How to communicate a strong presence without saying a word

Before you ever even open your mouth, you have already given an entire speech to anyone and everyone around you.

Most people either don’t know or don’t care enough about this to take it seriously.

They’re missing out. If you can tune into this truth and focus just marginally more than the average person on your non-verbal communication, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how much you can say without speaking a single word.

In the 1960s, doctors and scientists began seriously studying body language and its effect on our communication. According to the New York Times, a pioneer researcher in this field, Albert Mehrabian, “found that the total impact of a message is about 7 percent verbal (words only) and 38 percent vocal (including tone of voice, inflection, and other sounds) and 55 percent nonverbal.”

This is where the often quoted “93% of communication is nonverbal” rule came from.

Even though that stat is still be researched and observed, the point of the matter is: nonverbal communication comprises a serious and hefty percentage of how we relate to others around us.

As such, if we want to leverage our best opportunity to make a good impression on our friends, our co-workers, or potential clients, this is a great place to start.

The pole position

I work in a job where nonverbal communication is of the utmost importance. I assist the CEO of our company, travel with him, and facilitate relationships between him and other business partners.

We’re often walking into rooms with new friends or clients. I’m not at every table or in every conversation, so I’ve needed to learn how to communicate my presence without speaking up.

I think of it like NASCAR. The day or so before the actual race, the drivers typically do a qualification run to see what position each car will start in the next day.

If you have the best qualifying time, you get to start first, or what is called “pole position.” Starting at the pole position gives you a 22% chance of winning the race, and an even higher percentage to finish in the top 5.

Before you say a word, make sure you’re communicating your presence. Grab the pole position and set yourself up for the best possible opportunity for success.

1. To be solid, stand up straight

It’s the simple things that often end up communicating the most. Shoulders back, head held high, eyes straight ahead. Good, straight posture often “indicates leadership and confidence; it tells the audience that you are in control. It conveys the message that you have confidence in your competence.”

Slouching is one of the quickest ways to communicate either a lack of interest or a lack of professionalism. It communicates a type of submission and irreverence to the moment at hand. When you slouch instead of standing up straight, you automatically say to people around you: “this isn’t important to me.”

2. To be open to opportunity, keep your arms uncrossed

If standing up straight is the number one way to improve your presence and non-verbal communication, a close number two is to resist the urge to cross your arms. Crossing our arms can often make us feel safe and secure, but as PsychMechanics says, “this defensiveness usually manifests as discomfort, uneasiness, shyness, or insecurity.”

You don’t want to have to dig yourself out of a hole once you open your mouth to actually speak, so don’t start the conversation with your arms crossed.

3. To be engaged, hold eye contact

Everyone knows that eye-contact is important, so I won’t belabor the point. But here are two good reminders about eye contact that are a bit more overlooked in my opinion.

A lot of times, you’ll the phrase, “make eye contact.” I’ve found that “making” eye contact isn’t quite as effective as “holding” eye contact. Second, aim to hold eye contact both when someone is speaking to you and when you are speaking to them.

4. To be invested, lean forward on the balls of your feet

It’s remarkable to me that how we manage our weight distribution can communicate so much about our presence. Being flat-footed communicates a lack of interest. It implies you are leaned back, uninvolved, and even unaware. Leaning forward, rising up on the balls of your feet, “shows the audience you care.” It is one of the easy ways to “communicate interest and attentiveness.”

Even if you are off to the side and not in a position of prominence, people can still feel if you are leaned into the room or into the moment. It’s a fantastic way to communicate your presence by making a small shift forward.

5. To be intrigued, stay off your phone

If you’re not actively speaking, especially if you are standing off to the side of a conversation or if you’re in the background of a meeting, you’re more likely to feel slightly uncomfortable and unsettled. When this happens, the temptation to pull out your cell phone is strong. We use our phones for a lot of things, but one of the most unhelpful uses is to appease our discomfort and create an escape from what could be awkward situations.

Don’t do it. If you want to communicate your presence, keep the phone in your pocket or your purse. Be engaged, even if you aren’t actively speaking. Show that you are able to withstand the silence and you’ll instantly have a stronger presence in whatever room you find yourself in.

Putting it all together

Those are five core ways to increase your ability to communicate your presence without speaking out. It’s not hard work, but it does take intentionality to break what are likely some pretty engrained bad non-verbal communication habits.

If you put these practices together, you get a person who stands up straight, doesn’t fold her arms across her chest, holds eye contact, leans forward into the conversation, and stays off their phone. If you know a person who does this, you likely know a leader, someone with presence and poise.

You can be that person. You just need to choose to recognize and value the importance of these non-verbal cues, because as we said at the start, most people don’t, and most people won’t. If you will, you’ll stand out.

Core takeaways

  • More than 50% of communication is non-verbal
  • Win the pole position
  • 5 ways to increase your presence:
  1. If you want to be solid, stand up straight.
  2. Uncross your arms if you want to embrace opportunity.
  3. Hold eye contact, don’t just make eye contact.
  4. Lean forward into the room
  5. Don’t let your phone distract you from staying engaged