How to Persuade Using Body Language

Your body language can either help get your message across, or it can send the wrong message. Learn what to do with your eyes, your voice, and your hands to maximize influence and persuasion.

Lisa B. Marshall
4-minute read

Being persuasive means choosing your words carefully. I’ve covered how to create powerful messages in previous episodes, however, effective persuasion requires the right delivery too. Your body language can either help you get your message across, hinder your influence, or worse, send the wrong message entirely. Today I’ll talk about how to successfully persuade and influence through body language.

Ask in person or through a video chat

If you have an important request, don’t send email. It’s best to ask face-to-face. Your request will be more persuasive if it’s made in person. Coincidentally, it’s much easier to say “no” to an email request than to someone’s face. But perhaps more importantly, by watching the body language of your conversation partner you can tailor your message as you speak. For example, let’s say when describing a benefit of your proposal, you notice a slight “no” shake of the head. This is a small clue that your partner may not agree with you, and you can then use that information to change the course of your conversation. 

By watching the body language of your conversation partner you can tailor your message as you speak.

In addition, your passion and emotions are more contagious in person. Don’t believe that? Ever have a laughing fit just because someone else was laughing? The point is that no matter how many exclamation points, smiley faces, or hearts you put in writing, they’re no substitute for real emotions experienced in person through facial expressions, voice, and gestures. Think about how different it is to listen to this podcast versus reading it. It’s a completely different experience! Persuading over the phone presents similar hurdles; you may not have their full attention and you won’t have the opportunity to see facial expressions or gestures of the person on the other line.

If you’re trying to persuade an audience to support your ideas, your body language must support you.

So if you’re asking something of someone, ask to meet in-person. Go to them. Perhaps invite them to a meal or for coffee. If you’re trying to persuade a group, call a meeting. Finally, if meeting in person is not possible, try the best next thing: video conferencing. You can still gauge their interest through a screen. 

Check your body language

Keep in mind that when you’re meeting face-to-face, your conversation partner will see you too. The first thing they will notice is your posture, and that will send an instant message to your listener. Be sure you follow the advice of your grandmother and stand up tall! It really does make a difference on perceptions of confidence. Before you even open your mouth, you’ve made a first impression.

In addition, eye contact is an important tool to increase the perception of trustworthiness. Also, use hand gestures to support and emphasize your main messages and have a natural smile, which makes you more likeable and believable.

When you are confident, your audience is more relaxed, open, and ready to listen.

Imagine for a moment, that I’m standing tall in front of you, using my arms to make appropriate gestures, smiling naturally when it makes sense, and making eye contact with you. How would you perceive me if I said the following?

“There’s nothing more important than the education of our children. As a fellow parent, I’m sure you agree. Please vote for referendum B.”

Now imagine me saying the same thing, but this time with my arms folded, my head slightly down, no expression on my face, poor eye contact, and a low, mumbled voice.

What would your reaction be? What would you be thinking about me?

Be consistent with body language and words

The problem with the second example above is inconsistent communication between my body language and my words. Albert Mehrabian’s often-cited studies on verbal and nonverbal communication show the importance of consistency in your message. If your body language and words are in conflict, the listener has to decide which to believe. Mehrabian’s work shows that when our messages are in conflict, the listener almost always relies on the nonverbal cues to make their decision.

Body language is harder to control than words. If you are authentic in your beliefs, your body language will be more persuasive.

If you’re trying to persuade an audience to support your ideas, your body language must support you. Shady gestures like shifting eyes, fidgeting, or smirking will arouse suspicion. Open arms, small gestures, and facial expressions that show positive emotion will engage your audience and make you believable.

Political debates are a great place to watch for inconsistencies between body language and words. You might see a candidate smiling while discussing high unemployment or rising gas prices. One candidate might say he respects the other, but the camera catches him smirking, scowling, or rolling his eyes at inappropriate times.

With inconsistent messages we stop listening to the words and pay closer attention to body language. That’s why something as small as a smirk could cost the candidate trust and votes.

Watch yourself

A quick word of caution: Sometimes when we are nervous, we smile. If you’re describing a serious injustice or making a plea for help or support, a smile will convey the wrong message. Always make sure your facial expressions and the rest of your body language convey the right emotions by checking what you face looks like.

I find it really helpful to practice a persuasive argument using video or with a trusted colleague or friend. Am I standing tall or slouching? What I’m dong with my hands? Does my smile look relaxed and natural?

Finally, your body language will be the most persuasive if you are genuine. Body language is harder to control than words. If you are authentic in your beliefs, your body language will be more persuasive.

As Zig Ziglar said, “The most important persuasion tool you have in your entire arsenal is integrity.”

This is Lisa B. Marshall, The Public Speaker.  Passionate about communication; your success is my business. Visit lisabmarshall.com to hire Lisa


About the Author

Lisa B. Marshall

Lisa B. Marshall Lisa holds masters with duel degrees in interpersonal/intercultural communication and organizational communication. She’s the author of Smart Talk: The Public Speaker's Guide to Success in Every Situation, as well as Ace Your Interview, Powerful Presenter, and Expert Presenter. Her work has been featured in CBS Money Watch, Ragan.com, Woman's Day, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, and many others. Her institutional clients include Johns Hopkins Medicine, Harvard University, NY Academy of Science, University of Pennsylvania, Genentech, and Roche.