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The Body Language Expert

by Natascha Zeljko

What does body language reveal about us? And how can we improve our skills? Get amazing insights from Anna Ostergren, a London-based coach. And just as a spoiler – leave your bags outside the meeting room, ladies!

How important is body language, voice, and non-verbal communication – especially in the corporate sector? Do you think that people still underestimate it?

Absolutely. I think it is important in communication with anyone, how you come across. There is a statistic that says that only seven percent of your impact is related to the content, the rest is tone and body language. So everything depends on how you are perceived when you walk into a room, in a first impression. You now have only three seconds; it used to be 10 seconds a couple of years ago and then, because of technology, we are now down to three seconds. In those three seconds, we basically decide whether or not we like or trust a person. So, yes, it’s a very powerful tool. And, yes, I think people do underestimate it because it communicates and signifies status and power, how you carry yourself your social ease and charm can really affect other people in the room.

What would be the three most important tips in body language that you would suggest to people in the business world to present themselves well?

First would be posture. Keep your shoulders back and make sure that the head is up and you’re in straight lines. That you’re walking with purpose… because there’s a tendency for women particularly to apologize, when they walk through a room, and you see it in the posture. They shrink, they scatter when they walk, they do small gestures and nervous movements. And people conclude: the person is not confident, the person might not be competent, even though that might not be the case at all. But that’s what we read. So the pace of walking, because in the first three seconds you wouldn’t even have said hello by the time there is a judgement. And keep the eyeline up, you cannot afford to give attention to the floor. Second would be reading the room when you walk in. We call it in my world the “second circle,” stay open when you walk into the room, rather than having predetermined something in your head what you’re going to say and then not being able to read what’s in front of you. Third would be breath support. Control your breath and make sure that your movements are deliberate rather than trying to control leakage. If you’re really nervous you will leak it somewhere and we’ll see it in the body. There are ways of controlling that leakage and knowing how to avoid leaking nervousness, fear, and resentment.

Okay, and one little secret tip…

We call it the “bag faff”, which is quite common among women. We bring in our bag for meetings and when we walk through the door we spend those 3 seconds putting the bag down, or taking stuff out of it. Which means that we lose that chance of the strong first impression. So if you can, go to clients and make sure that you have everything with you and leave the bag, i.e. at the reception.

“The first thing is to ask myself is: who is my audience and how do I adjust to them? If you are in a diverse group you have to be able to adjust, to one another, to the client and within the company.“

How can one hide bad feelings, for example being stressed?

It has a lot to do with breath control. So I make sure that I’m breathing from my diaphragm, that’s what I’m doing now. As soon as you start to be stressed the mechanisms in your body will contract. And you will sound stressed, your voice will tremble, or travel up in the register. Then you can essentially work from the outside in, i.e. activating your diaphragm when you are breathing and therefore sending more oxygen to your brain and then your body will calm down.

What is the secret behind this?

You can think to yourself, “I’m gonna calm down, I’m gonna calm down, I’m gonna calm down,” all you like, but your brain might not necessarily do that for you. You have to get yourself physiologically into a better state. Then, it’s much easier for your brain to work as you want it to – and for you to perform at your best intellectual level.

Body language differs between cultures. How would you train a diverse team that has members from different countries?

That’s a very good question. For us speaking, I have to say that we teach the general Western style. And of course there are huge differences even in Europe, and the thing is to find the kind of golden middle ground. The first thing is to ask myself is: who is my audience and how do I adjust to them? If you are in a diverse group you have to be able to adjust, to one another, to the client and within the company.

“And also I think fundamentally if you’re interested in people – and I’m very interested in other people – one tries to engage and communicate effectively to solve a conflict in the best possible way.“

How do you proceed when working with clients?

We initially ask: what is the culture of that company or the client? How do you want to be seen vs how you feel you are seen. Then, secondly: how do we adjust and find a frequency like a radio frequency that works? How to adjust, to give you an example, Italians who speak much faster working for a very British firm or a very German firm. The key question is: what is the adjustment I have to make in my communication style to get the best possible results? You still have to stay yourself and still be authentic, but be aware of how you are perceived and how you reach your objective.

And as a body language expert, do you get conscious or are you aware of your own body language all the time?

Yeah absolutely. I have to embody what I preach. So I’m aware of how I’m coming across and how I want to come across. I am a real human being so like everyone I have flaws, of course,  but in a professional setting, definitely. And also I think fundamentally if you’re interested in people – and I’m very interested in other people – one tries to engage and communicate effectively to solve a conflict in the best possible way. I’m also Swedish and we notoriously avoid conflict and are very consensus-driven. Conflict usually occurs when one is not feeling seen or acknowledged.

But that’s not that far away from the British culture, is it?

Yes. But the British culture is much more subtextual though and I think in England what you mean and what you say and how it’s said is very different. One has to be aware of what the subtext is all the time. One has to be able to read on two levels, which is, I think, great practice for what we do because we have to constantly work on two levels. So when we work with people who aren’t British it’s much easier for us, but the challenges are different.

“There’s no one kind of style because we are different and it fundamentally is you. What we’re aiming for with our work is that it should feel like you  – on a very good day.“

Is there something like a born body language pro, let’s say a charismatic person like Barack Obama or who would you count on?

Most people have had some sort of training, but it stems I think from an interest in others. For me, that was Kofi Annan. I think he was fantastic. You never saw him lose his temper. He was very calm and collected – a great negotiator. You trusted him. He had that kind of great calm and statesmanship. I think Michelle and Barack Obama are also quite brilliant – because they are very good at seeing the other person and connecting with them. They are constantly in what I call the “golden circle” – that second circle of seeing the other and engaging. It’s about the other person, and this is a gift – but it can be practised,  honed and perfected. Their ability to take the spotlight off themselves, actually makes them look really good. Who else is good? In terms of stability, I think Angela Merkel is great. She reassures the people in a world being slightly chaotic. She is very clear and though she might come across a bit cold, she’s very sensible, grounded, and trustworthy. In terms of charisma, it would be Richard Branson. His ability to get people with him and creating buzz and energy. He has physical energy and a physical tempo that makes you go: I remember you.

Interesting – all of them are very different.

Exactly. There’s no one kind of style because we are different and it fundamentally is you. What we’re aiming for with our work is that it should feel like you  – on a very good day. If you try to be somebody else, we can spot that a mile off.

Do you scan the people around you all the time?

I try my best. I have had that question before. It’s very hard to switch off, so yes and no. I try not to. But sometimes you can’t help it obviously. I come from a family of behavioural experts and sociologists. My father, my mother, my sister and my father’s new partner are all “people” people. So we are inherently interested in people. We enjoy human interactions. So yes, it’s hard to switch off. I have several times said to myself, “I wish I could coach that person.” I could do something. I think “if I could just have had an hour with that person, I’m sure I could have made a difference”. But at the same time, I try to switch off as much as I can.

“The more technology advances, the more the human experience and interaction becomes important – because you have so few of them.“

How much time do I have to invest to really get better or shape my body language?

It depends on the person, it depends on the individual plans. But in general, we say six to twelve sessions. It’s not going to take a year and a half to see results. The work that we do is very practical, it’s a quick but intense process. Which I think is what most clients enjoy. You should be able to walk out of the session and be able to use it in your next meeting. Fundamentally we want to arm you, which is why our company is called Armatos, so you’re able to use it immediately and get the results. The shifts might look small, but they have an impact. And people ideally should be able to identify themselves after a while,  to be able to adjust themselves, to know when they’re good.

Last question: in the age of technology and AI – body language and human interaction will be even more important. Do you agree?

The more technology advances, the more the human experience and interaction becomes important – because you have so few of them. You know 20 years ago, you might have seen the client 20 times and now you might see them twice. So the stakes in those meetings are much higher. It becomes a bigger task to make a human connection and create trust. Of course, what determines a market, speaking about a product, is the price point. But aside from this, we go with people we like and trust.

Anna Ostergren is the co-founder of Armatos. The Swede is Executive Coach and Body Language and Voice Expert. The London-based company successfully coaches business executives on body language, voice and diction, presentation skills, and confidence-building. Their work in the corporate sector has included coaching c-suite corporate finance, oil companies, and Michelin star restaurants as well as large Academic Institutions.

 

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