs, one universal truth remains: Face-to-face is still the most preferred, productive and powerful communication medium. And to get the most bang for your communication buck - the best leaders get out from behind the lectern so the audience can see their entire bodies. They fully face the audience, make eye contact, keep their movements relaxed and natural, and stand tall - all of which are nonverbal signs of credibility and competence. Steve Jobs is a master at this, as you can see in his speech at MacWorld 2007 unveiling the iPhone.

Don't go overboard

There is nothing more convincing than genuine enthusiasm for your message. (Which is why no body language coach can "magically" make any leader appear to be passionate about a organizational change he doesn't truly believe in or a product launch she isn't really sold on.) But, too much enthusiasm can also be seen as over-the-top. Take a look at Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer introducing himself to an audience with dancing, jumping and shouting.

Align your words and gestures

It is crucial to communicate congruently - that is, to align your body language to support an intended message. Whenever your nonverbal signals contradict your words, the people you are addressing -- employees, customers, voters -- become confused. And, if forced to choose, they will discount your words and believe what your body said.

Sir Howard Stringer, the chair and CEO of Sony USA, is usually an eloquent and congruent speaker. But during a recent meeting with reporters in Tokyo, he didn't appear as confident as his words would have us believe. The problem was that Stringer was playing with his ballpoint pen, a nonverbal "pacifying" behavior that we expect to see when someone is under stress or needs reassurance.

So next time you engage those around you -- whether that means addressing an audience of hundreds or simply running a weekly department meeting -- stay aware of your gestures and expressions. They may communicate a lot more than your words.

By Carol Kinsey Goman  |  July 17, 2009; 10:53 AM ET  | Category:  Leadership Training Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Whilst not wishing to denigrate the value of using non verbal clues to understand an individual, I think it is important to put them into perspective.

For example, some people naturally demonstrate more non verbal behaviours than do others. So, what is natural behaviour for one individual may be huge "give away" in another.

Before you can use the behaviours to make inferences about an individual, you have to "calibrate" them so you understand their natural behviours.

Anyone interested in the use of non verbal communication behaviour will get a lot of value from a look at Social Styles and Neuro-linguistic Programming.

Posted by: Nyoni | July 21, 2009 4:25 PM

The late Billy Mays is a great study in using body language.

Posted by: JeffRandom | July 19, 2009 9:30 PM

During presentation, I often keep both hands in front, often using both. Disarming.

I have also been in hostile situations, where body language destroyed the opposition.

In a seminar, which I thought was educational(in fact was), I took a front seat. The host/speaker of the seminar had researched guests and once I was identifed , he proceeded to attack me and industry I was part of. Towards the end of the seminar, he placed himself in a blocking position, between myself and the other guests/clients (behind and off to the side)that were in attendance.
I merely turned my head and looked out the window, which drew the attention of the guests/clients of the seminar and, forced the speaker back in front. I had to do this twice, for the message to be sent.


Posted by: James210 | July 19, 2009 10:08 AM

Very interesting. I'd caveat the notion, however, that using few hand gestures means someone is being less than forthright.

Unless you've observed someone in many situations, you can't possibly know whether their feeling inhibited by their need to hide something or are just naturally physically reserved as a function of their personality and/or background. My family or origin of shy Scandinavian-Americans almost never use gestures.

To mistakenly assume all speakers do is to make the same cliched error that has liars making calculated eye contact. Innumerable studies have shown eye contact is a worthless measure of sincerity - and so are hand gestures.

Posted by: jhbyer | July 19, 2009 9:13 AM

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