Nonverbal communication in business
There are five key elements that can make or break your attempt at successful non-verbal business communication:
- Eye contact
- Posture, and
- Written communication
Let’s examine each nonverbal element in turn to see how we can maximise your potential to communicate effectively…
Good eye contact helps your audience develop trust in you, thereby helping you and your message appear credible. Poor eye contact does exactly the opposite.
So what IS ‘good’ eye contact?
People rely on visual clues to help them decide on whether to attend to a message or not. If they find that someone isn’t ‘looking’ at them when they are being spoken to, they feel uneasy.
So it is a wise business communicator that makes a point of attempting to engage every member of the audience by looking at them.
Now, this is of course easy if the audience is just a handful of people, but in an auditorium it can be a much harder task. So balance your time between these three areas:
- slowly scanning the entire audience,
- focusing on particular areas of your audience (perhaps looking at the wall between two heads if you are still intimidated by public speaking), and
- looking at individual members of the audience for about five seconds per person.
Looking at individual members of a large group can be ‘tricky’ to get right at first.
Equally, it can be a fine balancing act if your audience comprises of just one or two members—spend too much time looking them in the eyes and they will feel intimidated, stared at, ‘hunted down’.
So here’s a useful tip: break your eye-to-eye contact down to four or five second chunks.
That is, look at the other person in blocks that last four to five seconds, then look away. That way they won’t feel intimidated.
Practice this timing yourself, away from others. Just look at a spot on the wall, count to five, then look away. With practice you will be able to develop a ‘feel’ for how long you have been looking into your audience member’s eyes and intuitively know when to look away and focus on another person or object.
When focusing on individual members in a large meeting or auditorium, try and geographically spread your attention throughout the room. That is, don’t just focus your personal gaze (as distinct from when you are scanning the room or looking at sections of the room) on selected individuals from just one part of the room. Unless you are specifically looking to interact with a particular person at that moment of your presentation, select your individual eye-contact audience members from the whole room.
Most of us, when talking with our friends, use our hands and face to help us describe an event or object—powerful nonverbal aids.
We wave our arms about, turn our hands this way and that, roll our eyes, raise our eyebrows, and smile or frown.
Yet many of us also, when presenting to others in a more formal setting, ‘clam up’.
Our audience of friends is no different from our business audience—theyall rely on our face and hands (and sometimes legs, feet and other parts of us!) to ‘see’ the bigger, fuller picture.
It is totally understandable that our nervousness can cause us to ‘freeze up’, but is is in our and our communication’s best interests if we manage that nervousness, manage our fear of public speaking, and use our body to help emphasise our point.
I found that by joining a local Toastmasters International club I was rapidly able to learn how to ‘free up my body’ when presenting to others.
Ever watch great presenters in action—men and women who are alone on the stage yet make us laugh, cry and be swept along by their words and enthusiasm?
Watch them carefully and you’ll note that they don’t stand rigidly in one spot. No, they bounce and run and stroll and glide all around the stage.
Why do they do that?
Because they know that we human beings, men in particular, are drawn to movement.
As part of man’s genetic heritage we are programmed to pay attention to movement. We instantly notice it, whether we want to or not, assessing the movement for any hint of a threat to us.
This, of course, helps explain why many men are drawn to the TV and seem transfixed by it. It also helps explain why men in particular are almost ‘glued’ to the TV when there is any sport on. All that movement!
But to get back to the stage and you on it… ensure that any movement you make is meaningful and not just nervous fidgetting, like rocking back and forth on your heels or moving two steps forward and back, or side to side.
This is ‘nervous movement’ and your nervousness will transmit itself to your audience, significantly diluting the potency of your communication and message.
So move about the stage when you can—not just to keep the men in the audience happy, but to help emphasise your message!
There are two kinds of ‘posture’ and it is the wise communicator that manages and utilizes both.
The first type of ‘posture’ is the one we think of intuitively—the straight back versues the slumped shoulders; the feet-apart confident stance verses the feet together, hand-wringing of the nervous; the head up and smiling versus the head down and frowing.
And every one of the positions we place the various elements of our body in tells a story—a powerful, nonverbal story.
For example, stand upright, shoulders straight, head up and eyes facing the front. Wear a big smile. Notice how you ‘feel’ emotionally.
Now—slump your shoulders, look at the floor and slightly shuffle your feet. Again, take a note of your emotional state.
Notice the difference?
Your audience surely will, and react to you and your message accordingly.
A strong, upright, positive body posture not only helps you breath easier (good for helping to calm nerves!) but also transmits a message of authority, confidence, trust and power.
If you find yourself challenged to maintain such a posture, practice in front of a mirror, or better yet join a speaking club like Toastmasters International.
The second type of ‘posture’ comes from your internal mental and emotional states.
You can have great body posture but without internal mental and emotional posture your words will sound hollow to your audience.
For example, the used car salesman at ‘Dodgy Brothers Motors’ might have great body posture and greet you with a firm handshake, a steady gaze and a friendly smile. But if in his heart he is seeing you as just another sucker then sooner or later his internal conflict between what he says and what he really thinks will cause him to ‘trip up’.
His body will start betraying his real, underlying intentions and you’ll start to feel uncomfortable around him, even if you can’t figure out why.
But, if that same used car salesman had a genuine desire to help you find the right car for you, and he puts your needs before his own, then his words and actions will remain congruent (in harmony) with his underlying intentions and you will trust him, even though you might not be able to identify why.
I have seen some supposed ‘self help’ gurus who don’t actually practice what they preach. Consequently their words ring hollow to me and their books, cds, dvds and training materials remain unpurchased.
I have met salesmen and women who don’t actually make the money they claim to make in their ‘fabulous business opportunity’, and while their words are
This second type of ‘posture’ is fundamentally tied to truth and honesty. It is about ‘walking the talk’ and being who you say you are.
It’s about not trying to sell something you don’t believe in or use yourself. It’s about not trying to pass yourself off as an expert when all you’ve ever done is read a book on the subject.
It’s all about making sure that your words and your intentions are underpinned by truth and honesty. Because all of us, no matter how polished a presenter we might be, are at the mercy of our body and its ability to ‘tell the truth’ in spite of what our lips might utter. Nonverbal clues rule!
I could spend a lifetime writing about the art of written communication.
There is an art (and also a science) that can be learnt with diligence and practice. To write too formally; to write too informally; to write too briefly; to write too lengthily…
My first suggestion would be to avail yourself of one of the following three books, each of which is absolutely brilliant at giving you the skills and insights into effective business writing:
The Business Style Handbook, Second Edition: An A-to-Z Guide for Effective Writing on the Job by Helen Cunningham and Brenda Greene (my favourite)
Effective Business Writing: A Guide For Those Who Write on the Job (2nd Edition Revised and Updated) by Maryann V. Piotrowski
From persuasive memos to complaint letters, sales letters to executive summaries—these exceedingly useful guides help you to write clearly and in an appropriate format, style and tone. Each book has numerous examples that show how to overcome writer’s block, organize messages for maximum impact, achieve an easy-to-read style, find an efficient writing system and much more.
There are five key elements that can make or break your attempt at successful nonverbal business communication
- Eye contact
- Posture, and
- Written communication
Nonverbal communication in a business setting requires not only recognition of these elements, but confidence in meeting their challenges.