“The company made $5 million last year,” Mark Bowden says, “and I’m really happy about that.”
This would be pretty good news in a variety of business contexts, but Bowden is absolutely certain that the hundreds of IT leaders watching him don’t believe him at all.
Speaking at research firm Gartner Inc.’s IT Symposium/Xpo in Toronto on Monday, the body language expert and principal of consulting firm Truthplane is standing with his hands cupped around his mouth and his eyes slightly widened. It’s a posture that immediately invites suspicion, and while most people probably wouldn’t present to their teams or other stakeholders like that, Bowden suggested that too many of us do something similar.
“It’ll be 20 minutes into a meeting and year brain stem will go, ‘Gee, my head is getting really heavy — if only I had a stick to put it on,’” he told the Gartner crowd while proceeding to fold one arm and use the older to hold his chin, index finger slightly obscuring his mouth. “Even if they believed what you were saying up ’til now, suddenly, (the people you’re presenting to) are not buying it any more, and they say something like, ‘Can you get some more numbers?’”
According to Bowden — who has been popping up as a keynote speaker at DemandBase’s ABM Innovation Summit and all kinds of other B2B conferences over the past few years — those unconscious gestures or movements can cost even the most capable business professionals a sale, the green light to pursue a project or some other objective. The wrong choice of body language can also completely undo a warm referral that someone might have gotten in order to connect with a potential customer, partner or employer.
CIOs, CMOs or other business professionals may feel they could safely ignore body language, however, given how hard they’ve worked to get to a certain point in their career, Bowden said, and that their data or ideas could speak for themselves.
“It’s a kind of build-it-and-they-will-come attitude. Well, I have to tell you, they’re not coming,” he said. “Just as you might manipulate your hair or wardrobe, sometimes you need to choose behaviours in order to get the results that you want.”
Although the desired outcome of a presentation or conversation may differ, Bowden said the desired results tend to be the same: the person speaking wants to establish trust, even though they probably realize that most of us make snap judgements on someone’s trustworthiness within seconds of meeting them. What they may not realize, he said, are the four categories in which our judgements about someone fall. These include “friend,” where we listen to someone positively, “enemy,” where we distort what they hear towards a negative connotation, “potential mate” (a more superficial judgement based on looks) and “indifferent.” This last one tends to be the default, and make swaying anyone about anything much more difficult, Bowden said.
Similarly, many people might already have heard about the kind of body language Bowden said will best build trust — speaking with open palm gestures at exactly the same height as their navel. He explained, however, that this works because by exposing their centre of gravity (“I call this the truthplane,” he said), we are giving a mental trigger that we pose no risk or threat and take up more space. Contrast this with standing with our arms hanging straight down, crossing them over our chest or putting our hands in our pockets, which Bowden said offers an audience “insufficient data” to decide someone is trustworthy.
Of course, not all business conversations happen with someone on a stage or in the front of a room. When you’re trying to make a point while seated, Bowden suggested pushing your chair back one hand’s span from the table and using the same open palm gestures at navel height. This will have far better results than leaning on the table, he said.
While the CIOs at Gartner’s IT Symposium/Xpo may find themselves making more presentations today, Bowden added that many managers and leaders need to build up the speaking skills of their team. He recommended senior staff not only practice body language themselves as an example but to actively coach and train those they lead.
“Ask them, ‘Would you try it out for me?’” he said. “Just offer it to them as an idea and show them.”
And with that, Bowden walked off the stage as to applause, one hand held high, fingers extended like sunshine, in the air.
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