Movers and Shakers: Body Language and Your Career

By Susanna Quirke

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We all know the stats. In the land of communication, the body is king; studies show that 38% of meaning comes from tone, and a whopping 55% from body language. But how to use this knowledge to your advantage?

We’ll show you how.


Know Thyself

Ever heard the classic, “Just be yourself?” Judi James, body language and behaviour expert, counsels against it at work. “To expect your normal behaviours to be effective under strong pressure to perform to strangers on an unreal ‘stage’,” she says, “is sloppy to the point of dangerous.”

It’s easy to kid ourselves that, at work, anything is enough. But the office or meeting is, as James notes, a stage – and your performance is a crucial one. Inappropriate manners or body language are likely to go down like a lead balloon. If that’s not a reason to pay attention to posture, I don’t know what is.


Take charge

You might have heard about power posing. The theory goes that standing in particular positions – ‘powerful’ ones – for several minutes before a meeting or interview may help boost confidence in the room. Though a widely-credited idea, recent studies suggest that these exercises may be less effective than previously thought, and possibly even bogus. Besides, you’d look a bit silly, wouldn’t you?

A more accessible option might be power priming. Shortly before your next important meeting or interview, try thinking of a time in your past when you felt really confident – where you succeeded. If you can, write down an account of how you felt and why. Research suggests that positive thoughts like these can temporarily boost leadership skills and self-assurance.

Then, when you get in the room, practise open posture. Arms should not be crossed, particularly not in a ‘self-hugging’ posture, which communicates discomfort. Hands should face upwards or sideways, never down. You might even try taking up a little more room on the table with your belongings. This way, you emanate a sense of openness as well as conviction, and render yourself more approachable.


Be likeable

It’s a simple one, but oh-so-important: smile. Recently, scientists at Duke University found that the orbitofrontal cortices – the brain’s ‘reward centre’ – were more active when subjects were recalling the names of smiling individuals. Basically, we like people who smile at us.

Try mirroring – a technique where you ‘mirror’ a colleague’s speech patterns and actions. Don’t take it too far; you don’t want to look like a mime. But if someone you want to connect with uses less common terms like ‘sick’ or ‘fab’, try doing it yourself. If they’re sitting with their hands on the table, try placing yours at a similar angle. Subconsciously, you will be giving off the impression that you empathise with this person and feel close to them. And that will, in turn, make them more amenable to you.


Pay attention

There are other important ways to show somebody you care what they have to say. Make sure to keep your phone to one side during conversations; a phone interposed between two people communicates that its importance trumps that of your interlocutor. Show your feelings in your face – people hate not knowing what to think, and will be suspicious of neutral behaviour.

Finally, remember to make eye contact. Staring, obviously, is a no-go; too much and you’ll look creepy. A good rule of thumb when you first meet someone is to look at their eyes for as long as it takes you to determine their eye colour. Use the 50/70 rule: maintain eye contact for 50% of the time while speaking, and 70% while listening. But whatever you do, don’t look away too much. Averted eyes give off signals of shame, embarrassment and depression – none of which should be brought into your work relationships.


Get low

It’s not just your body that affects the way people perceive you, but even your voice. Research shows that people with lower timbres project a sense of increased authority and calm – exactly the reason why Hillary Clinton may suffer a disadvantage in the presidential debates. So, male or female, try to keep your tones low and even; it will help you communicate in the effective way you mean to.

We can’t cover it all here but – as an intro to body language – this should get you thinking. Got an interview coming up? There’s plenty of specific, interview-aimed advice across the internet. At the very least, you should know what mistakes to avoid. And if it all proves too difficult? You can always go back to swinging in the trees.



Susanna Quirke writes for Inspiring Interns, a graduate recruitment agency which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice. To hire graduates or browse graduate jobs London, visit our website.


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