In preparing for a presentation to your customers or clients, it’s important to focus on what you are going to say, to memorize crucial points, and to rehearse those key messages so that you come across as credible and convincing. This is, of course, something you already know.
But did you also know that the people you’re hoping to influence will be subliminally evaluating your credibility, confidence, empathy, and trustworthiness – and that their evaluation will be only partially determined by what you say? Did you know that your use of personal space, physical gestures, posture, facial expressions, and eye contact will enhance, support, weaken, or even sabotage your message?
If you are a salesperson (and all of us are) here are four crucial things to remember about the impact of your body language:
1. You make an impression in less than seven seconds
In all business interactions (and especially in sales) first impressions are crucial. Once someone mentally labels you as “trustworthy” or “suspicious,” “powerful” or “submissive,” everything else you do will be viewed through such a filter. If someone likes you, she’ll look for the best in you. If she mistrusts you, she’ll suspect all of your actions.
While you can’t stop people from making snap decisions – the human brain is hardwired in this way as a survival mechanism – you can understand how to make those decisions work in your favor.
First impressions are made in just a few seconds and are heavily influenced by your body language. In fact, studies have found that nonverbal cues have over four times the impact on the impression you make than anything you say. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
• Adjust your attitude. People pick up your attitude instantly. Before you greet a client, (or enter the conference room for a business meeting, or step onstage to make a presentation) think about the situation and make a conscious choice about the attitude you want to embody.
• Smile. Smiling is a positive signal that is underused in the workplace. A smile is an invitation, a sign of welcome and inclusion. It says, “I’m friendly and approachable.”
• Make eye contact. Looking at someone’s eyes transmits energy and indicates interest and openness. (To improve your eye contact, make a practice of noticing the eye color of everyone you meet.)
• Lean in slightly. Leaning forward shows you’re engaged and interested. But be respectful of the other person’s space. That means, in most business situations, stay about two feet away.
• Shake hands. This is the quickest way to establish rapport. It’s also the most effective. Research shows it takes an average of three hours of continuous interaction to develop the same level of rapport that you can get with a single handshake. (Just make sure you have palm-to-palm contact and that your grip is firm but not bone-crushing.)
2. Your credibility depends on verbal-nonverbal alignment
Credibility is established through a perfect alignment between what is being said and the body language that accompanies it. If your nonverbals are not in full congruence with your spoken message, people subconsciously perceive duplicity, uncertainty, or (at the very least) internal conflict.
Neuroscientists at Colgate University study the effects of gestures by using an electroencephalograph (EEG) machines to measure “event related potentials” – brain waves that form peaks and valleys. One of these valleys occurs when subjects are shown gestures that contradict what’s spoken. This is the same brain wave dip that occurs when people listen to nonsensical language.
Whenever your body language doesn’t match your words (for example, dropping eye contact and glancing around the room while trying to convey candor, rocking back on heels when talking about the product’s solid performance, or folding arms across chest while declaring openness) your verbal message is lost.
3. What you say when you talk with your hands
Have you ever noticed that when people are passionate about what they’re saying, their gestures automatically become more animated? Their hands and arms move about, emphasizing points and conveying enthusiasm.
You may not have been aware of this connection before, but you instinctively felt it. Research shows that audiences tend to view people who use a greater variety of gestures in a more favorable light. Studies also find that people who communicate through active gesturing tend to be evaluated as warm, agreeable, and energetic, while those who remain still (or whose gestures seem mechanical or “wooden”) are seen as logical, cold, and analytic.
To use gestures effectively, you need to be aware of how your movements will most likely be perceived. Here are four common hand gestures and the messages behind them:
• Hidden hands. Hidden hands (held behind your back, in your pockets, of beneath the conference table) make you look less trustworthy. This is one of the nonverbal signals that is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. Our ancestors made survival decisions based solely on bits of visual information they picked up from one another. In our prehistory, when someone approached with hands out of view, it was a signal of potential danger. Although today the threat of hidden hands is more symbolic than real, our ingrained psychological discomfort remains.
• Finger pointing. I’ve often seen sales managers use this gesture in meetings, negotiations, or interviews for emphasis or to show dominance. The problem is that aggressive finger pointing can suggest that the manager is losing control of the situation – and the gesture smacks of parental scolding or playground bullying.
• Enthusiastic gestures. There is an interesting equation of hand and arm movement with energy. If you want to project more enthusiasm and drive, you can do so by increased gesturing. On the other hand, over-gesturing (especially when hands are raised above the shoulders) can make you appear erratic, less credible, and less competent.
• Grounded gestures. If you are standing while presenting, remember that arms held at waist height, and gestures within that horizontal plane, help you – and the audience – feel centered and composed. Arms at waist and bent to a 45-degree angle (accompanied by a stance about shoulder-width wide) will also help you keep grounded, energized, and focused.
4. If you don’t read body language, you are missing half the conversation
Peter Drucker, the renowned management consultant, understood this clearly. “The most important thing in communication,” he once said, “is hearing what isn’t said.” When you don’t pay attention to your clients’ body language, you miss crucial elements that can positively or negatively impact a business deal.
When people aren’t completely onboard with a proposal, you need to be able to recognize what’s happening – and to respond quickly. That’s why engagement and disengagementare two of the most important signals for salespeople to monitor. Engagement behaviors indicate interest, receptivity, or agreement while disengagement behaviors signal boredom, anger, or defensiveness.
Engagement signals include head nods or tilts (the universal sign of “giving someone your ear”), and open-body postures. When people are engaged, they will face you directly, “pointing” at you with their whole body. However, the instant they feel uncomfortable, they may angle their upper body away – giving you “the cold shoulder.” And if they sit through the entire meeting with arms and legs tightly crossed, it’s very unlikely you’ll get their buy-in.
Also, monitor the amount of eye contact you’re getting. In general, people tend to look longer and with more frequency at people or objects they like. Most of us are comfortable with eye contact lasting about three seconds, but when we like or agree with someone we automatically increase the amount of time we look into his or her eyes. Disengagement triggers the opposite: the amount of eye contact decreases, as we tend to look away from things that distress or bore us.
Great salespeople sit, stand, walk, and gesture in ways that exude confidence, competence, and status. They also send nonverbal signals of warmth and empathy – especially powerful for building trust. And they stay alert for nonverbal cues that can help them track the effectiveness of their presentation.
Top salespeople use their body language savvy to bond with clients, present ideas with added credibility, deepen relationships, read the true intentions of their negotiation partners, and project their personal brand of charisma. That’s a powerful set of skills for any sales professional to develop.
Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D., is an international keynote speaker for corporations, conferences, universities, and government agencies. She is a sought-after presenter whose list of clients span more than 300 organizations in 26 countries. Her programs are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies that can be implemented immediately.
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