The Key to Speaking With Confidence

Presentations are all about what we do with our bodies. The trick is to make yours have impact.

If I asked you to walk around a room as though you were the most confident person in the world–if I asked you to show me confidence, only with your body and without words–what would it look like? You might stand up straight and walk slowly with long strides and smooth arm gestures. You’d look people in the eye, smile, and hold up your chin. You would breathe deeply, and your shoulders would relax.

If I then asked you to walk around showing me the physical manifestation of fear and nervousness, you would probably close in on yourself. You might hold your arms tightly to your body, duck your head, and move erratically and quickly, as though fearing danger at any moment. Your eyes would dart around, and your breathing would be fast and shallow.

Try it out now: Get up from your seat and walk around the room, first in confidence and then in fear. Note how different you feel and how your body tries to show those emotions.

This nonverbal exercise has an important purpose. We have a misconception that presentations are about the words we say and the slides we show.

Presentations are actually all about what we do with our bodies. People focus on your body, usually without even realizing it. Much more impact comes from your body than from your words. As a matter of fact, putting your body into expansive, powerful poses can actually create confidence.

Your Body, Your Mood

Confidence is a doozy of a concern for a huge percentage of people–whether they present formally to crowds or just to small groups at weekly meetings. People often say gaining confidence is their biggest goal.

Get ready. You have the instant ability to do just that. All you have to do is make your body look confident. When William James said, “Act as if you are beautiful, confident, and poised, and you will be,” he was more right than he might have realized. The way you hold your body can actually change the level of power and confidence you feel.

We all have attitudes and perspectives within us that come alive from body cues, not from mindsets. In fact, those who study the psychology of self-efficacy (your belief in your ability to perform a certain task or skill) have found that one key to unlocking confidence is to talk your body into it, even before your mind.

For example, if you show the physical signs of happiness (smiling), you will feel happier. Your face, body, and voice send signals to your brain, informing it that you are experiencing a particular emotion because you are engaging in behaviors that signal happiness. You then feel that emotion.

One study even showed that forcing the body to change can affect mood and attitude. In 2006, 10 clinically depressed patients, who had been depressed for two to 10 years and who had not responded to drug therapy, were administered a drug that reduced their frown lines.

In other words, researchers used Botox to force the patients’ faces to assume a happier aspect–free of frown lines and down expressions. Two months later, without additional drugs, nine of the 10 were no longer depressed. And no, silly, I’m not telling you to go get Botox. The point is that by forcing the patients’ bodies to send new signals to their brains, their chemical depression began to improve. This astonishing finding is only the beginning.

Strike a Pose

Some of the most fascinating research in this arena comes from Amy J.C. Cuddy, as reported by the Harvard Business School. In her work “Power Posing: Brief Nonverbal Displays Affect Neuroendocrine Levels and Risk Tolerance,” she illuminates the fact that we have much more ability to manipulate our confidence than we realize.

Cuddy and her co-authors conducted experiments to measure several important hormones. The first was testosterone, which is present in both the human and animal worlds and correlates with greater confidence, risk tolerance, power, and dominance when it is present in the body at higher levels. The second was cortisol, a hormone that’s present in the brain and body during times of stress, fear, and lack of confidence and which can also over time create hypertension and memory loss.

In her experiments, Cuddy’s subjects were asked to hold high-power, expansive poses–such as putting their feet on a desk with their hands behind their head–for one to two minutes. Members of another control group were directed to sit with their legs crossed and their arms protecting their bodies, often with their heads down. Saliva samples from before and after the experiment showed astonishing changes.

Controlling for the subjects’ baseline levels of both hormones, Cuddy and her co-authors found that high-power poses decreased cortisol by about 25 percent and increased testosterone by about 19 percent in both men and women. By contrast, the low-power poses increased cortisol about 17 percent and decreased testosterone about 10 percent.

In addition, the people who had taken on the high-power poses said they felt very “in charge” and “powerful.” They felt confident. This research has ramifications not only for presentations but for anyone who might feel powerless or have low self-esteem. By manipulating the way you hold your body, you can affect your level of confidence and sense of control. And by managing your internal confidence, by building yourself up and giving yourself more power, you in turn affect how your audience feels about you.

Make a Connection

My geek core gets so worked up about this stuff! By changing our bodies, we control chemicals that can affect our confidence. When we are positive, confident, and willing to make a warm connection with our audience, they will respond. As Cuddy elaborates:

We are influenced, and influence others, through very unconscious and implicit processes. People tend to spend too much energy focusing on the words they’re saying–perfectly crafting the content of the message–when in many cases that matters much less than how it’s being communicated. People often are more influenced by how they feel about you than by what you’re saying. It’s not about the content of the message, but how you’re communicating it.

Excerpted with permission from Be the Best Bad Presenter Ever: Break the Rules, Make Mistakes, and Win Them Over © 2014 Berrett-Koehler Publishers

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Contributed by: Karen Hough @KarenHough

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