Photo: David Croxford

Your Voice Says One Thing, But Your Body May Say Something Completely Different

December, 2014

Like many others, Susan Szabo feared public speaking. But unlike most people stricken with that fear, she took a job where standing in front of an audience is common.

She needed help, so she took a group class with presentation coach Pam Chambers to gain the confidence to speak in front of a large crowd. The key was changing her body language.

She wasn’t making eye contact with the audience, she clasped her hands in front of her chest while speaking and she didn’t know what to wear until she took Chambers’ class.

“She taught me how to be me, so people would listen to me. That’s powerful,” says Szabo, an artist and coach at a networking and marketing company.

She now engages her audience by asking questions and looking directly at people. She uses her hands while talking, much as she would while talking to a friend. And she learned to dress the way she wants to be seen – as artistic, friendly, approachable and caring, while still being professional.

These changes have led to big results in her business, she says.

“I feel like the people I’m talking to are more engaged and involved, and the feedback has been great,” she says. “People are hearing my message.”

Body language can affect your professional life, while a gesture or facial expression can make or break a business deal. Nonverbal communication can also affect how you feel about yourself, says Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School, whose presentation in 2012 at TED Global on “power poses” is among the most viewed TED talks of all time.

“Body language matters wherever you are,” Chambers says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the speaker or sitting in the audience … When you talk about communication, body language is one of your tools. Your voice may stop, but your body never stops saying something.”

“We need to be able to look at ourselves and be aware of what we’re doing.”
–Alison Zecha, executive coach

Communication experts often see the same body language mistakes from their clients: standing with hands in their pockets, not sitting up straight during meetings, not seeming to pay attention when others are talking, using their hands awkwardly or not at all while talking.

“We need to be able to look at ourselves and be aware of what we’re doing,” says Alison Zecha, a longtime executive coach and owner of Coach AZ, a leadership consultancy. “What gestures are you using? How do you come across? How are you sitting? Where are your hands? Are you leaning toward the speaker or sitting back?

“All of that says so much about whether we’re engaged or not. And those movements can translate to how we feel about ourselves and our own confidence,” Zecha says.

Some poor poses are gender specific. Men might stand in front of an audience with their hands covering their crotch, what Chambers call the “fig-leaf position.” Women often clasp their hands in prayer position, in front of their solar plexus. Both are protecting vulnerable spots on their bodies, Chambers explains, “and that shows a lack of confidence.”

A common suggestion to fearful public speakers is to look above the heads of the audience. That’s a mistake, says Chambers. “You’ll actually feel less comfortable because you’re getting less feedback,” she says.

Instead, look for “safe people” in the audience – friendly or familiar faces – but don’t look at any one person for more than a couple of seconds, she says. “You want a deep connection with the audience.”

We may not realize we’re sending nonverbal cues, like clicking a pen or tapping our feet.

Ray Limuaco, an account manager at Approved Freight Forwarders, took Chambers’ public speaking class this summer to help him deliver better presentations. What he also learned was his body language as a listener.

“I’m the pen clicker in the class,” he says, laughing, “and I was never aware of it.”

Excess energy caused him to fidget. Though he doesn’t lack confidence around others, his body language said otherwise.

“It seemed like I wasn’t confident in the product I was selling or in myself,” says Limuaco, who now hits the gym to release some of his nervous energy. “And in order to do well in sales, you have to be confident.”

Halfway through the class with Chambers, Limuaco had to deliver a presentation to a big construction company about his company’s shipping services. Aware of his habit of fidgeting, he controlled it and nailed the talk.

“Being able to adjust my behavior on site, it was tremendous,” he says. “I’m getting a lot of positive feedback from that presentation. It’s been a complete 180 for me.”


Power Poses

See Amy Cuddy’s popular TED talk using this shortcut,
tinyurl.com/kn8k8wr

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