How Veterans Can Manage Their Body Language in Professional Situations

Master Chief Petty Officer Bob Brayman, command master chief for Coast Guard Sector Jacksonville, discusses leadership, mentorship and shares wisdom from nearly 30 years of Coast Guard service during a 2009 interview. (U.S. Coast Guard/Petty Officer 1st Class Bobby Nash)

It's been said that up to 90% of the information we receive comes from nonverbal communication -- things like body language and spatial relationship. Is it no wonder, then, that when you try to tell someone how happy you are to see them, but avoid making eye contact, pick at your fingers and shake your head side to side, they don't believe you?

Let's look at some specific situations and how your body language can amplify your message to be sure you're received correctly.

In-Person Body Language

Imagine you're in a job interview and the hiring manager asks you, "Why did you join the military?" Your reply is a great opportunity to showcase your passion, commitment to service and loyalty to the U.S. armed forces. If you look them in the eyes as you respond, smile as you talk about your family's legacy of service, and vary your voice in your answer, you'll convey more confidence and trust in your answer. If you avoid eye contact, give one-word answers and suddenly cross your arms, you could appear defensive or insecure.

Eye contact is vital. Too much eye contact feels creepy, and avoiding eye contact can send messages of deception or avoidance. When you speak to someone, look at them; when they reply, hold their gaze. If eye contact is uncomfortable for you, look between their eyes, at a spot in the center of their forehead -- it has the same effect.

Use your hands to gesture in support of your message. When you count off, for instance, when listing achievements, use hand gestures to indicate "one, two, three" on your fingers.

Watch your posture. Face the person you're speaking to by turning your shoulders and torso toward them. You should be sitting up tall, but not too rigid and inflexible. Get comfortable in your seat and resist slumping or shrinking in your chair.

When standing and talking to someone, such as at a networking event or job fair, point your body toward them as you speak. Avoid holding too many things in your hands (cocktail, notebook, appetizers) in case you'll be asked to shake hands. Also resist the temptation to look over their shoulders to see who else might be in the room -- give the person you're speaking to your undivided attention.

Virtual Body Language

In a virtual meeting or interview, the same rules as in person apply, except now we have less context with which to evaluate your body language. I can only see a fraction of who you are, so try to augment your vocal tonality and expressions.

I'm not suggesting you act like a clown, but you might smile more, add more inflection to your voice, and show delight or surprise with more emphasis than if you were in person. Since I can't see your body for additional body language cues, your voice and face must work harder to convey your sentiments.

Over the Phone

The phone is harder. Now we have only voice, tonality and language to draw from. I can't see your eyes, hands or gestures. I don't know if you're paying attention to the conversation or distracted. Some people smile when talking on the phone as it can convey warmth and enthusiasm to the listener. It certainly couldn't hurt.

Watch the volume of your voice on the phone. If you're in a crowded or noisy room, you might speak louder than is needed. The listener could interpret this as yelling. Today, with technology like noise-canceling headphones, background noise is greatly eliminated, but someone speaking loudly still sounds like shouting.

Use your body language to support and emphasize your words. We tend to trust what we see (visually) more than what we hear (verbally), and when what we see aligns with what we hear, the message is more likely received as intended.

The author of "Success After Service: How to Take Control of Your Job Search and Career After Military Duty" (2020) and "Your Next Mission: A personal branding guide for the military-to-civilian transition" (2014), Lida Citroën is a keynote speaker and presenter, executive coach, popular TEDx speaker and instructor of multiple courses on LinkedIn Learning. She regularly presents workshops on personal branding, executive presence, leadership communication and reputation risk management.

A contributing writer for, Lida is a passionate supporter of the military, volunteering her time to help veterans transition to civilian careers and assist employers who seek to hire military talent. She regularly speaks at conferences, corporate meetings and events focused on military transition.

Want to Know More About Veteran Jobs?

Be sure to get the latest news about post-military careers as well as critical info about veteran jobs and all the benefits of service. Subscribe to and receive customized updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Story Continues