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This article was first published in the July/August 2018 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Do you think about your body language at work? Consider high-stakes opportunities, such as when you are networking, giving a presentation to colleagues, pitching to clients or talking about yourself during job interviews. Listen to different alleged experts and they will give you conflicting views on the matter. So let us delve into what the science has to say.

Researchers led by Xiao-Ping Chen, a management professor at the University of Washington, conducted a field experiment. Chen’s team persuaded real investors - including venture capitalists and banking professionals - to evaluate a total of 206 individuals and small groups of would-be entrepreneurs while they pitched business plans. The aspiring entrepreneurs were judged both in terms of their body language and the quality of their business plans.

In terms of body language, the presenters were assessed on criteria including the extent to which they gestured, displayed animated facial expressions and moved energetically. Presentation content was evaluated on criteria including whether it was thoughtful and in depth, logical and supported by facts.

When the researchers ran a regression analysis, they not surprisingly found that presentation content was a significant determinant of investors’ decisions about whether to invest. Less expectedly, body language was an insignificant factor. In other words, substance and preparedness mattered. But passion - as demonstrated by gestures, animation and energetic body language - did not.

Focusing on content

In a job interview context, Radford University researcher Keith Rasmussen, Jr found that high levels of non-verbal behaviour - body language - did benefit candidates, but only when they also delivered good verbal content in their responses. When candidates gave answers that were judged to be poor, high levels of non-verbal behaviour resulted in even lower ratings.

Put another way, interviewers were impressed by job-hunting candidates who delivered both substance and style. In contrast, candidates who lacked substance but tried to make up for it by adopting more vigorous body language ended up being viewed more harshly.

These and other studies confirm that content matters more than body language in many interpersonal situations. This is good news for those who may feel nervous when networking, pitching or being interviewed. What you say matters more than how you say it.

I use a performance model called the ‘4Ps’ when I am coaching job hunters or entrepreneurs and executives preparing to present. The first P is for preparation. I encourage clients to write out bullet points at least or, ideally, full prose for what they intend to say. Presenters don’t only need good points, stories and ideas to impart but also a logical, persuasive order in which to share them. Job hunters must think about major achievements and how to describe these succinctly yet convincingly.

The second P is for practice: spending time rehearsing out loud. This step is about practising enough times so that you can deliver your presentation or interview answers with only minimal reference to your notes.

Only then is it time to move on to the third P, for performance, which means using your smartphone to record yourself. At this point, you can begin to watch your gestures and the level of animation in your facial expressions; you can listen to your tone of voice and pacing to make sure that your manner is sufficiently excited, passionate or stern, as appropriate. Even better, perform in front of a friend or confidant who can give you feedback on your demeanour.

The final P is for post-mortem, which involves reviewing your videos with a view to improving not only your body language but also your content. Sometimes, a speech reads well on paper but hearing it out loud, you may identify clunky language or times when your arguments do not flow. The post-mortem stage is about looking for opportunities to rewrite your content so that it feels both authentic to you and is more persuasive to listeners. However, remember always that style matters less than substance: the most entertaining body language cannot compensate for poor ideas and weak arguments.

Dr Rob Yeung is an organisational psychologist at leadership consulting firm Talentspace.