My career as a web developer began while I was still in school, teaching myself via online tutorials. I picked up everything I thought a good freelancer ought to know. After getting a grasp on basic coding and some design theory, I was only missing one thing: actually working with people. I could learn all the code in the world, but still not have the soft skills I really needed. As luck would have it, I was in a course taught by a lawyer who definitely knew his way around people and soft skills. I mentioned my goals after class one afternoon, and a couple of days later he dropped a folder on my desk. The files inside were largely editorials, interviews, and excerpts from books written by professionals from every industry. He had highlighted the advice that echoed the same between each and every piece. The topic repeated over and over again was how completely ignored the importance of body language was. With a few years of hindsight on the advice, I agree completely. Being the best designer or developer in the world can only carry you as far as you’re able to communicate those skills to people around you.
We live and breathe specialized tools, technical terminology, and otherwise complex ideas. Communicating these specialties and their benefits to other people, especially a group from many different backgrounds, can be a daunting task. Being able to connect on a universal level is an absolute necessity, and nothing is more universal than body language. No matter your education, position, or experience, we all give and receive remarkably similar signals that broadcast our emotions and reactions. Being able to read these signals, and accurately send your own in return, is a crucial skill for everyone from freelancers to board-room presenters.
The best way to learn, especially with body language, is by doing. Before you set out into the big world, we’ll cover the next best thing: true stories as case studies. Once we have a general idea of body language do’s and don’ts that everyone can use, we’ll look at specific examples that will be familiar to anyone trying to get ahead in the web industry.
Say It With Your Body
How does a profession so closely tied to screens, text editors, and digital paint brushes make use of a soft skill like body language? A dirty little secret: this isn't an "all or nothing" proposition. If you find micro-managing every interaction detail too taxing to focus on work or meetings, just bite off as much as you can chew. Any amount is far better than none at all. One of the greatest professionals of the last century, Peter Drucker, put it best, saying "The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn't said."
The study of body language as a way to communicate is far from a new idea. It’s a topic that’s been of great interest for decades. Ray Birdwhistell, widely considered a modern founder in the science, published his introductory work, Introduction to Kinesics, in 1952. Although he used a different terminology, he was quick to recognize that "no more than 30 to 35 percent of the social meaning of a conversation or an interaction is carried by the words."
Check out the lists below for a quick reference of things to watch for (both good and bad) that can help make body language a natural part of your repertoire. We’ll be taking a closer look at what each particular element of body language looks like in context soon.
Positive Body Language
Make eye contact
Use good posture and uncrossed arms to appear open
Use gentle motion and gestures to capture attention
Listen actively, nod and engage appropriately
Respect personal space, don't overwhelm
Engage everyone in the room, don't single out
Speak clearly to communicate confidence (even if you're faking it to make it!)
Negative Body Language
Slouched shoulders, or a ‘crumpled’ posture
Regular fidgeting or motions that distract from being engaged
Overly aggressive gestures, usually along with raising one’s voice
Obviously invading another’s personal space
Case One: Freelance Web Designers or Small Business
Starting out as a freelance web designer with local clients, body language was crucial to success. Lacking an extensive work history, I had to present myself as capable, approachable, and relatable. I wanted to make sure that my prospective clients trusted me to lead the way without fearing I was going to walk all over them. Even if I was the smaller business in the relationship, I had the specter of new-fangled techno-babble hanging over me. How did I avoid overwhelming or alienating clients? I engaged them openly, while respecting a larger than normal 'personal space' as they warmed up to me.
One of the authors my professor had pointed me towards, Julius Fast, looks at the topic of personal space and the invasion of such. At various points he discusses 'zones of territory', and how quickly violating these personal zones can create discomfort or outright conflict. I greeted clients warmly, looked them in the eyes when we were speaking, and gestured gently with my hands while explaining what I did. Generally, I let myself show a bit of excitement. I avoided speaking too loudly, though, or moving closer than if we had been seated at a small table. What was the end result? I appeared a lot more human and accessible than any other method. My excitement and open approach made me appear as a friend, rather than a complete amateur, or worse, a manipulative business scout. Gentle motions and open space allowed me to express my excitement about our business, without feeling like I was demanding a course of action. I took a business transaction with their company profits on the line and made it a human conversation.
Communication is a Two Way Street
Once I had them on personable terms using my own body language, I had to keep a close eye on theirs as I made the actual business pitch. Many of my early clients were not technology oriented, and would have quickly retreated if I barraged them with too much technical information. Give them too little, however, and it would all seem too nebulous to benefit them. What did I watch for? Subtle body signals, including them visibly turning or leaning away from me during our conversation, their eyes wandering or avoiding contact, or their shoulders hunching inwards. Someone turning away physically or not engaging in eye contact means they’re ready for a conversation to be over. They may not be bolting for the hills, but you’ve already lost their involvement to some degree. The hunched shoulders or shrinking posture greatly emphasize that someone is feeling overwhelmed and out of their element. I made a point of slowing down at these signals, even completely redirecting the conversation away from anything technical. I'd ask about the day's business, their goals in the future, or anything else that put the ball back in their court and let them regain momentum.
Takeaways When Working with Clients
Don't overwhelm your new business contacts with HTML, CSS, or graphic design shop talk. Watch their posture for negative language like slouching or avoiding eye contact to show when you might be overloading them.
Use open body language like gentle hand gestures and open arms to put people at ease. People tend to mirror the body language of those around them, and making yourself open and accessible puts everyone at ease.
Exude confidence to clients with good posture and by keeping your body language focused in their direction, even if you’re not on completely steady ground at the moment.
Involve the client by getting them to talk about familiar subjects, and then listen actively. Nod at the right moments, and reinforce your interest with continued eye contact.
Case Two: Meetings and Presentations
The professional office setting can be the perfect place to practice not only new body language skills, but also master long term approaches. These are coworkers and bosses that you spend time with every day. It might be rough at first, but take advantage of remembering specific people and how your body language around each other flows. You’ll also be exposed to a unique mix of people who understand varying degrees of your specialty, but still rely on different forms of body language to communicate larger ideas.
Meetings and presentations are the most on-the-spot events in the office that can benefit from careful body language. In the meeting room these subtle details are what allow you to present a project or report at maximum efficiency, making a memorable name for yourself. Even if the project itself isn't of vast importance, you want to be remembered as the team member that really made a meeting enjoyable and engaging.
Go Light on the Throttle
I've worked around incredibly intelligent and experienced web developers who, unfortunately, had a terrible handle on their own body language presentation. Actively interpreting people around them was beyond their realm of possibility. These individuals were beloved for their ability to make magic happen behind the scenes, on their own, and then let others present the results for them. One individual, a PHP developer, would present in team meetings in incredibly aggressive and terse ways, actually invading the personal space of anyone who didn’t understand the topic or asked about alternative methods. He used sharp hand motions that, combined with how close he got to other team members, led to a lot of involuntary flinching. His voice would raise, and the longer he presented, the shorter and more curt everything he said became. The sage advice of Julius Fast held true, and before long everyone else in the room was up in arms too.
When the topic was finally addressed, he confessed he had no idea the impression he had been giving. He said that he was incredibly nervous during every presentation, and spent most meetings berating himself over technical knowledge he felt he lacked. The incredibly aggressive body language hadn't even registered in his conscious actions or self review. Was he still an amazing member of our team? Of course! Did he ever get in front of company leadership, much less external clients, again? Not on his life.
Takeaways for the Office
Use the advantage of proximity and time to learn the body language of people regularly around you, and how they react to yours. Be aware that your body language will often be directly reflected in those around you. If someone's body language seems strange around you, check the body language tone you are setting. Respect the personal space of others, whether you're having a quiet discussion or an animated debate.
Case Three: The Interview
Always save the best for last! You’re going to need everything we’ve discussed up until now, and then some. Unlike years gone past, if you're not regularly making jumps within the job market, you may already be marked as behind the times. The interview is a necessary evil for professionals at all levels of experience, and possibly the most important time to be focusing on body language signals.
Get Your Head, and Body, Into the Game
Here's a big up bonus tip: the interview starts well before you ever sit down at a table with whoever is doing the hiring. From the first moment you are seen, you're on the clock. This is especially important because you'll probably spend at least a few minutes waiting in a lobby while they gather the interview team. (You did arrive a few minutes early to make a good impression, right?)
For most of us, our wait involves pulling out our resume copies to fiddle with, to avoid awkwardly doing nothing. If the wait really drags on, I usually pull out my phone and make a show of reading something industry-related before the interview. A great piece of advice I received was to imagine my own posture while reading on my phone: hunched, small, and generally unimpressive, even if I was in the middle of reviewing a lucrative client contract. In contrast, take a page from the era of Mad Men style business and posture yourself as if you're reading an oversized newspaper in your corner office. Shoulders back, head up, and look confident in what you're doing. That air of competence and confidence go a long way to make a good interview great. It can also make the occasional rough patch considerably less damaging.
Out of the Fire...
Interviews present the particular challenge of meeting completely new people, with the entire event predicated on them actively forming an opinion of you. Many of the suggestions for personal body language from the prior sections still apply. Feel free to be a little more open and out there than we were with our freelance client. Everyone in an interview may not be technically savvy in your skill, but they are there to see you at your best. Assuming it's not a one-on-one interview, the best thing you can do is make sure to spread your attention to every person involved. When someone is speaking to you, or you are answering their questions, engage them directly. Position yourself towards them, make eye contact, and be responsive. Do not, however, do this to the exclusion of everyone else in the room. Even while answering a specific question, occasionally make eye contact around the group. Give a little nod to someone who your answer may have related to earlier. On many occasions, I have had a group of coworkers return from an interview with conflicting reports. Usually, a single interviewer felt a direct connection to the applicant, and the rest felt rather cold and uninterested. Guess who that applicant focused all of their attention, body language, and energy on? Next, guess how many of these one-hit-wonders ever got enough support to actually be hired?
… and Into the Frying Pan
Reading body language in your interviewers is just as important, if not more so. Especially when there are multiple interviewers, they will often communicate silently via body language, so as not to interrupt the flow of the discussion. While they do this for their own benefit, it is also a huge open door for you to read their responses to your interview. While you're maintaining your eye contact, watch where their eyes go. When you make a great point, or the occasional accidental stumble, see who they look to and remember what triggered their reaction. If a certain topic or approach repeatedly gets good reactions between interviewers, tune your ongoing questions and answers on the topic. Keeping track of how engaged your audience is can also help you keep from saying too little or rambling on for too long. Attentive interviewers will usually either maintain eye contact with you, or be actively taking notes for their records. A good sign that you've reached an endpoint in your current answer is an interviewer gently disengaging by shifting backwards into their chair, or actively beginning to look to fellow interviewers for new topics. This is an opportunity to let them move the topic forward, or interject your own question to engage a positive dialog.
Takeaways in the Hot Seat
Be more forward and engaged with eye contact and gestures; these interviewers are here to see your A game and shouldn’t be as easily overwhelmed.
Balance attention across the whole group, and make sure not to neglect any one interviewer, regardless of how much they actively involve themselves.
Read between the lines as interviewers communicate amongst each other with their bodies. An exaggeratedly raised eyebrow will be one of the easiest softball lobs, good or bad, that you ever get.
Make the Most of a Curveball
I recently went through a series of interviews, with one that particularly stood out to me. It was with a group of six people, from a number of different departments: human resources, management, design, and development. I found out during the course of the interview that there had been a recent restructuring, meaning many of the interviewers were in new roles and relationships with each other. The team was also actively growing, with two of the interviewers being recent hires only weeks before I had arrived. This meant that there was a large degree of unfamiliarity amongst the team doing my interview. While the majority of the body language was focused on me as the applicant, there was also a constant subtext of this new team attempting to communicate with each other. Many attempts at subtle communication did not go as expected. One interviewer would wrap up their question and there would be a noticeable pause as everyone looked around the room to see who played the next role. A developer would trail into a topic about design, only to have a designer go on a completely different tangent. I watched for the lead ins to these moments using the groups' open body language and did my best to create bridges, or insert my own take on complex topics. Weeks after the interview, the team leader contacted me and let me know that he had distinctly noticed my approach. He thanked me for helping contribute some interesting ideas that the team was still actively leveraging.
Where Will Your Body Language Take You?
Some, if not all, of these scenarios are probably pretty familiar to you. While they don’t represent an exhaustive list of situations that benefit from the use of body language, they clearly illustrate why this knowledge is important to designers and developers. Even entry level work in our industry can be so specialized and situational that without a universal method of communicating, we would have no hope of effectively communicating. Regardless of what tools we use, our goal is to solve problems and create solutions. Leveraging the signals we send, and understanding what we see in others, allows us to translate our technical skill into understandable effects and results for our clients and coworkers.