Humans are social creatures. It’s in our DNA to socialize, form relationships, and be a part of a group. (This is why the social isolation aspect of the pandemic has been so psychologically difficult.) To do this, we communicate; we exchange ideas and opinions, share details of our lives, bond over shared interests, and more, all in the name of finding a place where we belong.
As a thought leader, you know what you want to say and you want to share that message in hopes of making a wider impact. In doing so, your success is a direct result of how well you communicate your ideas, thoughts, opinions, and interests. If your audience misinterprets your messaging, you’ll either miss your target audience or have no people to lead.
How do you make sure what you’re communicating is reflecting your intentions? According to Chris Ulrich, it’s not so much about choosing your words more carefully, but paying more attention to your body and what it is saying.
Meet Chris Ulrich
Chris is a body language expert, political consultant, improvisational actor, and personal coach. He is the founder of CU in the Moment, a company with a multi-disciplined approach to educating clients about how to use body language, executive presence and effective communication skills to bring out the best in themselves both professionally and personally and to inspire the best in others.
Like many, Chris’s career trajectory was not linear by any means.
As a kid, Chris dreamt of being a comedy mogul, looking up to stars like Carol Burnett, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams, Lucille Ball, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. Chris has been able to combine his improvisation skills, his training in body language, his experience in politics and his wellness hobbies to create his current job and company.
His dream didn’t pan out exactly as he imagined. Instead, he worked as a domestic policy advisor for Al Gore. When Gore lost the 2000 election, Chris found himself without a job and wondering what his place in the world was. On a whim, he walked into a DC improv theater, unknowingly setting off a chain of events. While he was taking improv classes, he met body language expert Janine Driver and discovered the intersection of improv, body language, and nonverbal communication.
Chris has been able to combine his improvisation skills, his training in body language, and his wellness hobbies to create his current job and company. While getting to know Chris, he shared tips, facts, and shortcuts on how to use body language as an effective communication tool.
The Importance of Body Language
When we think of communication, we tend to think of verbal and written communication. Nonverbal communication, though, holds more weight than we realize. That means that in meetings, negotiations, networking, and more, what you say is far less important than how you present yourself.
If you’re saying exactly what you mean and are using the appropriate tone of voice, your message can still be undermined or misinterpreted if your body language is off. Conversely, if the content that you’re saying is subpar, but your body language is superb, people will believe what you’re saying.
The subconscious emphasis we put on communication is rooted in survival. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, body language was how we determined if a new person we met was to be trusted or not. Making a snap judgment based on how others presented themselves was a matter of life and death.
Nowadays, we’re less concerned with if someone is going to steal our resources or kill us, but we’re still as tuned into body language as before. Nonverbal communication allows us to interpret what a person is saying, assess if we can trust them or not, and characterize them.
In business, mastering nonverbal communication can help you with presentations, negotiations, networking, and more. In your personal life, these skills can give you more success in dating, making new friends, managing your relationships, etc.
“If your audience misinterprets your messaging, you’ll either miss your target audience or have no people to lead.”
Mastering Nonverbal Communication
Awareness is what differentiates someone with poor body language from an expert. Most people don’t know that body language is involved in communication, and those that do probably aren’t sure what exactly to change about their already deeply engrained habits.
The first step is staying aware of your physicality. Make a note of where your legs, arms, hands, and head are, and how you’re taking up space around you. All of these movements are deeply subconscious, so it might be hard to get into the habit of noting your body’s position. If it helps, set a timer or reminder for once or twice an hour.
Next, you have to know what your body language means. Here are some examples Chris gave of how certain body language movements can be perceived and how to use them:
It is crucial to begin to notice your body language tendencies. Confident people tend to take up more space physically and demonstrate open body language, whereas nervous or anxious people tend to implode or make themselves physically smaller when stressed. By focusing on open body language you will be seen as more approachable. Avoid standing with your feet super close together, as you will be seen as a pushover. Instead, take a slightly wider stance, incorporate hand gestures while you talk to hold interest, and sit or stand with good posture and a level head with your chin slightly up. (Think Christopher Reeves in Superman: 1:44-1:47 of this video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tNUu6Lf9mVU!)
Side-note: If you are sitting at a table, putting your hands on the table where we can see them will be seen as more confident and at ease versus putting your hands on your lap where you will tend to look more imploded or like you just got yelled at by your mom for taking the last cookie and leaving the rapper in the cupboard.
Another way to express confidence when speaking is by keeping your hands in an open position like Tim Cook uses here. Splaying your hands is a gesture of confidence and reassurance and will be seen as open and honest. If you tend to steeple with your hands, which is great for reiterating a key point, you might be in danger of unintentionally forgo rapport building, as it may be perceived as an intimidating or an aggressive gesture. Again, it is not that one is better than the other but being aware of the context and which will best serve your message.
One of the worst things to happen during an interview, meeting, presentation, or negotiation is when the person you’re talking to is visibly disinterested. Even if you are interested in what someone else is saying, your body language may show otherwise. When you place your hand on your chin, it will be perceived as smart, curious, intellectual, and engaged.
Also, this type of positioning is connected to success and confidence in our culture. You will see reporters, actors, CEOs, and politicians, and professional athletes using the hand on the chin to show poise and interest. On the flip side, putting your hand on the side of your face may be perceived as boredom or disinterest.
It’s generally thought that crossing your arms is a sign of frustration, anger, or being closed off. While sometimes that is true, it is not always the case. Studies show that people will cross their arms to think through a difficult situation, or it may be a signal of determination — pushing against difficult odds. Furthermore, it can be part of you or other’s baseline i.e. normal body language tendencies, or maybe the room you are in is cold so you cross your arms!
The same is true of others. So if you’re in a pitch or a negotiation and you see someone cross their arms during an important part of the pitch it is not an instant sign they are bored or disinterested.
Side-note: Because of the myths around arms crossed as always negative, if you are running a meeting with your team, and you like to cross your arms let them know that it’s comfortable or you’re thinking something through to avoid them getting it in their heads about something they presented.
“A CEO came up to me in Dallas and told me he had seen me present before on crossed arms and it was his biggest takeaway. He said he would often cross his arms in staff meetings and he could feel a shift in the energy in the room among the team. When he reported back to his staff that he crossed his arms to help him think through a difficult situation or issue, it opened up a whole conversation about how they thought he was shutting down. Ultimately clearing up that nonverbal myth helped change the dynamic in his staff meetings for the better.” — Chris Ulrich
It’s natural to be anxious during a presentation or negotiation. Showing this anxiety, though, might undermine your argument or make you lose your negotiating power. The way you use your hands is a subconscious message of how anxious you are. And at times, we may find ourselves giving tells through self-touch or self-soothing gestures (where one part of the body touches another). These self soothing gestures are often indicators of stress and anxiety. When you rub your forehead, wrist, arm, or leg, that is an example of a self-touch or self-soothing gesture. And the higher the hold the more anxiety is told. One way to notice your tendencies is when you are practicing your presentation, use your camera phone and film yourself. After a while, you will forget about the camera and you can go back and review what your self-soothing gestures are and make adjustments.
Side-note: If you’re sitting at a table one way to relieve stress is to scrunch your toes back and forth in your shoes; out of sight of others.
Eye contact is one of the most important things you can do while talking to someone. There’s a fine line between what’s appropriate and what’s not; more is not always better.
In business settings, maintaining eye contact 55 percent to 60 percent of the time is ideal. Too little eye contact may be perceived as shyness, disinterest, or distractedness, and too much comes off as aggressive. In personal settings, 60 percent to 70 percent eye contact is the sweet spot. Keep in mind the amount of eye contact will vary with different cultures. Here in the US, when looking at others in a business setting, remember the upside-down triangle oscillating between the eyes and the nose. Side-note: Looking at someone’s forehead with chin jutting up as you speak can be perceived as condescending or arrogant, and looking at someone’s lips can be interpreted as flirtatious.
Side-note: “When folks avoid eye contact a common myth is that they are always lying to you. Here is how to avoid falling into that trap: Notice someone’s baseline (In general, do they give more or less eye contact?) Once you have that baseline, look for a deviation from that person’s baseline behavior.
When they deviant, I call this a ‘hotspot’ and you may need to inquire deeper to get them to clarify. For example, if someone normally gives you a lot of eye contact and then during a pivotal point in a meeting, a job interview, or pitch they give you noticeably less eye contact, this is a hot spot. It could be that they are nervous or uncomfortable to share certain information, or possibly are even being deceitful.
This list isn’t exhaustive by any means, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands of subtle body movements, positions, micro, and subtle expressions where each have specific connotations. Being aware of what some of the most common movements are–and being aware that these movements have perceived meaning in the first place–is the first step in improving your nonverbal communication skills, and increasing your ability to build rapport and trust in the moment.
As naturally as talking comes to us, communicating is much harder. In any given interaction, there is an infinite number of opportunities for people to misread or misinterpret what you’re saying. Understanding the importance of your nonverbal communication will help you become a more aware and mindful communicator and leader. Using body language best practices will make you a better business person when it comes to interviews, presentations, negotiations, networking, and more.
When you improve your nonverbal communication skills, you’re not only setting yourself up for business success, but also personal success. Being a better communicator means creating more authentic connections with those around you. The fewer barriers that exist between yourself and others, the easier it is to be understood and find where you belong.