Look Like a Leader: 4 Ways Nonverbal Signals Can Enhance—or Undermine—Your Leadership Communication

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Think back to your last important communication event. Maybe it was a presentation to five hundred key stakeholders, or maybe it was an innovative product pitch for the CEO and her team. You had your message down pat—you’d prepared your data points, supporting stories, and visual supports using audience-first methodology—and you’d rehearsed until you knew your key points like the back of your hand. Your content was on point. You were talking like a leader.

But did you look like a leader?

It’s an easy trap to fall into: we focus so much on what we’re going to say that we forget to think about how we’re presenting ourselves on stage. But our nonverbal communication patterns—from the way we stand to the way we move our hands to, yes, the way we dress—have a powerful impact on how our audiences perceive us as communicators and as leaders.

Last time you knew a speaker was nervous, how did you know? It might have come across in the words he said, but more likely, it showed in his gestures, posture, and facial expressions. And those nervous ticks likely undermined his well-crafted message. On the other hand, speakers whose body language indicates they’re poised, confident, and collected will have an easier time captivating and persuading their audiences.

So next time you’re preparing for an important communication event, consider these four strategies to ensure your body language makes you look like the leader you truly are.

1.  Posture: Aim for Confident, but Relaxed

Whether you’re standing on a stage or sitting across the desk from your audience, there are two posture extremes to avoid. The first is the slump. If you’re slouching your back, shoulders rolled forward, chin tilted down, you’re giving your audience the distinct impression that you aren’t interested in what you have to say. And if that’s the case, why should they care, either?

On the other hand, when you’re so upright you look like you’ve got a board strapped to your back, knees locked, arms planted at your sides, you start to appear nervous, and your audience will wonder why you’re so anxious—what have you got to hide?

The ideal posture, the one that will make you look and feel confident, is somewhere in the middle—erect, but relaxed, leaning forward ever so slightly to indicate interest, with your knees unlocked and your arms free to gesture authentically.

2.  Gestures: Fit Your Tone—and the Space

And speaking of gestures, there are three important things to keep in mind here.

First, are you using your hands and arms in a way that makes sense? Are your gestures natural, and do they fit the tone of your message? If you’re making a subdued announcement, broad, dramatic motions likely won’t make sense; on the other hand, if your tone is celebratory, your gestures can be, too.

Second, are they conveying your own engagement with your audience? If your arms are crossed across your chest or torso, you’re telling your audience you’re not open to anyone else’s ideas or feedback; this is a one-way conversation. But open-palmed gestures indicate openness and collaboration.

Third, do your gestures fit the space? The broad motions that work well on stage in large auditoriums will feel contrived and overdone in smaller settings, and visa-versa: when you’re in a large space, your movements will need to be larger in order to be seen.

3.  Facial Expressions: Match the Mood

Like your gestures, you want to ensure your facial expressions match the mood of your content. It’s important to cultivate an open, inviting “resting” facial expression, but depending on what you’re communicating, a big, cheesy grin may not be appropriate all the time. Conversely, if you’re sharing happy news with a frown, your message isn’t likely to land like you hope.

Like your gestures and posture, your facial expressions are critical for helping audiences understand how you feel about your message and, in turn, how theyshould feel about it. They’re powerful drivers of emotional contagion, and they’ll have a significant impact on the audience’s perception of you and your message.

4.  Movement: Emphasize Key Points

Like posture, movement in a presentation, or even a conversation, lives on a spectrum. On one end, there’s the speaker who stands stock-still for the entire exchange. On the other, there’s the pacer who moves or shifts or sways constantly. The first appears overly rigid; the second is likely to make the audience dizzy.

When you think about movement on stage, you’ll want to think again about what’s appropriate in the space—what works on stage may not work so well in the conference room. But you’ll also want to think about how you can use movement to underscore key points or transitional moments. You might step forward to let the audience in on a secret, or pivot your body as you reenact a conversation or address up opposing points, or move toward the audience to field a question.

While too much random movement can be distracting for audiences, natural, purposeful movements will help them follow your train of thought—and it will help you appear more authentic and shake off your nervous energy.

In any important communication event, you’re asking your audience to buy into what you have to say, taking action or changing their perspective based on your message. And while the words, themselves, are the foundation of that message, the way you present yourself while you say those words is critical to your success in engaging, retaining, and persuading your audience.