How Body Language Affects Executive Presence

Body language can have a strong impact on executive presence. In general, you want to make sure that your body says what you want it to say: that you are relaxed, comfortable and confident.

Everyone’s body language is different. Different cultures and organizations (and even departments or teams within an organization) also have different norms that help define what executive presence means in that context.

If you think you need to make some changes in your body language in order to be more effective in a particular context, I suggest you make them slowly. Body language is very personal, and people will notice big changes. If you make sudden, major changes to your body language, people may sense something artificial and it could cause them to be distrustful. After all, authenticity is also crucial for executive presence.

Having said that, here are some general guidelines that often apply in U.S.-based companies.

Adopt open and upright posture

If you have a habit of always keeping your arms folded in front of you or if you wrap your arms around yourself, your body language impedes people’s sense that they can connect with you. It becomes a barrier between you and them. That’s why it’s better to keep your arms at your side or to use your hands and arms for gesturing.

Also, an upright posture tends to look more confident. There are some exceptions to this. For example, if all the senior executives in your company habitually lean back in their chairs, you may want to adopt some of that behavior when you’re with them. But in general, whether you are standing in front of an audience or sitting at a meeting, you look stronger and more confident if you adopt open and upright body language.

Make eye contact

Making connecting eye contact is another part of effective executive presence. Eye contact can help you appear more confident, and it can also help people feel that you are engaged and listening to them. Too little eye contact can make you appear disengaged, distracted or even dishonest. There is a balance here. Unrelenting, unblinking eye contact can also be off-putting.

Be aware of your facial expressions

Leaders with executive presence have a relaxed face much of the time, especially in serious settings; but they communicate emotion through changes in facial expression, like smiling, laughing and frowning. This may sound really obvious, but it’s not always practiced.

Some people have a flat affect on their face and need to learn to occasionally smile or make another expression. Communicating emotions through facial expressions shows people that you’re a human being. It makes it easier for them to connect with you. Even small cues like nodding occasionally when you’re listening to someone or smiling when they say something interesting can increase other people’s ability to feel connected with you.

Where I see people get into trouble is when they do too much of one thing. For example, if you never smile, it can make you appear unfeeling or unfriendly. People appreciate the connection and warmth of a genuine smile.

On the other hand, if you smile all the time, that can reduce your executive presence. It may come across as forced or artificial (or just not “human” or real) because people realize that almost no one is constantly happy. Smiling all the time can be particularly problematic if your facial expression isn’t aligned with your actual emotional state. If people perceive that your emotions are at odds with your facial expression (and they will be able to perceive that), it can make them think you are hiding something. Smiling too much may also reduce your level of gravitas, something that is important for executives.

Change your body language to change how you feel

Much has been said recently about how an intentional change in your body language changes your brain chemistry and subsequently how you feel. In her popular Ted Talk, Amy Cuddy explains that how you sit or stand can actually boost your confidence level. So, adopting strong body language is a virtuous circle. It makes you look stronger and more confident, and it also works from the outside-in, making you feel more confident as well.

Clothing and appearance can make a difference

I hate to say it, but what you wear and how you look does matter. I recall as a young man I really didn’t want to acknowledge that this was true. “It’s what’s inside that counts!” I thought as I perpetually wore white T-shirts. But, in reality, we are judged, at least in part, by how we look.

I don’t advise much on clothing (my wife would say I’m not qualified), but I will say this: if you dress way outside the bell curve of the people around you, just be aware that doing so can come at a cost. So, if most of your colleagues wear more formal business attire, you can expect some raised eyebrows if you show up in shorts and sandals.

Also, because dress is so personal, it may be hard for people to give you feedback about it, even if it’s affecting your reputation. I’ve coached leaders whose wrong-for-the-context attire was on the minds of their colleagues and boss for years, and no one knew how to tell them.

Take it slow

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, body language is personal, and drastic changes to your body language may not always be perceived positively by those around you. Sudden major changes can seem inauthentic. So, if body language is an area of growth for you, see if you can pick one or two things and start to make slow, subtle changes over time.

For more on executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, listening, authenticity, word choice and voice.


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