Body Of Evidence

Ted Barton was having a difficult conversation over dinner with a client and, unbeknownst to him, was making clear his discomfort. It wasn’t until the client pointed out Barton’s body language that the creative chief at Publicis in Mid America in Dallas realized he was slumping in his chair, his arms crossed defensively. Embarrassed, he immediately sat up straight.

“You want to show respect,” Barton says. “If you’re sitting there slouching and [acting like] this isn’t that important, then that’s how you’ll come across.”

The problem is, we’re often slow to realize our body language is sending the wrong signals. Mastering nonverbal communication can be a powerful career tool. Here are a few pointers.

Watch the eyes “Eyes are perhaps the most underutilized but most powerful parts of the body when it comes to being a persuasive communicator,” says Dan Broden, vp of Ketchum’s Communications Training Network in New York. Fail to make eye contact and you lose credibility and a chance to connect. If you’re speaking to a group, engage each person with your eyes, advises Broden, who provides media training for staffers and client reps. On the flip side, holding the look too long is bad form. “If the recipient looks away, you must look away,” he says.

Stop fidgeting Hands that can’t quit doing something distracting are one consequence of anxiety. In the 10 years Brad Karsh worked as a recruiter for Leo Burnett in Chicago, he saw many a restless interviewee. People “cracked” their necks, played with rings, even grabbed a pen from his desk and clicked it throughout an interview. While he knew these tics were natural manifestations of nervousness, they gave him pause. “If they can’t get through a 30-minute interview with me, what are they going to do with a tough client?” says Karsh, who now coaches job candidates via his Chicago company, JobBound. His suggestion: filming yourself doing a mock interview helps you realize what your nervous habits are.

Straighten up Karsh says he once had an interview with a candidate who threw his leg over the arm of a chair. “I was sitting there thinking, ‘What in God’s name is this guy doing?’ ” As Barton discovered, any kind of slouching is “off-putting,” because it gives an “I don’t care” impression, explains Broden. David Givens, an anthropologist and founder of the Spokane, Wash.-based Center for Nonverbal Studies emphasizes the importance of facing one’s audience directly; turning away suggests disagreement with the person who’s speaking.

Match words with actions Some movements—often subtle ones—weaken what a speaker is saying, giving the impression of little confidence in his or her ideas. Tilting your head to the side, for example, “[shows] you don’t have total belief in what you’re saying,” says Givens. Blinking rapidly may indicate deception, he says—if not an outright lie, then some exaggeration. On the flip side, to appear aggressive and confident, talk with your palms down or place them on a conference-room table for greater effect.

Besides keeping tabs on your body language, deciphering the clues others are sending is also important. A client may tell you he loves your ideas, for example, but his body may be saying otherwise. If he’s compressing his lips, clearing his throat, lifting his shoulders, leaning back or putting his hand behind his head, he’s actually discontented, according to Givens.

That’s just what Barton detected during a client presentation. As the Publicis team presented creative, store design and integrated work, Barton noted that client execs wore poker faces, glancing at each other and leaning back in their seats. “We’ve clearly lost you,” Barton told the group. “What’s wrong?” A frank discussion followed, and the clients perked up. Publicis won the account after tweaking the creative. “This is a people business,” Barton says, “and being able to listen to and read folks is fundamental to it.”