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The Power of Posture

How you stand can be as important as what you say. Here are the ten categories of behavior you should monitor to improve your "presence" and effectiveness.

The way you stand could change your life. Immediately. For businesspeople, stance is an important indicator of how deeply you are engaged with your job, how much you believe in the products you are selling, how confident you are that your company will survive.

And that's just for starters. Did you know that you are likely to make or break a sale by what you do in the first fifteen seconds after entering the customer's office—before you say anything? Or that you can increase your attractiveness to others—and your success in your career—by how you move your head? Or that the seat you take at a table will determine, in part, the direction a negotiation will take?

These insights and many more are at the heart of modern communications research, and Teach Yourself Body Language, by Gordon Wainright (McGraw-Hill, 2003), summarizes much of it in very practical terms that readers can put to work immediately to change their lives.

Take stance. Wainwright suggests an experiment in which you stand straight, tuck your tummy in, hold your head high, and smile at those you meet. Do this for a week, concentrating especially on those who normally don't seem to be very friendly in your workplace. Wainwright predicts, based on many such experiments, that you'll find people treat you differently immediately. You'll garner more respect, you'll be taken more seriously, and you'll find that even the grumpy ones warm up to you.

Your stance, broadly speaking, signals to the world how energetic, confident, and powerful you are. Slumped shoulders, a downcast gaze, a slow pace, and a sagging belly are taken by the world to mean that you lack confidence, that you don't have much energy, and that you are probably less important, successful, and powerful as a result. These impressions may be neither accurate nor fair, but they are the inevitable results of the fleeting impressions we tend to get of one another during the course of a busy day.

Those are just the fleeting impressions. Stance, and what used to be called your bearing, can play much more important roles when you're negotiating an important contract or trying to close a sale. We like to deal with winners, and we are more inclined to yield negotiating points to people who appear to be operating from a position of strength.

And what about those first fifteen seconds after entering a room? Wainwright reports research that measured the status of people who enter an office. Low-status people tend to linger at the door. Medium-status people go in halfway. And high-status people go in all the way to the desk and sit down next to the occupant.

To increase your attractiveness, Wainwright suggests ten categories of behavior to monitor and improve. Studies show that attractive people tend to be more successful, everything else being equal, so more than mere likability is at stake here. The ten categories are:

Eye contact: The more the better, up to visual intrusiveness.

Facial expression: Be lively, smile a lot, look interested.

Head movements: Nod to show interest, keep your chin up.

Gestures: Be expressive and open, without overdoing it.

Posture: Stand erect, lean forward to show interest, lean back to be informal.

Proximity and orientation: Get as close as you can to people without crowding.

Bodily contact: Touch as often as you can without causing offense.

Appearance and physique: Go for color in dress, fitness in physique.

Timing and synchronization: Speed up your activities to just before the point of inefficiency.

Nonverbal aspects of speech: Try to balance your need to talk with the need to listen.

If taking on all of these desiderata sounds like a tall order, take heart in the knowledge that doing even a few of them will begin to increase your attractiveness to others. You don't have to manage them all at once. In fact, you don't have to manage them at all, if you can find enthusiasm for your job, your colleagues, and your activities in general. If you are enthusiastic, you'll discover that you'll naturally increase your attractiveness by unconsciously doing many of the behaviors on the list.

Reprinted with permission from "Are You Standing in the Way of Your Own Success?" Harvard Management Communication Letter, June 2003

Nick Morgan is the editor of Harvard Management Communication Letter.

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