In 2010, Amy Cuddy, a social scientist 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, like confidence, are infectious in part because, "people tend to mirror each other." Emotions are contagious.
We all like to be around positive people, but I don't think winning the confidence of sophisticated investors has "nothing to do" with content.
The reality is that any company screened by a venture capital firm has decent content. But those who rise to the top in the final selection process and get the funding they need have something beyond content.
They express such qualities and behaviors as calmness, confidence, passion, eye contact, and lack of awkwardness. They get rewarded for non-rational reasons, for who they are, not just what they know. Their very real expression of positive feelings 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 8 ways to ensure that your emotions are worth catching as you and your colleagues step up to deliver your pitch.
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 rehearse in front of people who know the topic, the audience, and best practices.
If your rehearsal is adequate, 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.
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 storehouse of information and power. But when it does, you could very well blow the doors off the competition.
Respect the power of reciprocity.
When you give a significant gift to someone, they are likely to want to return the favor. People are hard-wired that way. The exchanging of gifts ignites the pleasure centers of the brain.
Perhaps the greatest gift you can give an audience or a potential client is the gift of your interest and attention. You can express this interest by doing your homework to learn about their specific needs, and then demonstrating how much you know about them.
Or early in the meeting you can encourage them to speak about their own needs and interests. And then you should listen, ask questions, jump in whenever you need to know more, and remain curious.
The gift of your attention will cause them to listen to you when it's your turn to talk. If you listen to them, they will listen to you. And if you don't listen to them, they will not listen to you. It's that simple.
Getting the prospect to talk first may take longer than you would like, and it may go against the traditional practices of your industry or company, but in sales and business development, talking before listening is a recipe for mediocre results.
Boost your signal to noise ratio.
Distracting verbal and non-verbal behaviors raise the level of noise and reduce the strength of your signal-or your message. Speaking too quickly, too softly, too monotonously will damage your chances of winning business. Saying "like, ya know, er, uhm, and ah," will drain the audience of its desire to listen.
Non-words are noise, not signal. Ramming the end of one sentence into the start of the next, until your speech is one long snake-like utterance that goes on interminably, will exhaust the capacity of your audience to follow your meaning.
Listeners crave the silence of a pause between thoughts, phrases, and sentences. A pause in a speech is like white space on a wedding invitation: it makes words more elegant and easy to read. In fact good speaking makes better listeners. By the way, we should all thank President Obama for teaching us how to pause. He's very good at it.
Be brief, upbeat, and kind.
Listeners like to quickly grasp what you're getting at. They resent it when you rob them of this pleasure. Churchill said a good speaker should have a strong opening, a dynamic ending, and he should put those two things as close together as possible.
A speaker needs enough energy to control the room, or enough quiet presence to induce listeners to lean in. And while pointing out a problem brings drama and tension to a speech or presentation, it's better when you offer positive solutions.
Kindness in public speaking is wise and temperate speech. Donald Trump may tickle the funny bones of Beavis and Butthead with his nasty verbal attacks on his political opponents. Demagogues tend to appeal to our baser instincts. But the great majority of well-meaning people will turn away from such a speaker.
Take the high road, don't sling dirt or bash the competition if you want to be respected. You can question or disagree with particular ideas or actions, but I would be careful not to judge others too harshly in a public speech. It'll end up souring your image.
Visibly display your belief.
William Butler Yeats was one of the greatest poets of the 20th Century. He once wrote, "I don't think anyone convinces us by force of reasoning, but rather because he is visibly enjoying the beliefs he wants us to accept."
Don't you love the idea of visibly enjoying your beliefs? It means that you've got conviction, not only in your mind, but in your eyes, your facial expressions, and your hands.
It's what my friend Andy Gole, the great sales coach, calls "They Gotta Have," as in the feeling that your prospect has to have your product. It's hard to win business without the feeling that "They Gotta Have" what you're selling.
Our job as persuasive speakers is to induce belief and raise belief to the level of action. It takes more than facts and figures to do that. Reasoning makes us think, but emotion makes us act.
Exercise before you go on.
Exercise creates endorphins that make you feel calm and relaxed. Weight training, yoga, running-they all work. Candidate George Bush Sr. gave the speech of his life at the Republican Convention in 1988 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.
Get some gravitas.
I think of gravitas as the psycho-physical weight one carries when one has years of experience and is not easily flustered. Someone whose keel is deep in the water. Someone who isn't blown around by the winds of conflicting opinion. Someone who is calm and serious.
Steven Colbert said that gravitas is, "The weight, the authority, the soup bone in the stew.... If you have sufficient gravitas, what you say doesn't have to mean anything at all."
Of course, he was joking. But isn't that what Drs. Cuddy and Balachandra are pointing out? That we are influenced by someone's confidence, calmness and charisma more than we are by their clever reasoning?
She who speaks with the most joy wins.
Remember that bumper sticker? Can you grasp that the chance to speak to a group is an opportunity and a privilege that can demand almost every ounce of what's best in you?
Public speaking is an intellectual challenge, an emotional challenge, a challenge to your will, and a challenge to your imagination. It's a chance to stretch, grow, and expand, which is better than a chance to get fat, dumb, and lazy. Grab hold of the opportunity, do your best, and learn from the experience.