According to body-language expert Dr. Lillian Glass, people in live social encounters – such as a staffer greeting an attendee – used to enjoy as much as four minutes creating an initial impression. But that period of assessment existed back in the 1970s and early 1980s, before the advent of MTV, texting, and cellphones. "Today, that window for making a first impression has shrunk to four seconds, and can be as little as four milliseconds in certain situations," says Glass, whose research suggests that bad first impressions are among the most significant impediments to turning attendees into prospects.
But how can exhibitors retool their booth staffers in light of this new reality of truncated attention spans and instantaneous evaluation? "Staffers need to be trained that a single expression or solitary gesture can halt any further contact with your exhibit and therefore your company just as easily as saying a wrong word," says Doug MacLean, a staff trainer based in Columbia, SC.
Patti Wood, a body language expert and author of "Snap – Making the Most of First Impressions, Body Language, and Charisma," agrees that you cannot overstate the importance of body language in training staffers for that initial encounter. "Everything from a staffer's handshake to head nod can also be the 'message' that attendees take home about your brand," Wood says.
Based on these experts' research and experience, here are illustrations of the top 11 ways staffers' body language can sink your exhibit in the wink of an eye.
1 Eyes High
A staffer's eyebrows held in a resting position conveys a lack of interest in others, and could dampen an attendee's eagerness to engage in conversation or even enter the booth. Raising the eyebrows is perceived as a welcoming action that better prompts visitors to approach and engage.
2 Palm Readers
Of the 5,000 distinct hand gestures researchers have identified, palms facing downward communicate a closed mind, and even pronounced disagreement with what the other person is saying. However, a palms-up gesture projects friendliness.
3 Anger Management
Interactions with angry attendees can easily result in a devastating first impression, since many staffers will, in response, shut down. But an affect-less look can infuriate the upset party more because it suggests a lack of concern. Staffers should mirror the visitor by closing and flattening their lips, which reflects the usual mien of anger and suggests they're empathizing with guests.
4 Take it on the Chin
An upward-facing chin conveys the impression – figuratively and literally – that staffers are looking down their noses at a guest. Alternatively, keeping the chin pointed down toward the floor suggests to attendees a staffer is meeting them on equal terms.
5 Leaning Out
Leaning away from visitors, with body and feet pointed at an extreme, almost perpendicular angle away from them, imparts a strong reluctance to interact, as well as a desire to bolt. Tilting the body and feet only slightly away from visitors, with arms in a relaxed position and feet about 12 inches apart closes the physical space and establishes a more personal connection.
6 Shake It, Don't Break It
Research suggests that it takes an average of three hours of continuous face-to-face interaction to reach the same level of rapport a staffer can achieve instantly with a handshake. But crushing an attendee's hand and/or pumping it more than once during a handshake is a display of dominance that can border on bullying.
7 Forgo Full Frontal
Staffers facing attendees with a full-on body display, with arms akimbo and feet in a wide stance look like they're creating a human barrier to prevent visitors from entering the exhibit. Angling the body slightly away from approaching attendees suggests, vulnerability to guests, and thereby increases their sense of the booth's accessibility.
8 Stare Wars
Looking at the area known as the eye-nose triangle for too short a duration during an interaction imparts a sense of dishonesty to a visitor. Instead, staffers should maintain eye contact in that zone for roughly two-thirds of the encounter's duration. Any more than that ratio can feel invasive to the person experiencing it.
9 Cold Shoulder
Slumped shoulders are among the most evocative of the estimated 1,000 postures humans can assume, broadcasting weakness, pessimism, and a lack of confidence. Shoulders thrust back signify the opposite – strength and a positive outlook that appeals to visitors – and create the impression that the staffer is important.
10 Angling for Position
When showing attendees a presentation on a screen, angling away from the guests and facing the screen stops any connection from forming. Instead, staffers should imagine the screen, guests, and themselves as three points in a triangle, and position themselves so they can look at the two points (guests and screen) simultaneously.
Shifting from side to side during a conversation implies staffers' attention is otherwise engaged, and that they are eager to move away from the attendee as quickly as possible. Standing still, on the other hand, suggests the staffer is fully focused on the person in front of him or her and is willing to devote their time and attention to visitors.