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'Body Language Rules To Help You Command A Room' from Women's Leadership Author, Speaker and Consultant Selena Rezvani

Body Language Rules To Help You Command A Room

[ Monday, Nov 17, 2014 ]
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If there’s one force that can either sabotage or propel your message, it’s your body. With it, we can signal that we own the stage or that we bring irreplaceable value and importance to a meeting. Conversely, we can communicate through our bodies that we’re not totally bought in to our ideas…or ourselves. With so much body language advice pointed at women—and it seems there are hundreds of do’s and don’ts—some professionals are more than overwhelmed with advice, they’re paralyzed by it.

If there’s one force that can either sabotage or propel your message, it’s your body. With it, we can signal that we own the stage or that we bring irreplaceable value and importance to a meeting. Conversely, we can communicate through our bodies that we’re not totally bought in to our ideas…or ourselves. With so much body language advice pointed at women—and it seems there are hundreds of do’s and don’ts—some professionals are more than overwhelmed with advice, they’re paralyzed by it.

Without other hierarchical cues, when a woman presents herself physically as a leader, we tend to acknowledge her as a leader. Research even shows that people unconsciously defer to those who use dominant physical postures. After all, we’ve probably all given someone more credibility or esteem because they were good at embodying and “looking the part” of a trustworthy expert.

It’s true that in the everyday minutia of work life, we’re training others how to see us and treat us. Lean on these five strategies and ask yourself how much you’re using them every day to your advantage:

Make an Entrance: Speech coach Nina Irani of UniqueSpeak warns against portraying “apologetic body language” and nowhere is that more critical than when you enter a room, setting the tone for a meeting or presentation. Slouching or coming in with hands folded can hurt the kind of authority you want to convey. Similarly, trying to create a “non-entrance” by quietly tiptoeing into the room won’t help you either. The simplest advice is the best here: walk in with a long stride and your shoulders back. You’ll feel like a CEO and you’ll telegraph that power to others.

  1. Square Up: Whether you’re sitting or standing, keep your feet planted, where your feet are slightly apart. Many times, since we’re so conscious of our hands and torsos, the position of our feet are forgotten, despite the fact that foot position can give away our true intentions. For instance, have you ever been in a networking situation where someone’s feet were pointed away from you? That most likely meant that they wanted to walk away. Particularly when standing, make a point not to cross your ankles, something that Sharon Saylor, author of What Your Body Says (And How To Master The Message) says portrays “Little girl.” Saylor notes, “… I know why we cross our legs at the ankles while standing: it relaxes the back, legs and feet for just a moment. [But] if you want to send a message of success, stand with your feet under your hips…or get more comfortable shoes.”
  2. Make Yourself Big: In an interview for my book, Pushback, the formidable Fizzah Jafri, COO Fixed Income Research and Economics at Morgan Stanley, recalled, ‘‘[One] nervous thing I did early on was cover my mouth if I was unsure of my point. This habit made me look sloppy. Sometimes as women, we can make our bodies smaller, almost crouching when we’re nervous.” The point? Don’t minimize yourself! Spread your papers out in front of you and sit with your forearms in a larger box around your papers. Gesture with an open torso and take up some space. As simple as it sounds, by doing this, you will signal to people that you have a seat at the table and something important to say.
  3. Maintain Engaged Eye Contact: Here’s something I wish I’d known early in my career: when you’re the most tempted to avoid eye contact with an authority figure, that’s when you should be making more eye contact than average! Deborah Gruenfeld, a Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at Stanford Graduate School of Business adds, “Women give away power all the time by smiling or looking away when they are saying something authoritative.” Eye contact shows people your conviction in your message and sometimes, the gravity of a discussion point. Gina Bianchini, co-founder of Ning sees contrasting benefits, reflecting, “It’s definitely effective to look directly into people’s eyes when you have a serious message, but I’ve also found that it’s effective to lighten things up from time to time with humor.”
  4. Keep Arms Away From Your Sides: Particularly when standing, open up “the box” your torso moves within by getting your arms away from your sides. Presentation expert Kathy Reiffenstein aptly warns against a more rigid pose, noting, “Your arms appear glued to your sides making your gestures wimpy and weak.” You can keep your arms away from your sides by gesturing above the waist, with either straight or bent arms on the hip, away from the ribcage. TED phenom and Harvard researcher Amy Cuddy personally practices and works at this skill.

If you want to surrender some status with an audience by doing something self-deprecating, then do it verbally (with control), but never do it with your body. For those whose default body language is “quiet,” I challenge you step up to something better. By leveraging the most powerful actions of our bodies, we communicate not only our value today but our future leadership potential.

What’s worked well for you? Conversely, what body language tricks have you tried with not-so-great results?

*This post was originally featured on my Work in Progress blog for Forbes*

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