Quite often, I get new books coming across my desk by authors and thought-leaders asking to be interviewed for my column. One that caught my attention is in a field I have little familiarity with -- body language (as I type this, I am hunched over my laptop in a horrendous posture).

I was intrigued by the prospect of speaking to a bona fide expert in the field, so I took the bait. And it was a fascinating conversation.

Meet Donna Van Natten, the Body Language Dr. In her latest book, Image Scrimmage, she alerts us -- with uncanny candor and humor -- to take advantage of understanding the power of nonverbal communication in business.

The book has a clear strategy: A nine-step plan for building and enhancing your leadership skills in ways you're not accustomed to -- from handshakes to hairstyles, toes to torso, standing to sitting -- it's all there.

The book is packed with information, research, exercises, and "Sage Stories," but its subtitle ("9 Ways Women Win With Body Language") gave me the impression that I was not the target audience.

Van Natten quickly dismissed that notion. She said, "It's definitely not only for women. It's about people helping and studying people based on research with practical ideas for being intentional about one's self and others."

After I read it myself, I agreed. Its numerous teachings and her own humorous anecdotes benefit men and women alike to immediately improve their communication skills.

In my conversation with Van Natten, which I will highlight over several future articles for length, her expertise came across with confidence. For this article, I will focus on four things every person in a business setting can improve.

1. Talk with just the right amount of words.

Wait--that's verbal communication, you say. I had the same reaction, and asked about it. Van Natten explains that she started with words because it's the smallest percentage of how we communicate (shockingly, only 7 percent, as she states in this video), but it builds up to the nonverbal. All too often, we intentionally, or accidentally, send nonverbal messages that are in complete opposition to our words.

Too good to pass up here, Van Natten references research in her book that states the "optimal rate" we process information is between 170 and 190 words per minute. That means, if we use fewer than 170 words per minute, we are less dynamic and our listener will zone out. In other words, speed up!

But that's not nearly as important as using more than 190 words per minute, especially if the topic is about complex work stuff. In that case, she says "slow down and seek comprehension"--otherwise your listener is headed for the deer-in-the-headlights look. At worse, Van Natten says if you use more than 210 words per minute, expect the listener to abandon the conversation. Run, Forrest, run!

The takeaway here? For most learners and people processing new information, slow things down so they don't lose you; for everyday conversations and written content in which no new information is being introduced, speed things up.

2. Make an immediate good first impression with your face.

While that sounds obvious enough, according to the Body Language Dr., people can judge us in just a 10th of a second. And in two or more seconds, people's judgments of us tend to become more negative. I asked her we can avoid this. It comes down to two things: teeth and eyes. Here's Van Natten's explanation:

As visual beings, we seek to lock eyes with others for an immediate pupil, eye, and facial read, including exposed teeth, smiles, skin color, and physical stature. We know that smiles are universal and clear indicators of "it's ok, I'm safe." People need to work on their smiles. Some may have unhealthy teeth and that's frustrating and impacts smiles and, too often, self-esteem. We judge the condition of our teeth for health, beauty, and economic status. We like to see teeth. So, smile! We also quickly seek eye contract and that's a struggle for some people. But, in our country, we are an eye contact culture for a sign of trust. People aren't hopeless, but they are definitely making impressions and hopeful that we'll mirror each other -- monkey see, monkey do. Try smiling at a stranger--they usually smile back or at least nod. In both cases, there's eye contact and a quick connection. We need this as humans.

3. Be aware of your stance.

While focusing so much on how we come across with our face, arms, and torso, we tend to forget the importance of the entire body. People do pick up cues from the position of the entire person standing before them, including leg and feet positions.

Van Natten says, "We know that the feet tell us where the mind wants to go. Someone who is authentically engaged and present in the situation involves their whole body in the conversation. They get closer, they face you, and they bring their bodies and feet toward you to demonstrate 'I'm fully here.'"

4. Have a memorable handshake.

Handshakes are serious business in our culture. Typically, it's the first time we get to touch a stranger for a proper introduction. Yet, if you give someone a poor handshake, it's seared in that person's memory.

Van Natten gave me several examples of handshakes you should avoid with a stranger.

Not a memorable handshake

  • A man's hand grip strangling a woman's hand.
  • A finger-tip touch with palms barely touching.
  • Sweaty hands.
  • The hand-over-hand paternal feel of being embraced.
  • The pull of one's arms and body into the other's space.
  • And, of course, the failure to rise and return a handshake when you're seated.

A memorable handshake

To intentionally create an "equal" feeling, the Body Language Dr. offers up a winning strategy from her book's chapter on "Hands, Arms, and Space Consumption." Here's the step-by-step guide:

  • Walk toward the person while making eye contact and with a warm smile, let the other person know that a handshake is well on its way.
  • Make sure that no barrier, like a chair or desk, blocks this opportunity. If you are sitting when someone enters the room, stand up. Formal handshakes require two standing participants.
  • Extend your right hand at least half way into the shared space. Almost instinctively, the other person will do the same.
  • The important part: With a vertical palm, slide your hand along the person's fingers and through the palm until your thumbs hook. Once you feel this, take your fingers and curl around the other person's palm. A mutual grip will ensue. Both hands are equally engaged.
  • Within a second or two, decide how firmly you want to grip the hand. Smaller people have lighter squeezes; bigger people have harder grips. If you're a smaller person, increase pressure to complement your recipient's hand. If your beastly hand could squash a polar bear's paw, lighten up.
  • As you pump the hands like water from a well, several (between 5 and 7 pumps) are acceptable in our culture. Too many and you're perceived as eager and destructive. Too few and you're not really enjoying the handshake.

Closing thoughts.

Assessing and improving our nonverbal communication and interpreting the signals of those around us is key to our success. The key is to intentionally work on both our verbal and nonverbal messages, actions, and words.

Van Natten told me, "We'll never be perfect communicators, but as people, we need to work on this, especially in a technological era in which communication and its mechanisms are evolving -- some good, some poorly."

Stay tuned for more excerpts from my interview with the Body Language Dr. in future articles. To get in touch with her, you can reach her via her website, by email or on LinkedIn.

9 Body Language Mistakes Even Smart People Make
Published on: Jun 8, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.