First Impressions: Nonverbal Communication Tips

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Within the first six seconds of meeting you and shaking your hand for the very first time, John Smith has already formed an opinion of you.  Similarly, when you begin delivering a presentation, your audience takes that six seconds to size you up and develop their first impressions.  Often, before you even speak your first word, the audience has already made up their minds about you.

Since your nonverbal communication (your face and body signals) are so important to making a first impression, let’s examine them.  There are five simple ways to ensure you make a positive first impression: posture, facial expressions, clothing, gestures, and engagement.

Posture indicates confidence or signals nervousness.  Posture can be open or closed.  Posture conveys feelings and attitudes.  If you speak the words, “I’m so excited to be here this morning to speak with you about your company’s business plan,” but your posture is closed and slouchy, your audience will pay attention to what your nonverbal communication says over what your words say.  Studies show that people trust nonverbal communication over verbal communication.

Common closed posture stances include crossing the arms in a bear hug or crossing one arm over the chest and grasping the bicep of the other arm.  Your stance should be natural and as open as possible; arms and legs should not be crossed.

Slouching indicates laziness, apathy, and disrespect among other negative attitudes.  Never lazily lean on a podium or drape your body across a platform when presenting.  Stand up as straight as possible to project confidence, poise, and excitement.  DeFinis argues, “The most effective standing position for speakers is one with a straight spine and erect head” (Source).  Think about a male peacock displaying his beautiful feathers to attract a mate.  His posture is strong and self-confident.  Even if you are nervous, you must project feelings of strength and self-confidence to your audience through your posture.

Facial expressions are the second way to create a positive first impression.  Facial expressions signal your emotions to people, so remember that your face and your feelings go hand-and-hand for your audience.

Focus on your eyes and your mouth to ensure your facial expressions are received favorably by your audience.  A happy, friendly face has smiling eyes and a smiling mouth.  Those wrinkle lines on the sides of your eyes and the corners of your mouth are what indicate a natural, true smile.  Remember that your audience can tell the difference between a real and a fake smile, so try your best to give an authentic smile instead of to force a phony smile.

You may not want to convey joy and happiness to your audience.  The most commonly identifiable facial expressions are anger, disgust, contempt, fear, sadness, joy, and surprise.  Since facial expressions are such a complex study, learn more from “Facial Expression Analysis” by Tian, Kanade, and Cohn here.  It all boils down to this: your audience wants to see a true, identifiable emotion through your facial expressions.  If they do, and if your content then supports that emotion, your audience will mirror that expression back to you.  This will allow your message to resonate.

A tense, nervous face is tight and often expressionless.  Before you stand up to speak, loosen up your face by doing a few exercises.  Shake off your scared face.  Smile as big as you can until you laugh out loud.  Close and widen your eyes.  Move your lips; open your mouth and close it; wiggle your tongue around.  These warm-up exercises will help you convey ANY emotion through your facial expressions.

Clothing is often the first thing people notice when forming a first impression.  What you wear signals certain personality traits, characteristics, and cultural attributes to your audience.  Appropriate clothing choices are key; you never want to be too overdressed or more underdressed than your audience.  Remember that you can always take off a jacket and roll up sleeves to appear more informal, but there isn’t much you can do if you’re wearing torn jeans and a concert tee-shirt if everyone in the room is wearing a three-piece suit.

As a rule, the presenter should be a little more dressed up than the audience, as this can signal authority and help establish ethos.  Above all else, you should appear clean and professional.  Your audience should believe that you showered, thought about your attire, and double-checked yourself in a mirror before presenting.  DeFinis Tweets, “The physical image that you present to your audience can essentially make or break your presentation” (Source).  So what can you do to ensure your clothing makes your presentation instead of breaks it?  Find out the appropriate attire before you present.  Analyze your audience, and dress accordingly.  Meet or exceed expectations.  Your audience wants you to lead them with your presentation, so dress like a leader.

Remember these no-nos: no flip flops; no shorts; no hats.  Flip-flops and shorts indicate a lazy summer spent lounging by the pool or the beach; shorts just aren’t formal enough for a professional speech.  Wearing a hat indoors can be disrespectful to some audiences, but more importantly than that, hats can shadow or cover your eyes and make you appear untrustworthy.

Gestures include motions and movements made with the hand and body.  There are three common nervous, annoying gestures: The Lady Macbeth, Happy Pockets, and The Rocker.  Performing any of these gestures within the first few seconds of your presentation will solidify a negative impression.

“The Lady Macbeth” involves wringing your hands together.  The Lady Macbeth movement takes the focus off of the presenter’s content because the audience is busy looking at the distracting repeated motions.

For people who store their belongings in pockets, “Happy Pockets” is the second distracting gesture.  With keys and loose change in a pocket, moving around can cause you to jingle and jangle; the noise is annoying and makes the audience lose focus on your message.  This becomes an even louder problem if you store your hands in you pockets and play with the loud items yourself.  My suggestion?  Take everything out of your pockets before you present.

“The Rocker” is the third and final distracting gesture.  The Rocker isn’t a rockstar motion; this occurs when the presenter rocks back and forth (or side to side).  The speaker has a lot of nervous energy, but the repeated motion looks like a pendulum or the long, swinging hand of a grandfather clock.  The audience will feel that nervous energy and tension the presenter is emitting.

Move with a purpose.  Walk to both sides of the room with a plan to connect with everyone in the audience.  Use hand gestures to emphasize important points.  The only way to help your gestures improve is to film yourself presenting and to watch how you release your nervous energy.  Knowing your bad habits is the first step to correcting them.

Engagement is the most complex part of nonverbal communication and creating a grand first impression, but it is the portion that will make your next presentation truly remarkable, memorable, and fascinating.  Engagement includes eye contact, proxemics, and overcoming barriers.

TED Commandment #9 says, “Thou shalt not read thy speech” (Source).  One of the primary reasons behind this commandment is because eye contact is essential to engaging an audience.  Eye contact should be steady.  A presenter should never look down and read entire sentences from notes; this breaks the eye contact bond between persenter and audience and severs engagement.  DeFinis suggests, “For sustained and powerful eye contact, look at one person for a full 3-5 seconds. Complete an entire thought and then move to the next person” (Source).

A presentation’s proxemics refers to the proximity between a presenter and his or her audience.  Proxemics as a whole is the study of the physical space around people and how they use that space to communicate with others.  Being too far away will cause the audience to detach; being too close will cause the audience to feel uneasy.  Think about the “public space” distance compared with the “intimate space” distance.  While it’s okay to be close enough to kiss your significant other or your parents, you cannot be that close to an audience member; he or she will feel like you are not intruding on their personal space bubble.  Engaging your audience means knowing when to step forward, to learn in, to capture or re-capture attention by moving your body closer.

Lastly, overcoming barriers is a must.  The most common barrier is the lectern.  You don’t want to stand behind a podium because this is a physical barrier between you and your audience.  The physical barrier is also a mental and emotional barrier, and it causes disconnect.  Engaging your audience means moving out from behind your safe place (the “security blanket” of the podium) and using movement and proxemics to connect with your audience.  Notecards can also be a barrier.

“Sight makes up 83% of the impact on the brain of information from the senses during a visual presentation. Taste makes up 1%, hearing makes up 11%, smell 3% and touch 2%” (Source).  Make certain your audience sees a confident, strong, excited presenter so that within the first six seconds, your next presentation leaves a favorable impression.

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17 thoughts on “First Impressions: Nonverbal Communication Tips

  1. Unbelievable article! I wasn’t sure what I would find when I typed “public speaking” into the topic search function, but this article blew me away. As someone just starting to dabble in the executive speaking space (from a paid speaker perspective), I loved the way you went about writing this article, and it was very informative. I look forward to following your posts in the future. Thanks again for the awesome article!

  2. Hi, Alex. Great article about the importance of the facial and physical aspects of non-verbal communication. And then there are all the things your voice is telling the world aside from the words…

  3. Gary Bisaga

    Go Alex! Go Alex! I had not seen this article before you posted the link, so thanks.

    I did two speeches at Toastmasters last night. I watched a video of myself, which wasn’t terrible, but there is need for improvement. I know one thing I need to work on is audience engagement. Though I don’t read my speeches during the presentation (I don’t write them out, at least partly so I can’t read ‘em!), I am more of a “scanner.” I scan over the audience. My evaluator last night made a great point, that I should look for opportunities to do one-on-one connection. Like, I had a point where I said “I don’t know a THING about bluegrass music!” She said (and I agree) that would have been a great opportunity to make a one-on-one connection with an audience member.

    • Congratulations on your Toastmasters achievement! Two speeches? That’s awesome, Gary. I am glad to hear you are working on small adjustments and areas of improvement. Pleas keep me posted on your progress :)

      • Gary Bisaga

        Oh I have to tell you also, Alex… I didn’t want to use notes, I wanted to be free from the lectern. So I took your earliest advice to me and wrote very high level bullet points on an index card for both speeches. It was great! I referred to each right before I went up – and they were helpful in helping me remember the name of the author of the heartbleed bug – but never had to refer to them during the speeches. It was great advice: it made me much less nervous even though I knew the speeches down cold.

  4. In relation to the gestures section i would draw a distinction between gestures and mannerisms with the fundamental difference being that mannerisms are unconscious activities which are invariably detrimental. Gestures are often, but not always, deliberate and help support a point being made by the presenter. The three ‘gestures’ you detail are to my mind more mannerisms as opposed to gestures. I normally simplify this for my groups as ‘Gestures good, mannerisms bad’.

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