My niece — who is applying to university — just had a Zoom interview with MIT. Beforehand, I told her, remember, “how you are” is more important than “what you say.”

She looked at me incredulously. With her eyes, she asked, “Aren’t they looking for me to articulate clear reasons why I want to go to MIT?” I replied to her body language winking, “Words matter. But there is so much more to their perception of you than the language you choose.”

If you — like my niece — think communication is a verbal activity, you’re partly wrong.

We tend to think that communication is a language exercise. But communication is a physical and emotional activity as well.

On the physical front, a landmark UCLA study showed that gestures count for more than half (55%) of the impact you have on an audience. Tone of voice makes up 38% and words, only 7%.

But I believe that communication goes way beyond even gesture and tone of voice. Communication is also about self awareness, compassion and mindfulness. These are the key attributes to “how you are.” And I firmly believe that “how you are” matters more than “what you say.”

So how are you? As a fun exercise, try exploring some questions next time you have a conversation with a colleague or lead a meeting.

  1. Self awareness: What are you noticing in yourself as you communicate? Are you feeling energetic? Nervous? Frustrated? There is no “right” way to be. However, the more you develop the skill to connect to how you are feeling in the moment, the more you can connect to how you are being for others in the moment.
  2. Compassion: Are you compassionate about your listener? Are you curious about what’s going on in their world? Are you interested in what makes them excited? If you are oblivious to your audience, they’ll sense it.
  3. Mindfulness: Can you slow your conversation down — even by a second — to make this deeper realm of communication part of the equation? What is happening below the surface?

Before my niece’s interview, I offered to lead her in a centering exercise to help her connect into these “how you are” attributes. Although she didn’t take me up on it — how many 17-year-olds would? — I invite you to try.

Before your next act of leadership, take three deep breaths. Invite yourself to slow down and pay attention to how you are. It’s really more important than what you say. I promise.