Your body speaks a lot louder than your words.
What happens in those first few seconds when strangers meet? Posture, hand gestures, eye contact, even a raised eyebrow — all of these communicate information to others about who you are, more than what you actually say.
The signals we’re sending are complex, instant, and powerful. As the saying goes, “You don’t have a second chance to make a first impression.”
LifeNotes sat down with communication expert and TED Talk speaking coach Gina Barnett to learn a little about mastering body language — especially when you want to make a good first impression.
LIFENOTES Most of us are a little nervous meeting new people. What’s the single most important thing you should do in that first encounter?
GINA Shake hands? Say hello? Surprisingly, these are the kinds of answers I usually hear. The right answer is smile — but a lot of people are reluctant to do it. Just what is it about offering a smile that can make people so profoundly uncomfortable?
Men think it’s weak or phony to smile; women worry it undermines the little power they’ve attained. I had one client go so far as to say that she’d have to work on perfecting a fake smile that looks genuine. Perfect a fake smile? Really? Why not just smile and mean it?
A smile is the best way to exude warmth and put others at ease. A smile can even calm another person’s anxiety.
LIFENOTES So, when we smile, the people around us actually feel better. How does that work?
GINA There’s this concept called emotional contagion — one person literally “catches” the strongly expressed feelings and emotions of another. Imagine yourself coming into work feeling okay, but then you run into the chronic complainer. You chat briefly, and as you walk away, you find yourself feeling irritated. That’s emotional contagion.
So the next time you catch yourself refusing to smile because you feel too awkward, remember that by allowing yourself to smile, you are literally giving the mind-body benefits of a smile to the person you just met. And just as important, you are making yourself feel better as well.
LIFENOTES So you’re saying that how we express ourselves physically not only sends messages and feelings to other people — it also impacts how we feel too?
GINA Yes, exactly. Remember as kids, we were told that it’s important to have good posture. Studies show good posture is important not merely for the sake of your appearance. It also helps you radiate strength and energy — and feel less stressed.
To hone your body-language communication skills, we invite you to try these tiny practices from Gina’s book, Play the Part: Master Body Signals to Connect and Communicate for Business Success.
TRY THIS: HAPPY/SAD MOUTH
Put your lips in the position your mouth goes to when you feel sad. What happens? What do you feel internally just by moving your lips? Now tighten the lips and clench the jaw as you might when angry. What happens? Now smile just a little bit. What do you feel?
Now smile broadly. Try a fake smile. Now think of someone you adore or a happy memory and let the mouth organically go where it feels right. Notice how quickly the mere thought affects the mouth position and how a mouth position triggers a subtle change of emotion.
TRY THIS: BROKEN BRIDGE
[In a seated position] begin to slump, let the head droop, the shoulders curl forward, and the belly collapse. Put your lips in a downward, sad expression. Sit like that for 30 seconds and notice how you begin to feel. Sad? Bored? Tired? Just plain blah? By experimenting with these positions, you can immediately experience how the physical positions impact emotions. Play with varied facial expressions to see what subtle emotions emerge.
TRY THIS: HEAD HINGE
Let’s play with the head position. Imagine you are in a meeting. Tilt your head down and look up from underneath your eyebrows. Hold that position for 30 seconds. What do you feel? What do you imagine others might see? Now do the opposite. Lift the chin up by 2 inches and look down your nose. Notice how the back of the neck shortens? Hold that for 30 seconds. What do you feel? These are extremes, but they give a good idea of how much subtext could be projected through such a position. Something as simple as attaining a level chin position can have a big impact.
Gina Barnett works globally as an executive communications consultant, focusing on the profound effects of embodied presence and communication style on professional, and personal, success. She has worked with thought leaders in science, health care, finance, the arts, marketing, advertising, and technology. A coach, trainer, and workshop leader, since 2006, Gina has also been speaker coach for the TED MainStage Conference, helping speakers prepare for their talks. Gina is currently working with presenters at the Obama Foundation.