Your body language, or non-verbal communication, may unintentionally convey a different meaning than the words you say. In any professional situation, your posture, hand and arm gestures and tone of voice affect your message and may impact business and job opportunities.
These three scenarios show how body language negatively impacted an outcome and offer suggestions for what to do differently. In this article, we’ll address US-based body language, but if you work across geographic regions, make sure you conduct research on local cultural norms.
Body Language Scenario 1
The Job Interview
“I was fully prepared, the conversation flowed and my answers were spot on during that interview. I thought I nailed it and that the job was mine. Apparently, I was wrong.”
Louis was a top candidate for his dream job as Chief Technology Officer of a leading cyber security firm. He thoroughly prepared for his second interview (as he did for the first), deeply researching the role, department and company, gaining insight from his network, planning responses about his experience and developing insightful questions to ask the interviewer. He thought the interview went well — it lasted several hours, he answered all of the questions with ease and had a sense that the hiring manager was impressed with his responses. Yet, he received a rejection letter two weeks later and was devastated.
Louis solicited feedback from a friend who worked at the company, since he felt he was a perfect fit for the job. His friend found out that the executive who interviewed him thought Louis had the right experience and good responses to questions, but doubted his interest in the job. Louis didn’t maintain consistent eye contact and sat back in his chair with crossed arms and legs. He also had a notebook and pen out, but never took any notes. Altogether, these behaviors signaled disinterest to the hiring executive. Even though that wasn’t true — Louis was very interested — his body language said otherwise. To prepare for his next interview at another company, Louis practiced with a friend, who provided feedback on his eye contact, posture and body positioning. Louis felt more confident that his experience and interest in the job would come across genuinely now that his words and body language were in sync.
Body Language Scenario 2
The Team Meeting
“My suggestions in meetings are ignored, or someone else repeats what I say and gets the credit. Am I speaking another language?”
Rebecca, a product manager at a global consumer products firm, regularly participates in team meetings and shares her expertise and ideas. However, she finds that team members often ignore her contributions. Recently, she presented a solution to a problem and no one reacted, but a few minutes later, a colleague rephrased what she said and the team decided to implement the solution.
Frustrated that someone else got credit for her idea, Rebecca spoke to her manager, who in reply said she remembered that Rebecca offered the idea earlier in the meeting, but that Rebecca didn’t seem confident about it. The manager recounted how Rebecca sat with hunched shoulders, fidgeted with her watch and spoke in a very soft voice. Rebecca also “up-talked,” i.e., inflected her sentences to sound like questions. While the content of her idea was great, her pitch wasn’t; her body language and vocal intonations conveyed no confidence in herself or her ideas. Now that she is more aware of the influence of non-verbal signals, Rebecca sits up straight and slightly forward in her chair, doesn’t fidget and presents her ideas in confident, declarative statements. She also projects her voice so everyone in the room can hear her.
Body Language Scenario 3
The Company Presentation
“The leadership team seemed like they were paying attention – they were looking right at me. So why didn’t they engage in a dialogue or approve my ideas?”
Greg, a marketing director, presented a new strategy for the retail division at the monthly senior management meeting. He created an engaging presentation, practiced what he would say and timed it carefully. He hoped to influence his audience to adopt his ideas. However, the audience was minimally responsive and asked only a few questions.
Greg asked a colleague, who attended the meeting, what he thought of the presentation. He agreed that the ideas were sound, but felt that Greg’s demeanor was very off-putting. During the presentation, his eye contact was overly intense, his movements were sharp, and he pointed and jabbed his finger to emphasize every syllable. As Greg moved around the room, he approached individuals too closely, invading their personal space, which caused the audience discomfort. Thanks to this honest feedback, Greg modified his non-verbal aspects of presenting. As he prepared for his next presentation, he practiced emphasizing important points with slow open hand gestures, which are associated with candor and credibility. He also practiced moving about the room, but not too closely to people’s seats, and making eye contact without staring.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? Non-verbal messages communicate forcefully and can affect the outcome of a meeting or interview. Becoming aware of your own body language through your own observations or by getting feedback and coaching, you can practice –- and master -– open, confident postures, gestures and vocal intonations that will improve your influence at work and in your career. The old adage is true, “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.”