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How to read body language (and improve your own)

Ramit Sethi

There are tons of articles out there telling you how to read body language. From Psychology Today to Business Insider, they give you tips on how to read someone’s face and posture, but they all seem to miss one key thing.

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No one wants to read body language just for the hell of it! You want to know the specific changes that will help you improve YOURS.

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Here’s what I mean: When I was in high school, I applied for a lot of scholarships to pay for college, and I got a lot of interviews because I could nail the essays. Every time I showed up I ran into the same girl competing for all the same scholarships. I left every interview sure I nailed it, but two weeks later I would find out she won the scholarship. Again and again.

It drove me nuts.

After losing interview after interview, I finally asked myself “what is going on here?” To find out I videotaped myself answering the interview questions.

What a NIGHTMARE. I thought I was this young, energetic guy, but in actuality, on camera, I came across as a loser with a monotone voice, no energy, looking like he was about to fall asleep. Not exactly the way you want to be perceived in a scholarship interview worth $25,000.

I realized that I was making two major mistakes:

  1. I paid NO attention to the body language of the interviewers
  2. My own body language was horrible

So I set out to learn both sides of the coin. I studied how the most charismatic people held themselves, and I systematically improved each aspect of my own body language.

I figured that being able to read other people’s body language is important but what good does it do if you don’t apply it yourself? I didn’t just want to sit and watch and read people’s body language. I wanted to get to a point where my body language was so good, it controlled the conversation. Not the other way around.

After I started improving my body language, everything started to change:

  • When I went to meetings, people were more interested in me.
  • When I went out to bars, people ACTUALLY stayed to chat. No more eye-rolling or checking their watches.
  • And when I went to interviews, I started winning them again and again.

And it had nothing to do with the words I used. I was saying the same things as before. The change came from my body language.

Now as you can imagine, everyone and their uncle has an opinion about improving body posture. But there are just a few little, natural adjustments I’ve found that can have the fastest, biggest impact on how others perceive you. I want to share those with you today.

5 surprisingly simple techniques to improve your body language

Master these body language hacks, and you’ll be amazed at how strongly and positively they impact the people around you.

1. Smiling

Your smile is one of your most important assets. People love smiles. In a room full of people who look grumpy as hell, you naturally gravitate toward the people who are smiling. That’s the person you want to talk to.

When I started to practice smiling, it felt very fake. The truth is I had never really smiled that much before. In Indian culture, men don’t really smile so it felt really weird for me to say, “Hello, how are you?” with a grin.

ramitsmileWho knew smiling could be so hard?
 

But I got better. Smiling became more natural. And now, of course, I love smiling.

How to improve: This week, when you greet someone, try smiling more than you normally would. Think about your best friend. Think about the funniest situation you’ve ever encountered. Whatever it takes to get that smile.

Notice the difference between a smile with no emotion behind it and a smile when you are thinking about your best friend doing something hilarious. Way different, right? The boring smile makes you look crazy or fake, while the other smile makes you happy. That’s what you want to do every time.

2. Energy

When you’re around someone with low energy, you can literally feel them draining your energy away. The first thing you want to do is get away from them.

The real challenge, however, is that we are all poor judges of how much energy we think we’re communicating. What feels normal to us can feel like a downer to others.

I’ll show you what I mean. Look at this video from one of my students who wanted some help with his verbal and nonverbal communication skills:

 

What felt completely fake and hyped up to him was actually totally NORMAL for everyone else.

How to improve: Take whatever energy level you’re at now and add 50% more energy. Test it in small, anonymous places like at a coffee shop. See what kind of reactions you get. Then work up to using it at work and with your friends. You’ll be amazed at the difference.

3. Talk slower

When I was younger, I was notorious for speaking way too fast. I spoke even faster about things I was excited about like my business or something fascinating I learned. People would just stare at me instead of following the conversation.

Ever had someone look at you while you are running at the mouth and say, “Interesting.” Well, that’s code for, “I have no idea what you are talking about anymore, slow doooowwwn.”

I want to show you a video of the dramatic change that speaking more slowly can have. Take a look.

 

How to improve: If you’re a fast talker, try forcing yourself to slow down by at least 50% It will feel sluggish to you but perfect for everyone else. One easy hack to help you slow down is to focus on enunciating your words

4. Hands

I am obsessed with hand movements. You wouldn’t think this is such a big deal, but once you notice the differences in how people use their hands, you’ll see that some people are amazing at using their hands for emphasis.

How do you use your hands?

  • Sitting down, do you put them on your lap or cross them?
  • Standing up, are they in your pockets? What if you’re wearing a skirt and that skirt doesn’t have pockets?
  • When talking, do you gesture or hold them in front of you?

You can use your hands strategically. Think about how expressive Italians are when they speak. Their hands tell half of the story.

Most people, though, don’t even think about what their hands are doing. They just hang at their sides like dead limbs or block them off like a protective barrier. At the bar, do you hold your drink right in front of you? Is that welcoming confidence or defensive hesitation?

mandrinkingbeer

 

How to improve: First, make a mental note of how you currently use your hands. Then test different ways of using them. Notice how the more you use your hands, the more open your body language becomes.

The result: The more open your body language is, the more welcoming and confident people will think you are.

5. Eye contact

Eye contact: The fastest way to tell if someone really wants to talk to you. A single look can give away everything they are feeling without one word being uttered.

The problem is, we’re often unaware of how our eye contact is being perceived by others.

When I started to improve my body language, I’d use all of the strategies above but people would give me weird looks and eventually slip out of the conversation. What was I doing wrong? I was smiling, full of energy, talking slowly and clearly, and using my hands?

Then it hit me. I was staring at them the whole time like some sort of creep. People get weirded out when you look at them too intensely.

The good news is this problem is easy to spot and fix. If you stare too intensely at people, they will show you how they feel with a shift in their body language. They’ll lean back, avoid eye contact, look around.

On the flip side, some people chronically avoid eye contact. If that is the case, people will probably give you an inquisitive look. Like, “why the hell won’t you look me in the eye?”

How to improve: I have two suggestions for improving how you use eye contact:

  1. Study people who make you feel comfortable. What do they do with their eyes when they speak to you? You’ll discover they don’t just continue staring at you for minutes at a time. They look away, they smile, they take a look at what’s in their hand. They’ll do all kinds of things but they’ll come back to you. This is something you can learn to do.
  2. Experiment. Treat eye contact like a game. Try looking at people for 5 seconds and see what evokes the best response. Then try it for 10 seconds. Once you test this enough, you will find what works best for you.

Now that we have covered the best ways to improve your body language, I want to show you how to introduce yourself in a way that hooks people so much, they beg you to keep talking.

How to get people to instantly like you

Now that you know the fundamentals of body language, I want to give you a more advanced lesson. I want to show you how to introduce yourself to a stranger. Once you learn this key skill, you can enter into any conversation with confidence.

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