Have you ever fretted over a draft of an email or a text message and asked a friend to review it before you hit “send”? My guess is that most of us have found ourselves in that situation a few times. Now, have you ever asked a friend to review your hand gestures, posture or voice intonation? Probably not.
Much of communication advice revolves around verbal communication—the words we say or write. But to focus only on that means we miss out on the treasure trove of information hidden within the things we don’t say.
Below, we’ll go over the most influential types of nonverbal communication and how you can master them to enhance any business interaction.
But first, a note on communication styles.
In our F4S research, we’ve identified two types of communication motivations: neutral and affective. And knowing the difference between the two can help you convey messages better and understand others better, too.
Neutral communicators focus more on words and their meaning. They tend to show less emotion and might come across as cold, but that’s not necessarily the case! These types of communicators like to remain objective by downplaying emotion during business conversations.
Affective communicators, on the other hand, will pay attention to things like the tone of a message or subtext. They can come across as very expressive or emotional.
So, keep in mind that affective communicators will naturally be more expressive when it comes to nonverbal communication, while neutral communicators may struggle to communicate through anything other than words. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn.
Before reading the following, it’s also important to understand that culture will greatly affect how certain nonverbal communication is perceived. Most of the research findings I go over below apply specifically to American culture, but I will point out if studies took place in a different culture.
Without further ado, let’s dive into the types of nonverbal communication you should know.
Eye contact lets people know you are interested and paying attention. It also has a powerful effect on others’ behavior.
Findings from a 2018 study from the University of Tampere in Finland suggest that looking someone in the eye can reduce their chances of lying. And a 2016 study from Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that participants were more likely to believe a statement spoken by someone looking directly at them versus someone who averted their gaze.
If you need an honest answer, it’s better to meet with someone in person so you can look them in the eye when they respond. The same goes for when you’re trying to convince someone that something is true: looking directly at them when you say it may boost their belief in your statements.
Remote work makes eye contact difficult because video conferencing almost always involves slightly averted gazes. To “look someone in the eye” on a video chat requires looking directly into your camera, which means that while the participants will feel like you’re making eye contact with them, you won’t see their faces during that time.
The best you can do is move the screen that shows participants’ faces as close as possible to the camera on your laptop or computer. If you use an external camera, avoid placing it far away from your screen, which will exaggerate your averted gaze.
Want to seem more sincere, sociable and competent? Just smile. A 1990 study out of the University of Rochester found that observers rated subjects more highly for those traits when the subjects were smiling versus when they were not smiling.
On the other hand, some research suggests that too big of a smile may make you seem less competent. Ze Wang and colleagues found that when marketers display a broad smile, rather than a subtle one, consumers are more likely to perceive them as warmer but less competent.
Before you force a smile, a caveat: People can tell when you’re faking it. How? The anatomy behind a real versus fake smile was discovered by 19th-century French neurologist Guillaume Duchenne. When a person smiles genuinely, they do so with their entire face: the cheeks rise, and the corners of the eyes crinkle. When they’re forcing a smile, though, only the corners of the mouth go up.
In a situation where you want to be likeable and friendly, smile away! The only time smiling might hurt your case is if you want to appear competent, and even then, you don’t have to go stoic; just tone down the smile to a slight one.
Whatever you do, avoid appearing fake. Remember that a genuine smile will involve your eyes, too, so those laugh lines should make an appearance.
Using your hands to enhance what you’re saying may help your audience understand you better or even like what you have to say more. Vanessa Van Edwards analyzed thousands of hours of the highest- and lowest-viewed TED Talks of all time. What did the most popular TED Talk presenters have in common? They used their hands more, at an average of 465 hand gestures versus just 272 for the least popular presenters.
A 2017 study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found that using hand or head gestures while asking a question elicits a faster response from the answerer than when using words alone. The researchers speculate that the additional information conveyed by gestures helps with language processing.
Flailing your hands around for the sake of motion is distracting. Instead, use hand gestures with intention to enhance your audience’s understanding and drive home points.
Van Edwards says that one of the easiest ways to do this is anytime you list out items or mention a number, hold that number up with your fingers. Another easy gesture is to move your hand toward your heart or chest whenever you refer to yourself. And a useful one she recommends for entrepreneurs: When you want to indicate growth, move your hands in an upward direction.
If you’re not used to talking with your hands, it may feel awkward at first. So practice in front of a mirror or record yourself to see how you’re coming across.
Pay attention to your body posture when you speak to others. Are your arms crossed? Are you slouching or standing tall? The way you position yourself when you speak conveys a lot of information to your audience and even to yourself.
In her popular TED Talk, professor Amy Cuddy explained how expansive postures (“power posing”) help people feel more powerful. After her research faced criticism, in 2018, she published a review of 55 studies that confirm her assertion that taking up more space with your body elicits feelings of power.
However, Iowa State psychology professor Marcus Crede points out that most of the studies Cuddy included in her review pitted expansive postures against contractive postures—but didn’t include normal stances for comparison.
So the takeaway here may not be that expansive postures make you feel powerful so much as slouching makes you feel less powerful.
Avoid slouching at all costs; it’ll make you feel and look less powerful. Slouching tends to sneak in while you’re seated, so be sure to regularly check in on your posture at work. Sit up straight and square those shoulders!
In most cultures, nodding your head signals agreement, while shaking it signals denial. It turns out those motions can also affect how likeable people find you to be.
In Japan, researchers Jun-ichiro Kawahara and Takayuki Osugi used computer-generated figures of women nodding, shaking their heads or remaining motionless to see how head motion might affect people’s perceptions of the figures. They found that the simple act of nodding boosted the figures’ perceived likeability by 30% and approachability by 40% compared to the figures that shook their heads or remained motionless.
In another study on how head positioning affects perception, Zachary Witkower and Jessica Tracy found that tilting the head downward (rather than keeping it neutral) while directing eye gaze forward increased perceptions of dominance.
To boost your likeability and approachability, nod your head while someone is talking. This also lets them know that you’re listening intently. Additionally, pay attention to the way your head is tilted while you’re conversing with someone. Tilting your head downward will make you seem more intimidating, while tilting it to the side can convey that you’re interested or trying to understand.
As much as we love to text or email instead of jumping on the phone these days, there can be an advantage to having others hear your voice—especially if you’re trying to persuade someone.
Researchers at the University of Chicago had employers and recruiters watch, listen to or read job candidates’ pitches. Those evaluators were more likely to want to hire a candidate when they heard their pitch over reading or watching their pitch. Adding visual cues to audio recordings did not change those evaluations. Therefore, simply hearing a candidates’ voice had a positive impact on how that candidate was perceived.
When you’re trying to persuade, get on the phone. Salespeople know this well: You’re more likely to close a deal if you can get a prospect on the phone. According to data from Invoca, an incoming phone call lead has a conversion rate of 30 to 50%, while a web lead only converts at about 2%. Given that information, if you’re in sales, rather than driving visitors to click something or join your email list, encourage them to call your phone number instead.
A 1975 Brigham Young University study found that participants were rated as more competent the more quickly they spoke. A 1976 University of Southern California study found that speaking quickly is also more persuasive than speaking slowly.
On the flip side, speaking slowly can have advantages, too. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that when doctors reduced their speaking rate and lowered their pitch while delivering bad news, listeners rated them as “more caring and sympathetic.”
If your goal is to sound competent and persuade your audience to do something, try speaking at a faster rate. But if you’re about to have a tough conversation that requires kindness, slow it down.
Intonation refers to the rising and falling of your voice. In general, our intonation rises when we’re asking a question or are unsure of ourselves, and it falls when we’re declaring something or signaling that we’re done talking.
In recent years, much has been said about “upspeak,” the rising intonation at the end of a sentence typically used when asking a question. Upspeak, also known as uptalk, has also become associated with women and has been criticized for sounding incompetent.
However, many counter that the criticism of uptalk is a way of policing women’s voices, and recent research has found that upspeak might serve a purpose: to hold the listeners’ attention by signaling that you aren’t done speaking.
Researchers Amanda Ritchart and Amalia Arvaniti sought to examine the function of uptalk in Southern Californian English. In their study of 12 female and 11 male speakers, they found that while both genders used uptalk, females used uptalk more than twice as much as males when they were trying to hold the floor. In their paper, the researchers write that one explanation could be that “women wish to indicate their intent to hold the floor because they are generally interrupted more often than men.”
Uptalk is also used when we want confirmation that someone is listening or agrees with what we are saying. For example, you might say something like, “Stacy seems really busy lately,” which, based on verbiage, seems like a statement, but you might raise your pitch at the end to see if your conversation partner agrees with your assessment. Naturally, when we hear a rising intonation at the end of a sentence, regardless of if it was worded as a question, we’re inclined to nod or affirm with an “mhm” or “yeah.”
When speaking, using uptalk can be an effective way to elicit feedback (particularly in the form of nodding) and signal to the audience that you have more to say. When you want to convey that you’re done talking, make sure your intonation falls downward. When giving a public speech, this is particularly useful to signal to the audience that it’s time to clap.
As a listener, try not to make judgments about someone’s competence levels based on upspeak. Understand that they may be accustomed to being interrupted and are trying to hold the floor.
Touch is a strong way to communicate nonverbally, but in the workplace, it should be used sparingly and with caution. In general, a tap on the shoulder to get someone’s attention or a hug given to a coworker whom you consider a friend is fine. But when in doubt, leave touch out.
The most widely-accepted form of touch in a professional setting is the handshake, and even something that simple can tell someone a lot about you. A University of Alabama study found that both men and women are viewed more favorably when they gave a firm handshake.
Further, a 2012 study by Florin Dolcos and colleagues sought to see how body language, specifically handshakes, affected how participants viewed behaviors. The researchers had participants watch animated videos of two people greeting each other in a business setting, without words. The videos portrayed a host greeting a guest with either “approach” behavior (where the host stepped toward the guest with open arms and smiled) or with “avoid” behavior (where the host stepped away from the guest with crossed arms/legs and grimaced).
Not surprisingly, the researchers found that participants rated the “approach” situation as higher in competence, interest and trustworthiness. But what was really surprising is that when the videos displayed interactions that were preceded by a handshake, it enhanced the positive impact of the approach condition and diminished the negative impact of the avoid condition.
The handshake is a classic, expected form of nonverbal communication. Be sure to give a firm, friendly grip. And the great news is that even if you flub the interaction afterward, simply having shaken someone’s hand beforehand could help reduce the impact of a negative impression.
Ten years ago, sending a smiley face to your boss or coworkers would have been deemed unprofessional. But these days, emojis are often encouraged in business communication.
So are emojis effective in a work setting, and if so, when should they be used?
It depends on your audience’s age and your workplace. Recently, SurveyMonkey asked 560 respondents, “Do you feel that emojis are appropriate or inappropriate to use at work?” The results were an even split, but when broken down by age, younger workers (ages 18-29) viewed emojis more favorably than older workers (45 years and older). Nearly 50% of young professionals said they saw a colleague as more fun if they used emojis, while 29% of older professionals said the use of emojis makes colleagues look unprofessional.
Further, the results of a study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2017 suggest that smiling emoticons negatively affected work-related virtual first impressions. Based on three experiments, the researchers found that sending a smiley face decreased perceptions of competence.
Emojis help convey emotion in a medium that often lacks it. Facial expression emojis are a safe bet and can usually be sent with little explanation—a smiling, crying or frowning face is pretty unambiguous. But with non-facial emojis, the receiver may interpret the emoji differently than you, so be sure to provide enough context so as not to be misinterpreted.
If you send emojis to someone under the age of 30, it will likely be viewed in a positive light. If it’s your first time talking to someone virtually, however, steer clear of emojis for the time being. It also largely depends on the culture of your workplace, so take cues from your colleagues.
Yes, words matter, but sometimes how we deliver them can matter even more. As we saw in the research above, something as simple as a tilted head or a firm handshake can change how someone perceives you, making you seem instantly more dominant or trustworthy.
So the next time you go into a business meeting, remember you’ve got more than just words in your arsenal. Study and practice the different types of nonverbal communication we went over in this post, and you’ll gain an advantage over those who think verbal communication is the only thing that counts.
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