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 also have different norms that help define what executive presence looks like. But there are some rules of thumb.
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 exceptions to this. For example, if all the people in a meeting are relaxing and leaning back in their chairs, you’ll probably want to join them. But in general, whether you are standing in front of an audience or sitting at a meeting, you’ll 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 human. 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 their feeling of connection 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 will 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’re hiding something. Smiling too much may also reduce your gravitas, something that’s 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 make a difference
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 and sweats. But in reality, we are judged, at least partly, 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 coached a leader once whose wrong-for-the-context attire was on the minds of their colleagues and boss for months, and no one knew how to tell them. Don’t be that person. If you are clothing-challenged or think you might be, a personal shopper at Nordstrom is a good resource to help upgrade your wardrobe.
Finally, and I know this is very basic, a word on grooming is in order. Everything about your appearance does matter. It’s worth asking: does your overall style and appearance feel good to you? But also, does it project the confidence and professionalism that’s needed for your current role and context?
Take it slow
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.
For more on executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, listening, authenticity, word choice and voice.