Are you aware of the messages you are sending with your nonverbal cues? If not, it's time to pay attention, says communications expert Theresa Zagnoli, CEO of Zagnoli McEvoy Foley LLC — because actions definitely speak louder than words. "Energy is one of the key components to credibility, and the things that make you appear to be energetic — posture, gesturing or vocal tone — are all nonverbal cues," said Zagnoli, who has spent more than 20 years studying juries and helping attorneys prepare for trials. In addition, she coaches business leaders to improve their communication skills.
"I still am stunned by the number of people who come into my office (who) don't know how to shake a hand," Zagnoli said. "I interview candidate after candidate and at least three out of 10 still can't do it. And these are bright people, but they have convinced themselves that it doesn't matter. But it truly does."
Another important nonverbal cue, Zagnoli said, is wardrobe.
"First impressions aren't usually from the words coming out of your mouth, but from what you're wearing," she said. "And we are more likely to trust someone who is put together than someone who is not."
Although some people are born with a natural ability to communicate nonverbally, Zagnoli said those who have no comprehension of how they come off to others can improve their skills.
"Years ago, I had a client (whose) ability to communicate was awful," she said. "He put his hands behind his head and put his feet on the desk. He was from New York and now he was in Indiana. So we fixed (it). But it was an awareness issue. He wasn't aware that what worked for him in New York wouldn't work in Indiana."
Here are Zagnoli's tips for mastering your nonverbal communication:
Be aware of eye contact: "A lot of people can have eye contact when they listen but then it falters when (they) start to speak," she said.
"Usually no eye contact when you speak is thought to be a lack of confidence or lying. It could be taken as rude. But that person might just be scared or nervous." So it's important, she said, to make a conscious effort to sustain eye contact when both listening and talking.
Listen to your voice: "Verbal communication is just the words but the voice itself is considered 'nonverbal,' " she said. "There is a certain level of modulation that appeals to the human ear and the way to find out where you are in that is to test it with other people. And you either use vowels or you don't use vowels. People from the South get the reputation for being friendly because they use vowels. Northerners don't. So you need to learn to use your vowels."
Embrace the human touch: "If someone walks into the room and they are patting backs and shaking hands," she said, he or she is likely to be the most popular person in the room.
"Some people don't like to be touched or aren't comfortable being the toucher," Zagnoli acknowledged, but "they are missing a tool in their nonverbal tool box."
Take advice from friends and family: "Unless you have someone telling you or giving you feedback that your posture is bad, (that) you're ignoring people or you're intimidating others, you won't know that it needs to be addressed," she said. "Ask someone to be brutally honest with you."
And be willing to let them help. "I have a business partner who got a bad rap for years because people thought she was disorganized mentally (because) she is one of those people where a drawer can be open for six months and it wouldn't bother her a bit," Zagnoli said. "So my staff had to take it upon ourselves to change her environment. This was the only way to change the impression that others had of her."
Finally, don't jump to conclusions: Many people make misguided assumptions about nonverbal cues. Don't be one of them.
"When a person crosses their arms or their legs, many think that means they are closed off, but they could just be cold, or they don't like what they're wearing that day," she said. "And some people have naturally frowned faces, and this can cause a negative reaction too. People think they're angry when they aren't angry, or maybe they're thought to be antisocial. They are at a disadvantage. You need to take all these things into account."