Nerves are the bane of any good presentation, since half your energy seems to go into not giving away how worried you are that you’ll screw up.
Ergo the cottage industry in advice about body language: the poses and hand gestures that, like some kind of corporate gang sign, are supposed to indicate to the tribe that you belong, and you get the language.
A Harvard Business Review article called “6 Ways to Look More Confident During a Presentation” explored what adopting certain poses signals to others. There were six examples from the Center for Body Language, but here are a few: Moving your hands within a limited space, or “the box,” is supposed to signal that you’re “trustworthy, truthful.” Acting like a you have a basketball in your hands, or “holding the ball,” should make you look “commanding, dominant,” while a “wide stance” is supposed to make you look “confident, in control.”
Researchers have studied what it means to be confident and how to translate that into your body language. We were interested in how it compared to the power of being vulnerable enough to be your authentic self with others.
The ongoing dialogue about what poses make you feel and/or look powerful has been raging for years now.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy talked about the “power posing” during a 2012 TED Talk. She conducted a study of body language, where participants took on “high-power poses” that made them look confident and “low-power poses” make themselves look “small” for two minutes. They also took saliva from the participants.
“So two minutes lead to these hormonal changes that configure your brain to basically be either assertive, confident and comfortable, or really stress-reactive, and feeling sort of shut down…So it seems that our nonverbals do govern how we think and feel about ourselves, so it’s not just others, but it’s also ourselves. Also, our bodies change our minds,” Cuddy said in the 2012 TED Talk.
While “fake it til you make it” is often popular and sometimes valuable advice, it doesn’t seem to always work. And a new kind of concept is having its day: being yourself. It takes a lot less energy than trying to appear perfect and infallible, which requires a lot of thought and wastes energy in trying to control other people’s perceptions.
Another bonus: being yourself makes you more sought-after and trusted, as long as you are introspective about your own actions and respectful toward others.
Authenticity is the new measure of leadership
At what point does your being yourself outweigh striking a pose? It all comes from the same place: compassion for flaws, whether they’re yours or someone else’s.
For researcher Brené Brown, feeling your best and treating others well starts with being vulnerable— she talked about it in a 2010 TED Talk in Houston.
“…when we work from a place, I believe, that says, ‘I’m enough’ … then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves,” Brown said in the 2010 talk.
In a vulnerable moment during another TED Talk in 2012, Brown herself opened up about having the “worst vulnerability hangover of my life” after her 2010 talk in Houston, and talked about telling her friend about what she was going through over lunch, doubting her decision to talk so openly.
But that kind of self-doubt is the sure road to authenticity and by extension better leadership, because it forces us to examine who we are. While power-posing can fake confidence enough to get into a room, no amount of body language can replace the good judgment that makes a leader.
Be a truth-teller, and be around truth-tellers
Bill George, a senior fellow and lecturer on leadership at Harvard Business School, has written that one of the keys to authentic leadership is examining our origins and our “crucibles,” or those times when we are changed by the pressure and fire around us.
“As leaders explore their life stories and crucibles, and process their experiences, they develop deeper understanding of themselves and feel increasingly comfortable being authentic,” George wrote. “This is a lifelong journey in which we are always discovering the next layer, much like peeling an onion. As leaders discover their truth, their True North, they gain confidence and resilience to face difficult situations.”
Drop the mask, because no one’s fooled
The old corporate idea of getting promoted and rising rewarded masks and costumes: the perfect suit functioned as a kind of corporate armor to keep people at arms’ length, and Dale Carnegie techniques such as repeating people’s names imitated a genuine interest in others.
But the newer science on leadership is looking at the power of honesty: wearing what makes you feel capable and comfortable like Mark Zuckerberg and his 20 gray t-shirts; speaking with “radical candor“; seeking out advisers who are “truth-tellers” instead of sycophants. That means making sure your body language is calm and reflects that you are listening and interested, not copying someone else’s idea of what looks powerful.
Either way, tapping into who you really are deep down is sure to help you feel more confident with yourself and others at work— maybe even during that big company presentation. Being comfortable in your own skin is the ultimate power pose.