The unexpected impact of changing my body language

I used to be plagued by self-doubt and knew I had to address this.  I constantly felt like a fraud in meetings with senior executives – I’d drift into a conviction that I was only there because I’d tricked everyone.  It would only be a matter of time before I was found out.  I know I’m a strong presenter, so my meetings always appeared to go well – yet for some reason I found it hard to close deals.  I wondered whether something was giving me away, whether my internal dialogue letting me down.

MIT Media Lab recently released a study of business pitches and sales calls.  Without hearing any of the content of the meetings, only by reading the presenters’ interactions, they predicted the outcome of the pitches with 87% accuracy.  My self-doubt while presenting would have affected my body language and tone of voice.  When my thoughts told me I wasn’t capable, my interactions said I wasn’t capable.  It didn’t matter what came out of my mouth; that determined the success of my pitch.

This year, I knew I had to lift my game.  If I was going to move Posse from bright startup to serious company then I’d need to overcome my own self-doubt – or at least learn to conceal it.

First, I tried to fix what was going on in my head.  I read up on Imposter’s Syndrome, which reportedly affects 70 – 80% of business people; it’s even higher for women.  A study of Harvard Business School students found that three quarters of them imagined they only gained entrance by a failure in the admission process.  I was comforted to discover that I’m not alone, but that didn’t solve my problem.

Then I researched body language.  If the MIT study could predict the success or failure of a pitch with such accuracy then what were they looking for?  How could I mimic powerful confident body language?  I found a few simple tricks and the results were astonishing.  Here’s what I did:

Power posing.

Psychologists have written volumes about the physiological impact of spreading yourself out in a powerful posture.  It’s what animals do to exert dominance.  In Amy Cuddy’s brilliant TED talk, she shows that holding our body in expansive high power poses — hands above head in a V shape, shoulders back — for two minutes increases our testosterone by 20% (that’s the hormone linked to power and self-esteem) and decreases the stress hormone cortisol by 25%.  She showed in a trial that job candidates who stood in a high power pose for 2 minutes before their interview were 80% more likely to be hired than another group who sat in contracted positions (hunched shoulders, chin tucked down).

Earlier this year I set out on a roadshow presenting Posse to a new class of investors from the finance industry.  I’m a little reluctant to share this story out of embarrassment, but it did have a major effect on me, so here goes.  I’d arrive early for each meeting so that I could visit the rest room beforehand.  I stood in front of the mirror for at least two minutes in a victory pose (hands above my head in a V position).  Inside the meeting, if I ever caught myself hunching over, even a little bit, I made sure that I sat up straight and took up as much space at the table as possible.

This is the opposite of my natural instincts, but it worked!  It must have been the new mix of chemicals in my brain.  Instantly, I felt more confident, assertive and powerful.  I reacted to questions calmly and thoughtfully.

Give a strong handshake

Every meeting starts with a handshake.  I didn’t give much thought to the process, but I notice when something is off.  Sometimes the other person grips too hard, or softly like a fish; sometimes they extend their hand palm facing down, forcing me to take the submissive position, or my pet hate – someone hasn’t dried their hands properly after visiting the restroom.  As a woman, I find it difficult to know how often you need to meet someone before you progress from a handshake to a kiss on the cheek.  Is there a rule for that?

I’m careful to avoid obvious mistakes but have never focused on my regular handshake.  It was something that just happened at the beginning and end of each meeting; a strange ritual but an important one. Recently I did a corporate performance course at NIDA where we practised shaking each other’s hands and introducing ourselves by our full name.  At first I found it awkward to say both my first and last name at the same time as shaking hands, but as I practised I became more comfortable looking into the person’s eyes and introducing myself.  It was a powerful exercise.

Sit at the head of the table

When I arrive at a pitch meeting, I’m usually seated in a boardroom by the receptionist before the investors arrive, so I can decide where I sit at the table.  I used to sit along the side facing the window, until one day a bunch of investors all commented on where I sat.  They said they could tell a great deal about entrepreneurs by where they choose to sit in the room.

At my recent set of meetings I’ve always sat at the head of the table.  I mainly chose this seat because in meetings with large groups, it gives me the best opportunity to make eye contact and build rapport with everyone in the group.  It also helps in a purely practical way.  When I demonstrate the product, everyone can see my screen.  I also think that taking the head of the table sends the message that I’m leading this meeting.

Smile and make eye contact at the end of a meeting

At the end of each meeting I make a conscious effort to make a strong exit.  I smile, make eye contact, shake hands warmly, and thank them. I’ve discussed with other entrepreneurs how to leave pitch meetings, and some suggest I should aim to leave the meeting making the other person feel that I don’t care whether I hear back from them or not.  That’s not my style; I’ve learnt that being authentic is my top priority.  I have to be myself.  I want to come across as someone they’d look forward to dealing with again.

During my four weeks of pitch meetings earlier this year I focused on making these changes.  At first I felt uncomfortable, as if I was pretending to be someone else, but I stuck with it.  I held a V for victory pose for two minutes before every meeting and corrected myself every time I noticed I wasn’t sitting straight.

After around two weeks I noticed that I’d started thinking differently.  Negative self-talk and feelings of inadequacy started to fade; now I can claim they’ve gone altogether.  I had expected that shifting my body language would help conceal my thoughts, but I didn’t realize the degree to which it would change my feelings about myself.

Amy Cuddy’s research verifies the degree to which physical change generates hormonal change, which in time changes the way we are.   I closed the last funding round quickly and have since had much greater success at closing bigger partnership opportunities.  My colleagues still laugh at me when I duck to the rest room to do my V pose before every meeting, but I don’t care.   Changing my body language changed my behaviour and my behaviour changed  my confidence and self-perception.  And that transformed the outcome.