Actions Do Speak Louder Than Words


The world's most charismatic business professionals have great body language -- a commanding presence that reflects confidence, competence, and charisma. "Command presence" is a military term used to describe someone who presents himself or herself as a person with authority, someone who is to be respected and followed. How much would people sacrifice to follow you? Would they leave a high-paying job, good benefits, and pension? If so, you have command presence.

During a recent business conference, I had the opportunity to strike up a conversation with Commander Matt Eversmann, who teaches leadership at Johns Hopkins University. He led troops into battle in Mogadishu, Somalia, in 1993. The battle was turned into a book and movie, both called Black Hawk Down. One thing that struck me immediately was that Eversmann's body language was impeccable.

"What role does body language play in the development of a leader?" I asked him.

"Great leaders have an air of confidence," he replied. "Subordinates need to look up to somebody who is still standing strong, like an oak, regardless of events around them. You need to convey a feeling that you will always be in control despite the circumstances, even if you don't have an immediate solution...someone who doesn't lose focus, doesn't cower, doesn't waffle. The air of confidence must come out."

THE IT FACTOR. Do you have that air of confidence on the corporate battlefield? Great communicators do. A leader who fails to instill confidence among his subordinates -- during hundreds of everyday actions -- will lose the loyalty of his "troops" when it really counts.

During my research into this topic, I noticed that most successful business leaders -- CEOs such as Oracle's (ORCL) Larry Ellison, Cisco's (CSCO) John Chambers, Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs, and former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) CEO Carly Fiorina -- have authoritative body language. They all have it. But what is "it"?

Few of my clients have thought about what they "say" nonverbally, but their body language problems become evident when they see themselves on videotape for the first time. Fortunately, these problems are easy to identify and fix.

DEVELOPING A PRESENCE. Here are four common problems I see in my day-to-day work as a communications coach. Correcting these issues will help you develop a command presence, whether you're interviewing for a job, climbing the career ladder, occupying the corner office, or running a small business where in-person customer interaction is vital.

Fidgeting, tapping, and jingling.

These are annoying habits that many of us exhibit during our presentations and conversations. Fidgeting makes you look unsure, nervous, and unprepared. Mannerisms such as tapping your fingers on the table or playing with your pen serve no purpose. Recently, I watched an author who had written a book on leadership discuss his project. He jingled the coins in his pocket during his entire talk. It drove me nuts, and everyone else, too. He didn't sell many books that day, and he certainly didn't score points for leadership.

The quick fix: Move with purpose. Videotape yourself for five minutes giving a presentation. Watch yourself and write down all the mannerisms that serve no useful purpose, such as rubbing your nose, tapping your fingers and jingling coins.

I recently worked with a top computer-company executive who had to inform a major investor of a product delay. He and his team had the event under control and had learned valuable lessons from the delay. However, his body language said otherwise. He fidgeted constantly as he presented -- tapping his toe, touching his face, and drumming his fingers on a table next to him. That communicated a lack of competence and control. Once he saw himself on videotape, he caught most of these annoying habits on his own and eliminated them.

Standing rigidly in place.

Great presenters have animated body movement. Standing absolutely still makes you appear rigid, boring, and disengaged.

The quick fix:

Walk, move, work the room. Most business professionals who come to me for presentation coaching think they need to stand like statues. But movement is not only acceptable, it's welcome.

Some of the greatest business speakers walk among the group instead of standing in front of them. They move constantly, but with purpose -- walking to one end of the room when nobody is there is not walking with purpose.

Here's a simple trick: When you videotape your presentation, walk out of the frame once in a while. I tell clients that if they don't leave the camera frame several times during a five-minute presentation, then they're too rigid.

Hands in pockets.

Most people keep their hands in their pockets when they're standing in front of a group. It makes them appear uninterested, uncommitted, and nervous.

The quick fix:

This one's too easy: Take your hands out of your pockets! I've seen great business leaders who never once put both hands in their pockets during a presentation. One hand is acceptable as long as the free hand is gesturing. Which leads us to the next common problem.

Lack of hand gestures.

I once spoke to a professor at the University of Chicago who studies hand gestures. Dr. David McNeill told me that complex thinkers use complex gestures. I immediately began to notice great speakers and, wouldn't you know it, they all used hand gestures to punctuate virtually every sentence: Colin Powell, Bill Clinton, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and many others.

The quick fix:

Use gestures, just don't overdo it. Although gestures leave listeners with the perception of confidence, competence, and control, the minute you try to copy someone else's hand gesture, you risk looking contrived, like a bad politician. Worse yet, you might look like a joke.

President George Bush Sr. used gestures that were often incongruous with his words, as if he had been over-coached. It was like mismatched audio in a bad movie. Dana Carvey made a career out of impersonating Bush, distracting hand gestures and all, on Saturday Night Live. The last thing you want is your colleagues making fun of you after a meeting. Use your hands naturally and you'll stand out.

If you want to make a positive impression in your next meeting, sales pitch, or job interview, pay attention to what your body is saying. Walk, talk, and look like a leader who people want to follow.

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