It’s Not What You Say, It’s How You Say It

My colleague Ken and I were marching triumphantly towards our cars after an important client meeting. We had the self-satisfied gate of suits who thought they had “sealed the deal”. So chuffed were we in our efforts, we decided to delay returning to the office and instead stop for a coffee to celebrate and debrief.

As we sunk down in our seats, Ken began chuckling and shaking his head.

“What is it?” I asked, ready to join him in his private joke.

“Do you know what you do when you are thinking deeply about a question or idea in a client meeting?”

“Noooo….?” I replied cautiously, now starting to feel nervous about what would come out of his mouth next.

“When you are explaining something, you close your eyes. For a VERY LONG TIME.  I’m  talkin’ – is she asleep or is anyone even in there? – level of closed eyes.”

He guffawed. “Me and Mr client thought we’d lost you completely to some little inner meditation or Suzi reverie, that’s how long they were closed for! And all the while, you kept talking to us.”

By this stage, he had collapsed Into a rare fit of unmanly giggles and snorts at his witty summarising of my unfortunate facial habit.

I was mortified.

I had NO IDEA WHATSOEVER that I did this.

Thank God my mate/colleague and I had a good enough relationship that he could take the piss out of my habit and give me this feedback.

Needless to say I was VERY conscious of my eye movements in meetings from that point on.

Why am I telling you this embarrassing little story?

Something as little as a facial expression (or in this case, closed eyes), was not only a blind spot for me, but was potentially interfering with my effectiveness and executive presence. At the very least it was a potential distraction.

This is big news if you’re a leader.

Your tone of voice.
Your facial expressions.
How you sit in your seat.
What you do when you’re angry or stressed, in terms of how that manifests in the physical.

These things matter.

Out take?

Seek feedback from peers and those you lead about your body language and tone of voice.

Ask about:-

Facial expressions
Arm crossing (defensively)
Eye contact (or lack thereof)
Mismatching verbal and non-verbal messages
Failing to smile
Eye rolling (or closing!)
Keeping a cell phone out

Could noticing and tweaking your body language make you a better leader? What tips do you have for communicating more effectively using body language?


  1. Lynne on February 25, 2015 at 3:45 am

    HI Suzi,
    Recently in one of your articles you mentioned Headspace. I was curious and investigated. I have found this to be a great way to start the meditation journey. Currently, I am working my way through the introduction and it is very helpful in enabling de-stressing a situation and/or challenge. I do have to confess that one of my challenges with this programme is not to get to de-stressed and fall asleep!
    Anyway, thanks for the sharing,

    • Suzi McAlpine on February 25, 2015 at 7:43 am

      Hi Lynne, I’m so pleased you’re finding Headspace valuable! I know what you mean, but I think falling asleep is quite common and definitely OK 🙂 Keep it up and I look forward to hearing more. Cheers, Suzi.

  2. Jeff Miller on February 25, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Great post Suzi!

    • Suzi McAlpine on February 26, 2015 at 2:50 am

      Nice to hear from you Jeff! Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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