Home All How to Command a Room: Suggestions for Positive Presenting

How to Command a Room: Suggestions for Positive Presenting

written by Shannon Polly 27 May 2014

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.

Shannon on stage

Shannon on stage

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?

Induced smile

Induced smile

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.

A breath in action

A breath in action

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: 10.1037/1528-3542.2.1.52

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.

Photo Credit: via Compfight with Creative Commons license
Hands on hips courtesy of hugovk

Other pictures courtesy of Shannon Polly. Ask for permission before reuse.

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Marie-Josee Shaar 27 May 2014 - 3:02 pm

Great article, Shannon! SO many people are afraid o public speaking and need to read this!

As a public speaker trained by the National Speaker’s Association, I completely concur with your points above. One thing I’d add: it’s normal to be a little nervous, it happens to the best of us, and it doesn’t mean you will mess up. It’s just your body’s way of making sure you are on your toes and performance-ready, so it’s good news!


Senia 27 May 2014 - 6:48 pm

Love this! Great suggestions, Shannon!

I imagine that having had so much experience with presenting talks and workshops, you don’t always need to set yourself the verb objective you describe. I don’t know if that’s true.

When you do set an objective while giving a talk, Shannon, what objective do you like to set?

Lisa Sansom (@LVSConsulting) 27 May 2014 - 9:12 pm

Years ago, in my first career as a high school teacher, I took voice and acting lessons to help me take care of my voice (which you use all the time as a teacher) and my poise in the classroom. Once I transitioned into the world of corporate training and organizational development, these skills became even more important, and I really do believe that all leaders and aspiring leaders should become acquainted with drama and its techniques. Well-written, and I’m looking very much forward to seeing you in Ottawa!

Shannon Polly 27 May 2014 - 9:18 pm


I often tell people that is the next myth of presenting … that you shouldn’t be nervous! Or that professionals are not nervous. I actually get nervous if I’m NOT nervous. That means I have to manufacture the energy from somewhere.


Shannon Polly 27 May 2014 - 9:23 pm

Ah, Senia…that is the subject of article Part #2! Don’t mean to be cagey!

It’s true that sometimes they become intuitive after you have done it a lot. What I will say is that one of my favorites is “to inspire”.

Great question!


Shannon Polly 27 May 2014 - 9:25 pm


You need more stamina to be a high school teacher than you do to perform 8 shows a week on Broadway! Breathing and voice are so key. Your students were lucky to have someone so dedicated.

Looking forward to seeing you as well!


Senia 28 May 2014 - 1:38 am

Nice, great to hear!

Judy Krings 28 May 2014 - 4:24 am

Great tip about breathing OUT twice as long as you breathe IN. A new one for me, and I have been doing deep breathing for over 40 years! The old dog-ette is learning a new trick. Great tips about body posing and action, too. Well done. Many thanks.

Margaret Greenberg 28 May 2014 - 7:29 am

Thank you Shannon for offering some really practical applications of positive psychology! I now have a new article I can send to the leaders I coach, most of whom have some anxiety before presenting to others.

I particularly like what you said about presence — either you have it or you don’t is a MYTH; and Cuddy’s work on embodiment, or what Senia and I call “fake it ’til you make it” in Profit From the Positive. Lastly, the setting of an intention/objective/action verb for your presentation is something I personally do, just before getting out of bed the morning of a presentation. The day I stop being a little nervous is the day my presentation will come across as flat — I like how you say you’d have to “manufacture the energy from somewhere.” Well done!

Shannon Polly 28 May 2014 - 8:32 am


Thanks for your comments and specific positive feedback. You really practice what you preach and I appreciate it.

Yes, the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ is what Stanislavsky called the “acting ‘as if'”. An actor would act ‘as if’ they were the embodiment of the character – say, a murderous baker from Sweeney Todd. Or you can act ‘as if’ you have confidence. And when your body moves in that way (as we see from Cuddy’s work) the brain follows.


Shannon Polly 28 May 2014 - 10:35 am

Thanks, Judy! Yes, the breathing out is the key.

Also box breathing – in for four, hold for four, out for four, hold for four. I think the main point is that focusing the mind on the breath and not on the nerves is distracting.


Judy Krings 28 May 2014 - 2:21 pm

Thanks and what great company here, Shannon, Lisa, Margaret, Marie-Kosee. Watch out world! I am so happy to be riding the merry-go-round with you. I can hear us all yelling, “Bring it on, all of it!”

Judy Krings 28 May 2014 - 2:23 pm

I forgot to thank you for the extra breathing tip. Shannon, many thanks. The BOX was also new to me. Where have I been?

Loved your story, too, Lisa.

Shannon Polly 28 May 2014 - 3:47 pm

Thanks, Judy! I’m glad you found the breathing helpful.

Yes, I feel very grateful to have such wonderful colleagues. I hear that having friends leads to greater well-being too!


Judy Krings 28 May 2014 - 5:29 pm

I am STILL re-reading this and breathing it all in, Shannon. Big thanks!

Elaine O'Brien, MAPP 29 May 2014 - 9:01 am

Thanks for a great article, Shannon, and a wonderful presentation! Love the breathing tips as well; they are near and dear to my heart and practice. (My MAPP capstone: “Breathing Positive Psychology: Movement Interventions for the Greater Good”). Well done and cheers!

Judy Krings 29 May 2014 - 10:25 am

Hi, Elaine, and how creative your Capstone must be. If you take a moment when you can, would be kindly send us a blog or a few lines on movement and PP? Many thanks.

Editor K.H.B. 29 May 2014 - 11:26 am


Is your capstone available to readers on Scholarly Commons? Sounds like it might be valuable to people…

I was particularly impressed by Shannon’s comment in her webinar that women with very high-pitched voices can lower the pitch by careful breathing. I’ve known several people who could use that intervention.

Judy, I know you want new material from Elaine, but just to make things easier, here’s a link to the PPND articles Elaine has already written, many on the benefits of movement.


Scott Crabtree 29 May 2014 - 1:13 pm

Love this article Shannon! Well done!

Great minds think alike…as you’ll see, I’ve incorporated some of the same tips into this doc I put together to help people do better presentations:


Would love to hear what you and others think.

Keep up the great work! I hope to see you present sometime before long. 🙂
Scott Crabtree, Chief Happiness Officer, http://www.HappyBrainScience.com

Judy Krings 30 May 2014 - 7:01 am

Huge thanks, kind Kathryn. I am ever so grateful for these resources! Have a super weekend.

Judy Krings 30 May 2014 - 7:03 am

Thanks, to you, too, Scott. I will share your pdf with my PP students at MentorCoach. Many thanks. I really enjoyed it. Succinct and right on.

Shannon Polly 1 June 2014 - 9:07 pm

Hi Kathryn,

My capstone wasn’t specifically on this topic. And unfortunately it is not on the Commons as they are proprietary workshops.

But I do have a robust white paper for free to anyone who goes to my website.

Shannon Polly 2 June 2014 - 9:52 pm


Can I read your capstone?

Scott, nice work! Thanks for posting…


Dan Bowling 3 June 2014 - 9:20 am

Shannon, I love this post. It is so helpful – there are times I nail a presentation or a class, and times I feel like I am flat because of nerves, low energy, lack of connection – I don’t know, just flat. You really have given me – and all of us – some specifics that I can’t wait to try out. Of course, you can do what my CEO at Coke Enterprises used to advise – keep a couple of airline bottles of Stoli in your pocket for pre-speech prep! (True story)

Shannon Polly 3 June 2014 - 8:23 pm


Nice work! Thanks for posting!


Shannon Polly 3 June 2014 - 8:29 pm


It also might be that your presentation wasn’t flat, you just thought it was. Sometimes it is hard to tell. You might need a colleague to give you feedback. And sometimes yes, when you are feeling like it flat you have to have some techniques that will help get your energy back.

I normally don’t recommend alcohol but I know people who have used beta blockers (opera singers) for anxiety!



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