The idea that nonverbal signals can be used strategically to influence an outcome or reveal unspoken information about others has captured the minds of researchers and the general public alike. This fascination with nonverbal communication is apparent across various forms of media, such as articles analyzing nonverbal messages in politicians’ speeches, TED talks, and even television shows.
Nonverbal communication plays a significant role in both the conscious and unconscious processes of encoding and decoding information. Although the effect of nonverbal communication on others’ perceptions is often discussed, the influence of nonverbal communication on self-perception should not be overlooked. Research by social psychologist Amy Cuddy suggests adopting expansive postures, or “power poses,” can significantly affect personal feelings of power. Cuddy’s work provides evidence that embodying states such as confidence or dominance through power poses, even and especially when a person does not feel powerful, can positively influence personal feelings of power.
Here are several nonverbal communication techniques for both feeling and appearing more confident:
Take up space. Humans and animals often display specific postures and behaviors in response to success and failure. For example, research by Jessica Tracy and David Matsumoto (2008) found congenitally blind athletes demonstrated the same nonverbal expressions of victory (arms raised in a “V” shape, head tilted back, expanded chest, etc.) as athletes born with sight, suggesting nonverbal displays of pride and shame in response to success or failure may be biologically innate. Expansive postures related to feelings of power can also be observed in nature, with animals and creatures often physically taking up space in order to establish dominance.
To project confidence and increase personal feelings of power, think about opening up. Focus on keeping your shoulders back and your chest open and maintaining good posture by standing or sitting up straight with your feet grounded. Remember to breathe deeply and relax your muscles. When interacting with others or giving a presentation, use open and authentic gestures to support your verbal messages and signal confidence. Avoid adopting contractive postures such as the "penguin gesture," which refers to keeping your arms close to your sides while gesturing from the elbows down.
Smile. Smiling can significantly influence others’ perceptions and responses. A study conducted by Grandey et al. (2005) indicates people who smile authentically are not only perceived as more likeable and courteous, but also appear more competent. Many research studies support the idea that smiling is contagious, suggesting it is difficult to control your facial reactions when looking at someone who is smiling.
Smiling can also positively affect one’s mood and emotional experience. A famous psychology study conducted by Strack et al. (1988) examined the effect of manipulating facial muscles on participants’ experiences of humor. Participants reported more intense humor ratings when holding a pen between their teeth in a way intended to mimic muscle activity associated with smiling, suggesting facial expressions can influence one’s emotional experience.
To boost confidence, practice smiling more often. Even if it initially feels forced or artificial, the simple act of changing your facial expression can significantly improve your mood and positively affect those around you.
Dress the part. Research suggests clothing can powerfully influence not only how others perceive us, but also how we perceive ourselves. For example, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky (2002) found participants displayed increased selective attention when wearing a lab coat compared to their task performance while not wearing a lab coat. Interestingly, the participants’ performance was influenced by the symbolic significance of the clothing. Participants who were told the lab coat they were wearing was a doctor’s coat displayed increased sustained attention compared to those who were told they were wearing a painter’s coat.
Other studies suggest wearing formal clothing can likewise influence self-perception due to positive symbolic associations. In a study conducted by Bettina Hannover and Ulrich Kühnen (2006), participants were asked to arrive dressed either formally or casually. The researchers found participants who were dressed formally were more likely to select formal trait adjectives to describe themselves, while participants wearing casual clothes used more casual adjectives to describe themselves.
To feel and appear more confident, make sure to dress appropriately for the situation. While it is important to conform to clothing norms, especially in professional contexts, consider adding a subtle accessory or distinctive feature to project uniqueness and independence. Research suggests individuals who slightly deviate from clothing norms are perceived as having higher status and competence than conforming individuals, a phenomenon known as the “red sneakers effect." Pay attention to how you feel while wearing specific clothing and take note of outfits in which you feel most powerful.
Speak slowly and intentionally. Just as confident nonverbal communication involves taking up physical space, it also involves taking up temporal space. A study by Hughes et al. (2014) investigating the effect of intentional vocal manipulations on others’ perceptions suggests people who speak slower are more likely to be perceived as having confidence than those who speak faster. Interestingly, female participants in the study tended to speak more quickly when attempting to portray confidence; however, this strategy was largely ineffective. Researchers also found that both men and women who spoke with a lower pitch were generally perceived as being more dominant. Another study examining the effect of vocal pitch on voting behavior suggests voices with a lower pitch are associated with favorable personality traits such as attractiveness and dominance.
Remember to speak slowly and take pauses in order to communicate with confidence. People tend to speak more quickly and with a higher pitch when they feel nervous. Pay attention to your vocal pitch and try speaking with a lower-pitched voice to portray greater power and confidence. Consider varying your pitch within your vocal range to emphasize your message and match the emotions you would like to communicate.
Note: It is important to remember the cultural context when considering nonverbal communication. The techniques discussed above are most applicable to a Western cultural context and may not convey the same meaning in other cultural contexts.