Kieran Hearty takes a lighthearted look at how even number-crunchers can release their inner extrovert and boost their non-verbal communications
How do you recognise an extroverted actuary? They look at your shoes instead of their own.
Please excuse the opening humour. Actuaries are smart, and get labelled as introverts, but I have met some terrific people who just happened to be actuaries. I studied maths, have a degree in accountancy, and do Killer Sudoku against the clock for fun. My uncle (Alan Outten, RIP) was a top actuary in the UK, and nearly persuaded me to follow that path.
I started off working in finance, but ended up getting involved in coaching, leadership development and speaking. My left and right brains comfortably co-exist. I am an extrovert who loves people, but, just like an actuary, I am logical and love numbers.
Introvert or not, the subject of body language is the most significant, yet overlooked, factor in effective communications. Can actuaries do anything to improve their body language? Is it possible? The answer is yes.
There are no radical tips - all you may need to do is adapt or modify your body language. You will not be asked to transform. You are fine just as you are, however, with the right understanding and appreciation, you can enhance your body language with relative ease. It is self-fulfilling - if you believe you can do it, you will.
A word of advice, please consider not just your needs but the needs of people who are different to you. They are the recipients of your newly acquired body language tips. Please accept that any modifications you make will be mostly subtle, not extravagant, in keeping with the real you. Please also consider that it is how you feel inside that drives what people see on the outside.
Tip 1: It's 99.99% great to be you, but know who you are
How many actuaries does it take to change a light-bulb? Statistically, just one...
Most actuaries are quite easy to spot. Some of us, if asked to study a personality report and say how accurate it is, will scan it and, with a flourish, write 80%. The stereotypical actuary will take longer, studying the report line by line, delivering a response of 79.63% after a calculator has been furtively replaced in a pocket.
If you are a stereotypical actuary, the pace at which you operate is measured, careful and thoughtful, not like the fast, sometimes reckless, pace of other people you see making hasty decisions that lack supporting data.
Your focus is more about getting things done than building relationships at work, so you would not describe yourself as a 'people person'. If you make a mistake, you will punish yourself. You cringe at the prospect of standing up and speaking to a large audience.
You are self-contained and rarely expressive emotionally, being diplomatic in your interactions because of your need to take care to avoid making interpersonal mistakes. You may treat these tips as rules, but that's OK.
Tip 2: Think of others - reduce the 'wrong' body language
Because you live for numbers, and accuracy is of vital importance, you probably hate making mistakes. If so, the body language you use when other people make a mistake tends to be negative. Could you somehow control it?
Some of the most important body language is small and subtle, working well for the more analytical type of person. I write about a form of body language and behaviours that I call 'quarkiness'. Inspired by quantum physics, it is about ephemeral micro-expressions (quarks), mostly negative (strange quarks), that we continuously bombard each other with.
Strange quarks are hard to spot but generally a rolling of the eyes, facial tic or a frown, an intake of breath or a certain tone of voice gives them away. They are mostly unintentional and definitely covert, but they do betray our true feelings, which, if dictated by intolerance or disapproval, are damaging to relationships.
Actuaries may disapprove of the behaviours of people who they see as carefree, not serious about work, self-promoting, or loose with facts when sharing opinions. A narrowing of the eyes, a pursing of the lips, a sour expression or small shaking of the head are common reactions to the frivolous work behaviours of others. The good news is that it's normal and predictable; the bad news is that despite hardly noticing it, the recipients don't like it.
Reduce negative micro-messages and replace them with positive ones, such as the simple, non-expressive nod of acknowledgement, which requires no energy, yet is powerful if regularly used. Two or three nods are positively encouraging and not hard to do.
Tip 3: Be reflective - think of yourself as a mirror
Introverts can be expressive and demonstrative. Some of our finest actors are introverts, yet they are masters of body language. They find performing on stage to be physically and emotionally draining, yet they do it brilliantly.
There are actuaries similar to you yet more effective in their interactions with people. Talk to them. Ask them for advice. Think about how you could do what they do. It might be uncomfortable at first, but it gets easier with practice. Please reflect that it is not a lifestyle change you are seeking, just some tweaks here and there. You do not have to do it all of the time, and, if it helps, think of it as a performance that has an ending, after which you can relax somewhere quiet.
Mirroring is an effective way to build rapport with others. Simply emulate, in your own way, and subtly, their body language and gestures.
If they move their hands about, do the same.
If they cross their legs, copy them, subtly so they don't think you are strange. If they look you in the eye, look back - taking note of their eye colour, which makes it easier.
Tip 4: Unleash the secret weapon - a smile
A smile can light up a room. A smile is efficient. It requires 43 muscles to frown, but only 17 to smile. It costs nothing, and involves simple upward pressure on both sides of your mouth.
It is the most powerful piece of body language in your arsenal. Not only does it make people feel good, but it makes you feel good as well, releasing mood-enhancing endorphins.
Even when there is no obvious requirement to do so, just smile. Think about your love of numbers, or somebody you love, then just smile. It feels good, so why not?
Tip 5: The power pose
This final body language tip can be done anywhere, and will help you feel more powerful, confident and expressive, at least for a while.
Do you sit with a closed posture, hunched forward, arms folded, knees together? Instead, please lean back, spreading your arms as widely as possible along the arms of your chair, and then relax into an open and expansive pose for just five minutes.
This can also be done standing, hands on hips, with legs wider than normal, looking confidently and purposefully at the world around you. Just five minutes in either of these open postures, once or twice a day, will make a difference. Do it just before an interview, and the job could be yours.
A few final quick tips
? Take a deep breath before you walk into a room and check your facial expression.
? Go to the loo and perform a quick power pose while smiling in front of the mirror.
? Constantly check if your posture is closed (such as arms folded) and be more open.
? Get an office chair with arms (power pose).
? Stand up when you greet people (more open).
? Give everybody just two seconds of direct eye contact (stretch to five if you can).
? A smile is infectious, use liberally.
And one final thought: most people admire your intellect and will be supportive if you tell them that you are working on your body language.
In fact, they will admire you even more for it.
Kieran Hearty is the author of How to Eat the Elephant in the Room. He is a consultant and leadership speaker with 30 years' experience.