Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

(Dynamic Graphics/(c) Dynamic Graphics)
(Dynamic Graphics/(c) Dynamic Graphics)

On the job

It's not what you say, it's how you move Add to ...

When she was growing up, Kathy Collard was painfully shy and withdrawn. "I was the kid who never put their hand up in class, even if I knew the answer. I had really low self-esteem," she recalls. That lack of confidence was reflected in her demeanour, affecting the way she spoke and gestured and generally presented herself.

It wasn't until she became an adult and opened her Kingston, Ont.-based business, Home Inspirations, that she recognized the value of improving her verbal and non-verbal communication skills. "I knew I'd need to be doing presentations and workshops, and I was terrified," said Ms. Collard, a professional household organizer.

She joined a local Toastmasters group, which helped with her presentation style; but to move further out of her comfort zone, Ms. Collard sought the help of Catherine Bell, president of Prime Impressions Image Consultants in Kingston. Ms. Collard's training sessions were videotaped and reviewed each week, giving her an accurate picture of how she appeared to others and what she needed to change to better project confidence.

The tapes, for example, revealed her tendency to lean to one side and cross her feet when standing, a position that made her appear uncomfortable, unstable and less grounded. "It was a real learning experience," Ms. Collard said. Not only is she now more aware of the wordless signals her body language sends, but she's also more sensitive to the non-verbal cues of others.

"It's invaluable, especially in what I do as a organizer. A lot of times, physical clutter means emotional clutter. If I'm tuned into other people's body language - whether they're sitting facing me, looking at me, how receptive they are - it helps me help them."

Non-verbal behaviour - facial expressions, gestures, eye movement, posture, and even tone of voice - send strong signals that tell others how well you're listening and whether you're interested in them, Ms. Bell said.

"Most people are unaware that their body language speaks far louder than what they are saying. And there's a huge number of physical distractions that can certainly undermine or change your message," Ms. Bell said.

About 93 per cent of all our communication is non-verbal, said Ric Phillips, president of 3V Communications Ltd. in Toronto. Understanding and using body language can be an invaluable tool to build better relationships, he said.

Whether you're managing employees, meeting with clients, making presentations or going on a job interview, both your verbal and non-verbal messages must align for effective communication, Mr. Phillips said. "People know when they see something odd; they may not be able to say exactly what that is, but they can sense when something is not right."

A recent survey by CareerBuilder Canada of 200 hiring managers found that 68 per cent said they would be less likely to hire a person who failed to make eye contact during a job interview. Forty-five per cent cited the lack of a smile as a hiring deterrent, and 37 per cent said poor posture would also reflect negatively on job seekers.

Other body language that spurred a negative impression with the hiring managers included crossing arms over the chest (33 per cent); fidgeting (34 per cent); a weak handshake (33 per cent); playing with something on the table (32 per cent); and playing with hair or touching the face (21 per cent).

These sorts of gestures usually stem from our anxiety in situations where we want to appear confident and capable, such as making a formal presentation or during a job interview, Ms. Bell noted. And often the moves or gestures are unconscious habits.

Women and men make the same mistakes in body language, although women are especially prone to touching their hair, brushing it off their faces or sweeping it behind their ears, signs of insecurity and nervousness.

"In any situation, you must be thinking about the message you want to send. Constantly ask yourself, 'What do I want to convey?'" Ms. Bell said.

Self-awareness is key to improving your body language, Mr. Phillips said. Of course, you need to know what mistakes you're making before you can fix them.

Take stock of the non-verbal signals you are sending. For example, do you always talk with your hands? Do you twirl your hair, or fiddle with your wedding band? Once you're aware of such behaviour, you can take steps to change it.

Try videotaping yourself, perhaps giving a mock presentation, and review the tape with a critical eye. Turn off the sound, and concentrate on how your body moves and the expressions on your face. Or ask a friend to tell you honestly about any physical gestures you make or expressions you adopt that may be distracting, Mr. Phillips said.

If you're feeling nervous about an interview or presentation, practise in front of a mirror or ask a friend to do some role-playing. But it's also important not to look too robotic or too rehearsed, which can come across as insincere or fake, Mr. Phillips said.

Then, when you are about to have that key conversation or give that speech, take a few minutes beforehand to strike a power pose. New research from Columbia and Harvard business schools suggests that adopting certain poses elicits a physiological response that makes people feel more confident. For example, the classic Wonder Woman pose - standing with feet shoulder-width apart and hands on your hips - boosts testosterone, a hormone that influences dominant behaviour, while also decreasing cortisol, a hormone released by stress.

Your professional abilities can be undermined because of the way you look or behave, Ms. Bell notes, adding that even the smallest things can sabotage your image. "You always want to be remembered for the right reasons."



Eye contact

Too much or too little eye contact can be a problem. Looking away can indicate a lack of interest. Looking down implies submissiveness or a lack of confidence, while too much eye contact may be seen as aggressive.

Solution: During conversations, try to maintain eye contact about 80 per cent of the time. It's okay to glance away occasionally, but if you constantly look elsewhere, others will think you are distracted or uninterested. If you're uncomfortable looking into other people's eyes, look instead at the bridge of their nose.

Facial expressions

If your face shows confusion, worry or doubt, it can easily undermine the confidence of others. If you're asked a question and you are unsure of the answer, try not to show it. Keep calm and ask for a moment to think about your response.

Solution: Keep your facial expression open and inviting. Smile - not only will it light up your own face, it will light up others' and go a long way to generating a positive connection.


Crossing your arms over the chest, belly or lower abdomen suggests resistance and is considered protective or defensive behaviour.

Solution: Stand relaxed, two feet squarely on the floor with arms at sides, palms open. When seated, don't cross your arms across your chest.


Placing your hands under a table, in your pockets or behind your back can be interpreted to mean that you are concealing or hiding something.

Solution: If you're sitting, place your hands on the table and hold them loosely at rest. Otherwise, hold them in your lap, palms up to indicate openness, or loosely at your sides.

Moving and gesturing

Moderation works best. Moving or speaking too slowly may make you appear sluggish; too fast and you may be perceived as erratic or impulsive. Jerky, quick or expansive gestures, especially with your arms, may be associated with erratic thinking.

Solution: Think of your words as music, then move your hands naturally with the rhythm of your voice to avoid erratic movements. Strike a balance to control your movements, without appearing stiff and rehearsed.


Touching your face, nose and mouth, or your hair, is a typical sign of nervousness and insecurity. People also tend to touch their face while lying. Jiggling your foot or tapping your fingers are usually seen as signs of nervousness, impatience or boredom.

Solution: Keep your hands away from your face and hair, especially when you're speaking. Closely monitor your movements and work to keep your hands at your sides and your feet still.


Nothing says low self-esteem louder than slouched shoulders, a protruding stomach and a downcast head.

Solution: How you stand is an immediate sign of how you feel. Constantly take note of your posture; to project confidence, stand with your feet comfortably spaced apart and keep your shoulders back and head up.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report Typo/Error

Follow us on Twitter: @Globe_Careers


Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular