When you first meet someone, what’s the first thing you notice about them? Is it the things they say? Or is it the things they do before they say anything — like the spring in their step when they walk, or the look in their eyes when they see something (or someone) they like?

If you’re like most people, your answer would be the second one. Whether they’re aware of it or not, everyone — including your interviewers, bosses and work colleagues — forms impressions about you based on your body language. That’s because nonverbal cues are harder to fake compared to verbal ones.

And therein lies the key to effective nonverbal communication: Sincerity. If you tell a recruiter, “I’m the best person for this job,” your body language has to reflect it. Same goes for your daily interactions with co-workers; when you say, “I can handle the presentation, no problem,” you’d better project confidence. And to do all these things, you need to do the following.


Make Eye Contact

To be fair, this is easier said than done. Stare at someone too long, and you’ll come across as a creep. Shift your eyes here, there and everywhere, and you’ll come across as untrustworthy.

Carol Kinsey Goman, author of The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help – or Hurt – How You Lead, recommends a balanced approach. She says that you should make “strong eye contact,” but only long enough to remember the color of a person’s eyes. This is applicable for job interviews as well as instances when you’re meeting someone for the first time.

Bear in mind the ideal length of time for eye contact depends on the situation. According to Ben Decker, chief executive officer of Decker Communications, you should maintain eye contact for 7 to 10 seconds in one-on-one conversations, and 3 to 5 seconds in group discussions. That’s long enough to let others know that they’re important to you — or, at least, that you acknowledge their existence.


Smile Like You Mean It

Remember those times when someone smiles at you, and you can’t help but smile back? Apparently, flashing your pearly whites does more than spread the happiness around. According to a study from Penn State University, smiling employees are perceived as courteous, likeable and competent — all of which are traits found in successful people.

Of course, that’s assuming your smile is a genuine one. If you’re just curling up your lips awkwardly, even a six-year-old can tell you’re faking it. So what do you do when your job requires you to smile constantly, even after a morning of “The Murphy’s Law Gone Horribly Wrong”?

Mark Waldman, author of Words Can Change Your Brain: 12 Conversation Strategies to Build Trust, Resolve Conflict, and Increase Intimacy, has an answer. In an interview with Brain World Magazine, he advises that you visualize a happy event or a dearly beloved person to turn your frown upside-down. It’s simple, doable and effective. What more can you ask?


Give a Firm, Vertical Handshake

In a vertical handshake, your palm faces inward, as though you’re about to give someone a “low-five.” (High-five. Low-five. Get it?) It’s the safest handshake when you’re greeting a complete stranger, because it indicates you see the other person as an equal, according to Barbara and Allan Pease, author of The Definitive Book of Body Language. Also, your grip should be firm enough to show confidence but light enough to let the other person know that, no, you don’t want to crush their fingers to a pulp.

You can also mimic whoever you’re shaking hands with. If their grip is strong, use an equally strong grip. If they grip you as though your hands are made of super-delicate material, grip them lightly too.


Pack Power Into Your Posture

Want to instantly boost your confidence before an interview? Spread your arms and legs out like a starfish. Yes, I’m serious.

Amy Cuddy, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, says even two minutes of using expansive, open gestures will prepare you for high-stress situations. Specifically, your testosterone levels will go up by 20 percent, making you more risk-tolerant, and your cortisol levels will go down by 25 percent, making you less anxious, regardless of whether you’re a man or a woman.

That said, you have to use the power pose judiciously. Your boss might not appreciate your approaching his desk with an obviously forced swagger, and your colleagues might be less-than-pleased with your overly intimidating aura. Use the power pose when you need to impress someone, but take a more relaxed stance otherwise.


Gesture With Your Hands

Conventional wisdom states hand gestures distract from the speaker. One study says otherwise.

According to human behavior consultancy Science of People, TED speakers who used hand gestures garnered higher ratings from the audience compared to those who didn’t. Science of People founder Vanessa Van Edwards theorized the gestures actually made the audience more engaged, since they had something to do, i.e. look at the hand movements, other than listening to a speech.

That’s good news, especially if gesturing makes you feel more relaxed. Also, you can learn more about what specific hand gestures mean here.


What You See Is What You Do 

As mentioned earlier, sincerity — or, at least, an appearance of sincerity — is important in nonverbal communication. The easiest way to show others you care is (surprise, surprise) to actually care.

The not-so-easy-but-just-as-effective way is to do what empathetic people do: Mimic the gestures of the person you’re dealing with. For example, if you notice Alice feels uncomfortable with people who sidle up to her, don’t invade her personal space. Conversely, if Bob likes to lean in when he’s talking to you, it’s okay to do the same to him. By mirroring the other person, you’ll be able to put yourself in their shoes, figure out the appropriate body language to use with them, and become more likeable in their eyes.


One Last Thing

Since body language operates on a subconscious level, you’ll have to practice a lot to use it to your advantage. Practice with a person who’s willing to give you objective, constructive and honest feedback, so you’ll have a more accurate view of how you appear to others. Eventually, good nonverbal communication will be automatic to you, and hopefully push you one more step up the ladder of success.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

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