We're all students of body language. Too bad we're not students of our own body language.
Here are some tips to help ensure your body language works for, and not against, you:
1. Prep with a power pose.
It turns out Leo was on to something: According to Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, two minutes of power posing--standing tall, holding your arms out or toward the sky, or standing like Superman, with your hands on hips--will dramatically increase your confidence.
Try it before you step into a situation in which you know you'll feel nervous, insecure, or intimidated. (Just make sure no one is watching.)
It may sound strange…but it works.
2. Dial up your energy level.
Imagine you've just led a meeting. Now rate your energy level on a scale of 1 to 10.
Most people will give themselves an 8 or 9. Unfortunately, most of the people in the room will give you a 3 or 4. What feels high energy to us can come across flat and lifeless to others.
Next time, remind yourself to dial up the energy by 20 percent or so. You don't have to go all Matthew Lesko, but you should definitely display more enthusiasm and passion than you would under other circumstances.
3. When the going gets tough, start smiling.
Frowning, grimacing, glowering, and other negative facial expressions send a signal to your brain that whatever you're doing is difficult. That causes your brain to send cortisol into your bloodstream, which raises your stress levels. Soon stress begets more stress--and pretty soon you're a hot mess.
Instead, force yourself to smile. It works.
Plus when you smile, that helps other people feel less stress, too. Most of us mirror the actions of others, so if you smile, other people will smile. If you nod, others will nod.
And if you frown, soon others will be frowning, too.
4. Play supermodel to reduce conflict.
Standing face to face can feel confrontational. One way to reduce the instinctive level of threat you and the other person feel is to shift your stance slightly so you're standing at an angle--much like models who almost never stand with their bodies square to the camera.
If you're confronted, don't back away; just shift to a slight angle. And if you wish to appear less confrontational, approach the person and stand at a 45-degree angle (while still making direct eye contact, of course).
Best of all, try to find a way to stand side by side, because that implicitly signals collaboration.
5. Don't gesture above your shoulders.
Watch any Steve Jobs presentation. He never raises his arms above his shoulders.
That should be enough of a reason for you not to, either.
6. Talk more with your hands.
The right gestures add immeasurably to your words. Think about how you talk and act when you're not "on."
Then act the same way when you're in professional situations. You'll feel more confident, think more clearly, naturally punctuate certain words and phrases, and fall into a much better rhythm.
7. Use props to engage.
Body positions affect attitude. People who stand or sit with their arms crossed and heads tilted forward are naturally more resistant and defensive.
So pull them out of their resistant poses. Shake hands. Ask for their business card. Offer a drink. (I have a friend who is the king of, "I'm going to get a water, can I bring you one?" For him, the act of handing someone a bottle of water not only shows courtesy but also forces the recipient to open up his or her body position, which also helps overcome resistance.)
Or if you're speaking to a group, ask questions that involve raising hands. Pass around relevant items. Find a way to get people to stand or change seats.
The more people move and open up, the more engaged they feel.
8. Think before you speak.
Eye contact is important, but it's hard to maintain eye contact when you have to think. Most of us start talking and look up or down or away and then swing back when we've gathered our thoughts.
Here's a better way. If you have to look away to think, do it before you answer. Take a pause, look thoughtful, glance away, and then return to making eye contact when you start speaking.
Then your words are even more powerful because your eyes support them.