Effective body language is critical for success. Interestingly, there’s a natural range in people’s body language ability: Many people are okay at it, others are pretty bad at it, while a small number of people are truly exceptional.
Just like any other skill, body language is trainable. It can be improved to get you to that truly exceptional level.
In this article, we break down leading scientific practices into a series of actionable tools that you can apply in your daily life: We’ll talk about emotion expressions on the face, and why “real” smiles (versus fakes ones) are critical for leaving positive impressions. You’ll also learn about how nose breathing can make you a better communicator. Yes, that’s right – nose breathing.
And much more.
Our goal for this post is to help you train your body language skill-set so that you can join the ranks of the truly exceptional.
Sidenote: If you think you’re already among the best of the best, remember that we tend to be biased in thinking that we’re better at something than the average person (when in fact we’re not). It’s called the illusory superiority bias. Check yourself before you wreck yourself! And read up on it here.
Everything you read here is fully backed by published academic research. We’ve sifted through hundreds of papers from the Psychology, Neurosciences, and Biochemistry fields. This information has been personally vetted by our team of PhDs, so that you can have the fullest confidence in the recommended actions.
First piece of advice
If you’re looking to improve your communication, the first thing you should do (after reading this article of course) is check out the 20 most popular TED talks.
If you can hit a home-run like the number one spot, Sir Ken Robinson, or any of the other 19 best, you’re probably in good shape. No need to read on. But for the other 99%, we think this article is for you. For you 99%, do read on.
TED’s Body Language
If you think about it, there are hundreds, if not thousands of different TED and TEDx talks circulating our social media feeds (actually, 2500 TED’s and 90,000+ TEDx’s – and growing each day). So what makes the Top 20 so good?
We think there are two reasons. First, the message is usually pretty interesting. That’s a no-brainer. But the second, more fascinating reason is this: They show perfect body language.
Most of us don’t think about it (well, we do think about it, just not consciously; more on this below), but the best communicators, the people who dazzle us and leave a lasting impression, are masters of nonverbal communication.
In fact, we’re more likely to be dazzled by perfect body language than we are by perfect content or messaging. Many famous scholars have touched on this point, including a famous book written by communications expert Albert Mehrabian.
Lesson no. 1: Nonverbal communication matters a great deal more than verbal communication.
A Thought Experiment
Here’s a thought experiment to test this out. Let’s say we could go back in time before one of the top TED talks, and give the exact written speech to another person. It would be verbatim, word-for-word. But now let’s imagine their body language is a poor sight to see.
They do the following (note, take this as obvious lesson of what NOT to do):
- they stand with their feet planted in one spot on the stage
- the few times they do move, it’s stiff and unnatural
- their facial expression is unchanged from one moment to the next
- instead of making eye contact with different audience members, or even glancing into the crowd, their stare is fixed to either the floor or the ceiling
- the few times they gesture during the speech, it’s to fold their arms across their chest
Does this new talk make the Top 20? Not a chance!
Body language and nonverbal communication is key. And yet most people don’t think about improving this skillset. If you want to be a successful entrepreneur – heck, if you want to be successful, period – you need to be a body language master. It’s as simple as that. In which case, why not work to improve it?
In this post, we offer a number of different lessons, goals, tools, and methods that you can use to improve your body language and nonverbal communication.
Since there’s so much to say on the matter, we decided to offer a two-part post.
In general, what is effective body language?
Effective body language means many different things. But we offer a guiding rule that can be applied to all our tools and techniques.
It’s straightforward and lies at the heart of all communication, both nonverbal and verbal. It is: Match your state to the other person’s state.
Let us explain. The reason we have communication is so we, the wondrous social species of homo sapiens, can enter into shared psychological states with others.
Enter: the brain! Shared psychological states ultimately means shared brain states.
When using different body language cues, your goal should be to match your brain state with that of other people. Body language, more than verbal communication, is a powerful way to synchronize and mirror the neural activity of others. It happens through a network in the brain called the Mirror Neuron System (more on this in Part 2).
Of course, we aren’t able to peer inside people’s heads (or our own) to see whether our Mirror Neurons are firing in unison.
(Though as an aside, this sort of neurofeedback technology, NFT, is certainly not out of the question as we look into the near future. In fact, clinical researchers have begun to use this type of lab-based NFT for social skills training in people diagnosed with autism. And it’s proven to be effective, with people showing enhancements in things like imitation and emotion recognition. See here and here to read up on it if you’re interested).
But until Elon Musk decides he wants to bring this to our lives, you can still do things that will increase the odds of creating this brain mirroring response. It’s a simple, yet powerful lesson to remember:
Lesson no. 2: Synchronized movements/expressions leads to synchronized brain states.
You likely do this all the time – we call it imitating. And it’s a powerful human behavior. We’ll dig a bit deeper into this in Part 2.
Now, let’s get to the specifics of effective body language.
The Four’s of Body Language in Communication (“May the Fours Be With You”)
As you’ve probably guessed, body language is a complicated thing. Lots of very smart people have been studying it for a very long time, with hundreds of academic research journals publishing thousands of papers a year. That’s a lot of information!
Here we unpack all that information into bite sized to-dos that you can use in your day-to-day life as an entrepreneur.
We organize the to-dos into the four main ways you can improve your body language:
- Eyes and face
- Body posture
Part 1 will deal with the more granular aspects of body language, namely eyes/face and breathing. Part 2 will deal with the broader aspects of body language, namely body posture and gestures.
1. Eyes and Face
Before anything else, a person will look to our eyes and face. We evolved as a species to learn that this area reveals so much about a person. In fact, we have a dedicated system in the brain – called the fusiform face area or FFA – that is ready at any moment to process the information coming from the eyes and face.
Cool side note: The FFA is so sensitive to detecting faces that we tend to “see” faces even where no faces exist, like in cars, kitchen appliances, and potatoes. Remember this next time when you think you see a face forming in the clouds, know it’s just your brain’s FFA playing tricks on you.
1a. Make eye contact with others (but don’t stare)
Locking eyes with another person can make an experience more personal and intimate. It can even leave you feeling a bit vulnerable and uncomfortable because, as much as you can hide what you’re saying in words, the eyes always tell the truth.
If you avert your gaze or fail to make eye contact, the other person’s brain sounds an alarm to notify them that you must be hiding something or lying, or that you can’t be trusted in what you’re saying.
As a rule, eye contact is good. But it doesn’t mean do it all the time. Instead, you should do what we call “intermittent eye contact.” When communicating with another person, make eye contact about 60-70% of the time.
The other 30-40%, feel free to unlock your eyes and look around. Research shows the perfect number for a single instance of eye contact (or looking around) is between 3 and 5 seconds. Mix this time up for both, giving a little more time overall to locking eyes compared to looking around.
Let’s run a test to see for yourself. As you make eye contact with the actor in the video, ask yourself at what point you begin to feel uncomfortable or awkward? Do you also fall in this 3-5 second range?
What about the moments when you’re unlocking eyes? Where should you look around?
What works great here is looking at a physical object together and sharing your gaze with the person.
For example, let’s say you’re talking with an employee about a communications strategy for your business. Some figures appear on a page or screen. What you can do is, direct the other person’s attention to the figures. Get them to look at the chart. Look at it together for a few seconds (3-5 sec) and then go back to making eye contact. Go on this way with whatever feels most natural in the moment.
This micro-behavior is called joint attention and it’s also known to increase trust and liking between people (the research led by the leading scientist, Michael Tomosello, says it’s also the basis of all human culture and cooperation). For more information on improving focus and attention, see a proven formula to improve concentration and focus.
Pair joint attention with the right amount of eye contact and you’ll double your chances of leaving a positive impression.
Bonus tip: the best people to learn joint attention from are children. They’re incredibly good at this skill and do it all the time. We seem to lose the skill as we age.
1b. Express emotion on your face
Emotions are a big part of nonverbal communication. It’s believed that all humans have six basic emotion states. Before looking at the image below, can you guess what they are? Each emotion has a distinct facial expression:
Once you begin to be more aware of your changing facial expressions, next you can begin to control them.
For example, you can train yourself to show more (or less) of a certain expression, depending on the emotion you’re wanting to convey in your communication.
Check out the company called Affectiva and their demo app (for Android and iOS) that allows you to track your personal emotion expressions. The program uses machine learning algorithms (previously collected from 5.5 million face video frames) to map out the facial expression a person is showing on a moment-to-moment basis.
Use this to track your expressions and keep a running log of your personal face data.
1c. If you’re smiling, smile real
A smile can be real or fake. If you’re smiling during communication, be sure that it’s a real one.
Fake smiles do not bode well for people during communication. Fakers tend to be seen as untrustworthy, less likeable, and they’re also more at risk of experiencing depressive and anxious states.
Plus, other studies show that when you exhibit a real smile, you report actually feeling happier. It’s a nifty theory in emotions science called the facial feedback hypothesis.
To be useful, you need to first be able to spot the differences in the smiles.
As you can see in the picture on the right, the fake smile involves relatively few muscles, mostly around the mouth (called the zygomaticus muscle). These curve the mouth’s outer edges upwards. With the picture on the left, the real/honest smile, also called the Duchenne smile after 19th century neurologist Guillame Duchenne, involves almost 17 separate facial muscles, including those around the eyes, which makes them “crinkle” at the outer corners. Hence, why it’s called “smizing” or “smiling with the eyes.”
Folks who are more shy should pay close attention here. If you’re shy, you are more likely to fake smile. The good news, however, is that when people open up and become more comfortable, their real smiles come out.
A great example of this is when people drink alcohol (not too much though – we’re talking 1-2 glasses).
Even low dosages of alcohol change certain brain processes. These altered brain states make a person more comfortable and expressive in social situations.
This professional photographer captured how people’s facial expressions change dramatically, as they naturally go from exhibiting a fake smile (no alcohol) to a real one (2-3 glasses of wine). Also, notice how they become more attractive?
You can see how the muscles in around the eye (the orbicularis oculi) crinkle this outer part of the face and pull up the nose.
Have a glass or two of wine and that Duchenne shine!
Another great way to spot the fake vs. real smile difference is to take this test. It will tell you how good you are at telling the smiles apart. Most people score around 14/20. How did you do? Remember: Look at the eyes.
Our breath is intimately tied to our neural and psychological functioning. A person who’s anxious or upset will breathe at a much faster rate, sometimes leading to hyperventilating.
Incredibly, studies indicate that people who are dispositionally more anxious or neurotic breathe at a faster rate than those who are less anxious.
Hyperventilation leads to a state of more CO2 being exhaled than the body can produce. This imbalance produces a cascade of physiological symptoms, one of which impacts the emotions centre of the brain, leading to the experience of more anxiety. This anxiety triggers more deep breathing and a dangerous cycle ensues.
Breathing properly is often the fastest way to calm you down.
2a. Do relaxation/meditative breathing before (and during) social interactions
If you can induce calmness through the breath, the benefits are endless.
There are plenty of exercises, apps, training manuals, and classes that focus on mindfulness and meditation breathing. Here are just 6 breathing-focused apps that you can use:
- Breathe2relax (iOS and Android)
- Universal breathing – pranayama (iOS and Android)
- Paced breathing (Android)
- Relax stress and anxiety relief (iOS and Android)
- Prana breath (Android)
- Breathing zone (iOS)
Also check out the teachings called Sudarshan Kriya, a series of breathing techniques that are part of many different yogic and meditative practices. Here’s an instruction video to get you started.
You might be wondering how any of this relates back to body language and nonverbal communication. It does in a very important way.
Breathing improves nonverbal communication (mostly in facial expressions) because it stimulates the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is the most important connection involved in the parasympathetic nervous system, the “rest-and-digest” system (in contrast to the sympathetic, or “fight-and-flight” system).
It connects to multiple brain and body sites, including the brain stem, stomach, intestines, heart, liver, kidney, lungs, neck, ears, and tongue.
When your vagus nerve is stimulated through breathing, it enables your social engagement system:
- You show less activation in the brain’s anxiety centre (amygdala in particular)
- Your visceral organs go into “rest-and-digest” mode (the body’s way of telling you that the social environment is safe)
- You heighten your ability to listen, show fine-tuned emotional expressions, and to vocalize clearly (remember, the vagus nerve connects to the face, head, and ears)
Bonus: You can stimulate the vagus nerve in other ways too. Notice how these are all traced back to the breath?
- Chanting (especially religious choir chanting/singing)
- Yoga and Meditation (of which breathing is a central component)
- Laughter (lots of deep breathing with a good laugh)
- Exercise (again, lots of deep breathing with a good exercise session)
- Gargling and gum chewing (the science is new on this one, so take it with a grain of salt … we’ll update you as new findings come in!
Cold water baths (recommended by Tim Ferriss and Tony Robbins, though the science on this is also fairly new … more to come on this one!)
2b. Do nose breathing rather than mouth breathing
For any of these breathing exercises, we recommend to do nose breathing rather than mouth breathing. Most of the oxygen absorption during breathing happens while exhaling. The breath passes through the nostrils much more slowly than through the mouth (smaller holes). By passing air through the nostrils, the oxygen absorption process is much more efficient.
Mouth breathing limits the amount of oxygen that gets absorbed in each exhalation, making you feel like you can’t catch a full breath. As a result, your body will compensate by overbreathing (and potentially hyperventilating).
Nose breathing will induce calmness by maintaining an optimal flow of O2 and CO2. Hence, why so many different mindfulness meditation and yoga exercises encourage breathing through the nose.
Let’s recap what we’ve learned so far about improving your body language. We had two important lessons and rules to remember:
- Lesson no. 1: Nonverbal communication matters a great deal more than verbal communication.
- Lesson no. 2: Synchronized movements/expression lead to synchronized brain states.
We had a guiding rule to remember:
- Match your state to the other person’s state (to activate those Mirror Neurons!)
And we had more specific tactics for body language, related to the face and breath:
- Make eye contact with others (but don’t stare)
- Express emotion on your face
- If you’re smiling, smile real
- Stimulate the vagus nerve through breathing
- Nose breathe, don’t mouth breathe
With all this, you’re now halfway to becoming the next TED star! To get all the way there, read Part 2 of this post where we discuss how posture and gestures can be used to help improve your body language skills. Don’t forget to share this with your friends so they can also improve their body language and non-verbal communication when interacting with you.