Shannon Polly, MAPP '09, is a facilitator, speaker and coach in Washington, D.C. and the founder of a boutique consulting firm, Shannon Polly and Associates, where she applies positive psychology to leadership development. She also co-founded Positive Business DC (@positivebizdc) and she has facilitated resilience training for the U.S. Army. Full bio. Shannon's solo articles are here, her articles with Louisa Jewell here, and her articles with Genna Douglass here.
How does breathing like a baby lessen your anxiety? Could a pencil in your mouth make you a better speaker? Does the idea of doing a presentation make you want to run and hide? What does research say about the ability to increase our presence?
I’ve spent almost 20 years of my life thinking about this topic. First, I worked as a Yale-trained actor and producer in New York City and then as a leadership development consultant and coach.
The idea that you either have presence or you don’t is a big myth. If this were true there would be no drama schools, no need for weeks of rehearsals before opening night, and no cottage industry for selling classes to actors. Borrowing from actors, there are tangible techniques that you can use to control your anxiety and increase your influence whether you are giving a formal presentation or running a meeting.
I’m giving a free webinar this Wednesday on ways to manage presence. See below for a link to register. In it, I’ll look at external aspects of presence, internal aspects of presence, managing anxiety, and accessing flow. Some of the takeaways are described below.
What is your objective?
When you get up in front of a room, what do you want? Many people who are presenting have one goal: To get off the stage as quickly as possible. But our intention has a big impact on our presence and on our audience.
The energy and attention we send to ourselves and others has an enormous affect on our well-being and our presence. We know from various forms of psychology research that emotions are, in fact, contagious.
In the theater, an actor with Stanislavsky training will choose an action verb – an infinitive – to be the ‘objective’ for the entire play. Every action then falls under that one verb. The lead role in the movie Stand and Deliver might have the objective: To inspire. Junah, the Matt Damon role in the golf movie The Legend of Baggar Vance might have the objective: To find my authentic swing. Sandra Bullock’s character in The Blind Side might have the objective: To mentor. So when you are presenting or leading your next meeting, what is your objective? To inspire? To entertain? To enliven?
Research by Gollwitzer and colleagues shows that creating implementation intentions can be an effective strategy for overcoming procrastination. I would argue that implementation intentions are also good for helping you be the presenter you want to be. They help you take the focus off of yourself and put it on the audience. Implementation intentions support goal achievement. Say your goal is to be a great speaker/presenter. Choosing your action verb is a great way to set out in advance when, where, and how you will achieve this goal. How will you move your audience?Managing Emotions
Much has been written about managing emotions in the psychological literature, from cognitive behavioral therapy to work by Peter Salovey and others on emotional intelligence. Managing emotions is an aspect of external presence you can control. One study had half of the participants place a pencil in between their teeth (inducing a smile) and the other half placed a pencil in between their lips (a neutral position) while they rated how much they were amused by cartoons. The results showed that people who were induced to smile found the cartoons to be funnier than the control group. Subsequent research highlighted some limitations in the study and a follow up study showed that the ‘smile’ group had more positive emotions when watching a movie that induced positive emotions. But when they were watching a movie that induced negative emotions, their positive emotions did not increase. Perhaps that’s a good indication of why telling someone to just smile doesn’t work if they are already in a bad mood.
People always ask me if you can fake it till you make it. I think this work and Amy Cuddy’s work displays evidence that you can.Power Poses
Amy Cuddy is a social science researcher from Harvard Business School. Her famous YouTube on power poses has been viewed over 17 million times. She noticed that certain people in her classes were asking questions, while other students (usually the females and non-white males) were not speaking up. She also noticed that the two groups had very different postures in class. This led her to track the level of testosterone (power/strength hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone) of subjects who were in different poses. When they were in poses hunched over an iPhone (which is what you might be doing before a job interview, for instance) they had high levels of cortisol, which made them perform poorly in the interview. When she had subjects spend just 2 minutes before their interviews in one of a few ‘power poses’ (i.e. feet on a desk, hands on hips, arms out wide in a ‘Y’) their cortisol dropped and their testosterone shot up. They performed much better in their interviews. She doesn’t recommending striking the pose in the middle of the interview, however.
Actors know that sometimes you need to work from the outside-in to access a character, that is, you take on the physicality before you achieve the inner life. The same is true for accessing confidence in business situations.Keep Breathing
While there are any number of questions about physical presence that I get asked frequently, such as “What do I do with my hands?” there is one that is the North Star. If you can get your breathing correct, it can cure a multitude of sins.
As you’re reading this, place your left hand on your chest and your right hand on your lower belly. Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. (By the way, this is the most efficient way to breathe. Nostril breathing warms and filters the air.) Which hand moves more? If you said your right, you win! We ultimately want our diaphragm to move down and push our internal organs out of the way when we inhale. This flies in the face of all the ‘sucking it in’ we’ll most likely be doing as swimsuit weather is upon us.
In addition if you breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in, it will activate the parasympathetic nervous system and lower your heart rate. This is just what you need when the nerves kick in at the beginning of a presentation or important meeting.
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?
Do you remember that old joke about the person on the streets of New York who asks a local how to get to Carnegie Hall? The sardonic New Yorker replies, “Practice, practice, practice.” I would make one edit to that: Practice aloud! I have one client who told me that she always practices her speeches a number of times but was still having issues with anxiety and feeling successful. It took a while for me to discover that she was practicing in her head!
So in order to cultivate a positive presence you need to think about your intention, manage your emotions, strike a power pose, and find centered breathing to manage anxiety. But you also need to practice out loud. That’s the only way to change a habit.
Author’s note: As a co-founder of Positive Business DC, I’m giving a free webinar on May 28th at 1:00 pm ET. Click on the link to register.
Present Like a Rock Star: How to Cultivate Positive Presence
If you are coming to the Canadian Positive Psychology conference this summer, look for me. I’ll be giving another presentation on this topic.
Cuddy, A. (2012). Your body language shapes who you are. TED talk.
Carney, D., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368.
Douglass, G. (2012). Posture: Power over Performance Anxiety. Positive Psychology News. Includes pictures of power poses.
Gollwitzer, P. M., Weiber, F., Myers, A. L., & McCrea, S. M. (2009). How to maximize implementation intention effects. In P. Agnew, D. Carlson, W. Graziano, & J. Kelly, (Eds.), Then A Miracle Occurs: Focusing on Behavior in Social Psychological Theory and Research. Oxford University Press.
Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J.T., & Rapson, R.L. (1993). Emotional contagion. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2, 96-99.
Kraft, T. L. & Pressman, S. D. (2012). Grin and bear it: The influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychological Science.
Salovey, P., & Mayer, J. D. (1989). Emotional intelligence. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 9(3), 185-211.
Salovey, P. (1998). Optimizing Intelligences: Thinking, Emotion and Creativity. DVD. Hosted by Peter Salovey. Includes Howard Gardner, Daniel Goleman, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Soussignan, R. (2002). Duchenne smile, emotional experience, and autonomic reactivity: A test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Emotion, 2 (1), 52-74 DOI: 10.1037/1528-35126.96.36.199
Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988), Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: a nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 54 (5), 768.
Wieber, F. & Gollwitzer, P. (2012). Overcoming procrastination through planning. In C. Andreau & M. White (Eds.) The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. New York: Oxford University Press.
Zhivotovskaya, E. (2008). Smile and others smile with you: Health benefits, emotional contagion, and mimicry. Positive Psychology News.
Other pictures courtesy of Shannon Polly. Ask for permission before reuse.