Is Your Body Language Supporting or Sabotaging Your Leadership Presence?

Is Your Body Language Supporting or Sabotaging Your Leadership Presence?

Is Your Body Language Supporting or Sabotaging Your Leadership Presence?

When it comes to sabotaging or supporting your leadership presence, here's how it works: Your success at influencing others and projecting presence is strongly influenced by nonverbal factors including, your posture, your gestures, your facial expressions, your tone of voice, and your energy level. 

In any business meeting, you’re communicating over two channels—verbal and nonverbal. While your verbal message obviously important, it’s not the only message you’re sending. If your body language is in alignment with what you’re saying, you come across as sincere and credible. But if your body language sends a contradictory message, and people are forced to choose, they will most likely disregard what they hear and believe what they see.

Here are three body language strategies that support your leadership presence:

1. Master the Art of a Positive First Impression

Did you know that within the first seven seconds of meeting investors, they have already decided if you are competent, confident, likeable, and trustworthy?

Because they are primarily based on nonverbal signals, first impressions are superficial and often inaccurate—but these lightning-fast judgments are also powerful. If your audience (of 1 or 1,000) instantly like and trust you, they'll look for the best in you. If they don’t like you or mistrust you, they’ll look for signs of deception. 

You can't stop people from making these snap judgements because the human brain is hardwired this way—and you don’t have total control over the impression you make. But you have more control than you may think.

In those first few seconds, here’s what is totally in your control:

Choose your attitude. Before entering a meeting room, think about the impression you want to make. If you want to be perceived as happy, upbeat, enthused, and proud, make sure you enter the room with those emotions reflected in your facial expression. 

Decide what to wear. While there are no hard and fast rules that dictate how you should “dress for success” (and much depends on the industry you are in), being neat and well-groomed, is always in style. As is wearing something that helps you look and feel your professional best.

Maintain good posture. Your posture says a lot. If you slump or condense your body by rounding your shoulders and caving in your chest, you appear to have low confidence and low energy. If you stand with your shoulders back and your head held high, you look confident and energized. 

Make eye contact. Eye contact is one of the most positive ways to make a personal connection, show interest, and project confidence. (You can improve eye contact by making a point of looking at someone’s eyes long enough to notice their eye color.)

Lower your voice. Because we tend to speak in a higher vocal range when we’re nervous, you’ll sound more relaxed and assured if you lower your tone of voice. One way of doing that is, right before you pitch, take a deep breath and on the exhale, relax your shoulders and throat.

Shake hands. I realize that it may take time before people are comfortable shaking hands, but without this seemingly simple ritual, we lose the chance to build rapport with the most primitive and powerful nonverbal cue—touch. It’s a compelling force, and even momentary touching can create a human bond. My hope is that the handshake will come back as face-to-face meetings become safer.

2. Talk with your Hands—but Know What they are Saying

When someone is preparing for a business presentation, the body language question I get asked the most is: “What should I do with my hands?”  

My answer is: “Use them.” Brain imaging has shown that a region called Broca’s area, which is important for speech production, is active not only when we’re talking but when we wave our hands. Since gesture is integrally linked to speech, gesturing as we talk can actually power up our thinking.

In fact, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to hide your hands in your pockets, behind your back, or beneath the conference table. Hidden hands make you look less trustworthy, one of the nonverbal signals that is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. In our prehistory, when someone approached with hands out of view, it was a clear signal of potential danger. Although today the threat of hidden hands is more symbolic than real, our ingrained psychological discomfort remains.

Arms held at waist height and gestures within that horizontal plane help you feel centered and composed. Between gestures, try keeping your arms at waist level and bent to a 45-degree angle (accompanied by a stance about shoulder-width wide). It helps keep you grounded and focused.

Hand gestures can also help reinforce your message. Use gestures to physically illustrate a point: rotating your palms up to display candor, moving your hands wider apart when talking about a big idea, or pinching your thumb and index finger together to indicate that this is a small issue. 

When someone is very certain about a point they are making, they often “steeple” their hands. In this hand gesture, the tips of your fingers touch, but the palms are separated. When you want to project conviction and sincerity about a point you’re making, try steepling.

Gestures to minimize or avoid are those that show you are under stress or are becoming aggressive or defensive. These include self-soothing gestures, like rubbing your hands together, playing with jewelry, ventilating by loosening your collar or pulling your hair back from your neck. 

Aggressive signals include standing with hands-on hips, finger-pointing, and clenching hands into fists. You’ll look defensive (whether or not you are) if you block your body with crossed arms.

There’s also an interesting equation of hand and arm movement with energy. If you wanted to project more enthusiasm, you could do so by increasing gestures. However, over-gesturing (especially when hands are raised above the shoulders) can make you appear erratic, less believable, and less powerful.

3. Project the Dual Signs of Leadership Presence 

There are two sets of body-language cues that we instinctively look for in leaders: Warmth and Authority.

When you use warm, “pro-social” body language, you send signals of likeability, empathy, candor, and connection - and the most effective sign of warmth is a genuine smile. It makes you feel better and signals to others that you’re approachable, cooperative, and friendly. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles the corners of your eyes, and lights up your face. A fake or “polite” smile comes on quickly and never reaches the eyes.

Other warm cues include:

• Open palm gestures that display candor.

• Forward leans that show you’re interested in what the other person is saying.

• Head tilts that are the universal sign of “giving someone your ear.” 

• Head nods that signal agreement.

The second set of body language cues project power and authority and are displayed through height and space. If you are tall, it’s an advantage because you look more powerful. If you are short, then standing tall with shoulders back, head held high, keeping your body symmetrical will create the illusion of height. A side benefit is that great posture will not only make you look more powerful, but it will help you feel that way too. Using broad gestures and moving will moving from time to time is a nonverbal way of claiming space.

Body language can also help you display confidence and composure when answering difficult or challenging questions. Here’s how to maintain your poise under pressure:

• Turn your body toward the person who is asking the question.

• Maintain eye contact. 

• Don’t fidget or rock side to side.

• Lean slightly forward so that you look receptive. 

• Keep your body and your gestures open. 

• Take a breath and on the exhale relax your shoulders. This will give you the time needed to choose how you want to respond.

Don’t let your body language sabotage your success. Instead, use positive nonverbal signals to influence and impact others by supporting your leadership presence.

Please check out my latest book: 
STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence. Filled with verbal and nonverbal tips for projecting "The 5 Cs": Credibility, Confidence, Composure, Connection, and Charisma, it's also a great holiday gift for friends and colleagues. 

I offer keynote speeches, webinars, and one-on-one leadership presence coaching sessions. More more information, please email: or phone: 1-510-526-1727. My website is:

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  • Kirsty Spencer

    I am trying to improve my body language to land my dream job.

  • Nick Russell

    Body language can make a huge difference !!

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Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D.

Leadership Expert

Carol is an international keynote speaker at conferences, business organizations, government agencies, and universities. She addresses a variety of leadership issues, but specializes in helping leaders build their impact and influence skills for fostering collaboration, building trust, and projecting that illusive quality called "leadership presence." She is the author of "STAND OUT: How to Build Your Leadership Presence." and the creator of LinkedIn Learning's video course, "Body Language for Leaders." Carol completed her doctorate in the United States. She can be reached at

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