Emotions are contagious. Make sure yours are worth catching.

In 2010, Amy Cuddy, who teaches at Harvard Business School, was quoted as saying that the success of a start-up's pitch to venture-capital investors depends on nonverbal factors like "how comfortable and charismatic you are. The predictors of who actually gets the money are all about how you present yourself, and nothing to do with content."

Citing research by Boston College doctoral student Lakshmi Balachandra, who studied 185 venture-capital pitches and found that variables like "calmness," "passion," "eye contact," and "lack of awkwardness" were strong predictors of success, Cuddy argued that your emotional states are infectious in part because, "people tend to mirror each others" moods.

We all like to be around positive people, but I doubt investors will give you money regardless of your content.

Any company screened by a venture capital firm has a decent business plan. But those who get funded from among that elite group are selected for other, non-rational reasons. In addition to their excellent business plans, their display of calmness, confidence, and charisma will ignite positive feelings in the investors.

So what does this mean for you as a business speaker? First, it means that your content must be at least equal to (or distinct from) the best of your competition. Second, it means you need to achieve a positive emotional state before you walk into the room.

Here are 6 ways to ensure that your emotions are worth catching as you step up to deliver a high stakes presentation.

  1. Rehearse under performance-like pressure. The only scientifically proven way to improve your speaking skills is to rehearse under performance-like pressure. That means you must practice in front of people who know the topic, the audience, and best practices.

    When you rehearse in this way (this is a biggy), you will transfer the words and ideas from your pre-frontal cortex to another part of your brain called the cerebellum, which is responsible for coordinating lightning-fast mental and physical tasks (like playing The Flight of the Bumble Bee by Rimsky-Korsakov on the piano.)

    When the cerebellum takes over, you are in the zone, also known as the state of flow, also known as Robin Williams on a tear.

    However, the cerebellum is not consciously accessible. On any given day, it may or may not open its doors and invite you into its vast reaches of mastery and control. But when it does, watch out, 'cause here comes the state of flow, which is a rare state to be in.

  2. Know your opening, main points, and ending: Knowing how you will start, middle, and end gives you a sense of security. Questions and objections may drag you off the road, but having a plan will help you get back to your chosen path. When they say, "We're running late. Can you give us the short version?" you'll be prepared to deliver the goods.
  3. When giving a speech or presentation, exercise before you go on. Exercise creates endorphins that make you feel calm and relaxed. Weight training, yoga, running--they all work. In 1988 Candidate George Bush Sr. gave the speech of his life at the Republican Convention right after he'd worked out and had a massage. He came across relaxed and in control--non-verbal proof (for some) that he was presidential.
  4. Go big or go home. Make big, dominant gestures (in private) just before you go on. Stand backstage, or go outside, and occupy as much psycho-physical space as possible.

    In other words, spread your arms and legs like a peacock spreads his tail. Make yourself as big as possible, and hold that big, dominant gesture for at least two minutes.

    Or put your foot up on a table in an assertive manner--whether you're a male or female. You will increase the amount of testosterone in your body, according to the fascinating research conducted by the above-mentioned Professor Cuddy.

    (And by the way. if you make small timid gestures, you will increase the amount of cortisol in your body, which is the anxiety hormone. So, go big or go home.)

  5. But what if you're nervous? If you are nervous, don't try to calm down. Re-label your nervousness. Call it something else. Energy. Passion. Excitement. Whatever. Tell everybody you're excited, because you'll be telling yourself that too.

    In this case, self-deception is good.

    Then make up your mind to jump--jump off the nervous plane and into the open arms of the cushioning air. If you've rehearsed under performance-like pressure, you will find yourself flying, not falling.

    Don't worry about overdoing it. Your internal governor will prevent you from acting like a maniac, although a little bit of mania never hurt. It'll make you more interesting. Some occasions call for calmness, but most demand verve, elan, or a touch of panache.

  6. Does this mean you have to fake it? We all have fixed traits. Some of us are happy-go-lucky, others are wound up tighter than a tourniquet, but we can behave in a particular manner if the purpose of the project is important enough to us. Yes, we have fixed traits, but we can also have "Free Trait Agreements" with ourselves. Step into your adjacent possible behavior, the one that will win you the money.
Published on: Oct 28, 2014
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