Being a great leader isn't just about what you say. It's also about how you say it.
That's why successful founders are also masters of body language: Whether it's a positive gesture like giving two thumbs up, or a power pose like standing with your arms crossed, people tend to move in ways that reflect their personality and style.
Inc. spoke with Carol Kinsey Goman, a body language coach and author of several books on the subject, including The Silent Language of Leaders, to discern the meaning of specific body movements. Goman points out that even the most powerful speech can be compromised by overly "warm" nonverbal cues, like nodding too much or smiling to take the edge off a negative comment. Be careful with these, as they can undermine your credibility.
Instead, you should look to the positive gestures that many successful entrepreneurs have already adopted.
Preferred move: The fist bump
What it means: The fact that Virgin Group founder Richard Branson allegedly hates handshakes--they transfer germs, and a fist bump is simply more fun, he wrote in his blog--is in keeping with his overall style. The fist bump is "cool, fun, unconventional--all the things Branson stands for," Goman says.
She adds, however, that she thinks Branson probably does shake hands with important business partners. In general, people make a stronger impression with a traditional handshake.
Preferred move: The double thumbs-up
What it means: It's important to recognize that body language can be culturally specific. In China, for instance, the double thumbs-up can be seen as a reference to Buddha. Fortunately for Alibaba founder Jack Ma, the gesture translates as similarly positive in the U.S.
Ma knows a thing or two about recovering from setbacks. He failed his college entrance exam twice, and his first business, China Yellow Pages, was a failure. (He's also said that he was rejected as many as 10 times by Harvard University.) "My guess is that anybody who's dealt with the kind of rejection that he has ... is trying to encourage other people unconsciously," says Goman. The thumbs-up is effectively Ma's way of saying: "Don't give up!" to others who might be feeling as he once did.
Preferred move: Mimicking others
What it means: Goman explains that mimicry is a warm body language gesture. The fact that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been pictured mimicking others' movements tells us that he's trying to understand where his audience is coming from. And eventually, she says, "If you do that enough, you actually do get into their mindset and you do become more empathetic."
Preferred move: Strong eye contact
What it means: Where body language is concerned, Apple founder Steve Jobs did plenty of things right: He incorporated props, and moved with a distinct "manic energy" during presentations, Goman explains. Most importantly, Jobs made eye contact with audience members as opposed to looking over their heads. This kept viewers engaged with him the entire time he was speaking.
Preferred move: The genuine smile
What it means: Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban shares a likability cue with President Barack Obama, who, Goman notes, "smiles with his eyes." Smiling communicates an overall sense of warmth, and when combined with power cues (think: big hand gestures), it allows the speaker to come off as relatable and yet worthy of respect.
Ultimately, she says, the most important thing is to be authentic: "You have to find a style that resonates with an audience but that's also congruent to who you are."
A body language coach can only get you so far if you don't believe in what you're preaching.