As an entrepreneur, your success at pitching to investors is strongly influenced by nonverbal factors including, your posture, your gestures, your facial expressions, your tone of voice, and your energy level.
Think of it this way: In any business meeting, you’re communicating over two channels—verbal and nonverbal. While your pitch’s content is obviously important, it’s not the only message you’re sending.
When your body language is in alignment with what you’re saying, you reinforce your pitch. But if your body language sends a contradictory message, and potential investors are forced to choose, they will most likely disregard what they hear and believe what they see.
In honor of National Entrepreneurship Month, here are three body language strategies that increase your influence and impact on potential investors:
1. Master the art of a positive first impression
Did you know that within the first seven seconds of meeting investors, they have already decided if you are competent, confident, likeable, and trustworthy?
For entrepreneurs, first impressions are crucial. Because they are primarily based on nonverbal signals, first impressions are superficial and often inaccurate—but these lightning-fast judgments are also powerful. If potential investors instantly like and trust you, they'll look for the best in you. If they don’t like you or mistrust you, they’ll look for signs of deception.
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You can't stop people from making these snap judgements because the human brain is hardwired this way—and you don’t have total control over the impression you make. But you have more control than you may think.
In those first few seconds, here’s what is totally in your control:
Choose your attitude. Before entering the meeting room, think about the impression you want to make. If you want to be perceived as happy, upbeat, enthused, and proud, make sure you enter the room with those emotions reflected in your facial expression.
Decide what to wear. While there are no hard and fast rules that dictate how an entrepreneur should “dress for success” (and much depends on the industry you are in), you should always be neat and well-groomed, wearing something that helps you look and feel your professional best.
Maintain good posture. Your posture says a lot. If you slump or condense your body by rounding your shoulders and caving in your chest, you appear to have low confidence and low energy. If you enter the meeting room with your shoulders back and your head held high, you look confident and energized.
Make eye contact. Eye contact is one of the most positive ways to make a personal connection, show interest, and project confidence. (You can improve eye contact by making a point of looking at someone’s eyes long enough to notice their eye color.)
Lower your voice. Because we tend to speak in a higher vocal range when we’re nervous, you’ll sound more relaxed and assured if you lower your tone of voice. One way of doing that is, right before you pitch, take a deep breath and on the exhale, relax your shoulders and throat.
Shake hands. I realize that it may take time before people are comfortable shaking hands, but without this seemingly simple ritual, we lose the chance to build rapport with the most primitive and powerful nonverbal cue—touch. It’s a compelling force, and even momentary touching can create a human bond. My hope is that the handshake will come back as face-to-face meetings become safer.
2. Talk with your hands—but know what they are saying
When someone is preparing for a business presentation or a pitch to investors, the body language question I get asked the most is: “What should I do with my hands?”
My answer is: “Use them.” Brain imaging has shown that a region called Broca’s area, which is important for speech production, is active not only when we’re talking but when we wave our hands. Since gesture is integrally linked to speech, gesturing as we talk can actually power up our thinking.
In fact, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is to hide your hands in your pockets, behind your back, or beneath the conference table. Hidden hands make you look less trustworthy, one of the nonverbal signals that is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. In our prehistory, when someone approached with hands out of view, it was a clear signal of potential danger. Although today the threat of hidden hands is more symbolic than real, our ingrained psychological discomfort remains.
Arms held at waist height and gestures within that horizontal plane help you feel centered and composed. Between gestures, try keeping your arms at waist level and bent to a 45-degree angle (accompanied by a stance about shoulder-width wide). It helps keep you grounded and focused.
Hand gestures can also help reinforce your message. Use gestures to physically illustrate a point: rotating your palms up to display candor, moving your hands wider apart when talking about a big idea, or pinching your thumb and index finger together to indicate that this is a small issue.
When someone is very certain about a point they are making, they often “steeple” their hands. In this hand gesture, the tips of your fingers touch, but the palms are separated. When you want to project conviction and sincerity about a point you’re making, try steepling.
Gestures to minimize or avoid are those that show you are under stress or are becoming aggressive or defensive. These include self-soothing gestures, like rubbing your hands together, playing with jewelry, ventilating by loosening your collar, or pulling your hair back from your neck. Aggressive signals include standing with hands-on hips, finger-pointing, and clenching hands into fists. You’ll look defensive (whether or not you are) if you block your body with crossed arms or by holding an object – between you and the investors.
There is an interesting equation of hand and arm movement with energy. If you wanted to project more enthusiasm, you could do so by increasing gestures. On the other hand, over-gesturing (especially when hands are raised above the shoulders) can make you appear erratic, less believable, and less powerful.
3. Project the leadership presence that makes investors want to be your partner
There are two sets of body-language cues that investors instinctively look for in entrepreneurs: Warmth and Authority
When you use warm, “pro-social” body language, you send signals of likeability, empathy, candor, and connection. This is especially helpful because investors assess whether or not you’re someone they’d trust and enjoy working with.
The most effective sign of warmth is a genuine smile. It makes you feel better and signals to others that you’re approachable, cooperative, and friendly. A genuine smile comes on slowly, crinkles the corners of your eyes, and lights up your face. A fake or “polite” smile comes on quickly and never reaches the eyes.
Other warm cues include:
• Open palm gestures that display candor.
• Forward leans that show you’re interested in what the other person is saying.
• Head tilts that are the universal sign of “giving someone your ear.”
• Head nods that signal agreement.
The second set of body language cues project power and authority. These cues signal that you have the confidence and credibility investors are looking for in a business partner.
Nonverbally, authority and power are displayed in height and space. If you are tall, it’s an advantage because you look more powerful. If you are short, then standing tall with shoulders back, head held high, keeping your body symmetrical will create the illusion of height. A side benefit is that great posture will not only make you look more powerful, but it will help you feel that way too. While you are pitching, using broad gestures and moving will moving from time to time is a nonverbal way of claiming space.
To display confidence and composure when answering difficult or challenging questions, try these body language tips:
• Turn your body toward the investor who is asking the question.
• Maintain eye contact.
• Don’t fidget or rock side to side.
• Lean toward the investor so that you look receptive.
• Keep your body and your gestures open.
• Take a breath and on the exhale relax your shoulders. This will give you the time needed to choose how you want to respond.
Don’t let your body language kill your pitch. Increasing your nonverbal savvy can turn a good pitch into a great one!