Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Strike the pose!

I read an article today in Slate that raised some questions about the actual science behind one of the most widely viewed TED talks ever, Amy Cuddy's "Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are." I read the article with interest because I am not a huge fan of Cuddy's. When I first viewed the talk online, I did think she had interesting observations, but her argument had some holes. And then it went viral. It started being taken as Gospel Truth, and now millions of people "understand" all about body language. As with every area of expertise, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. I hear people say, "Oh I know all about body language. I can strike a power pose." And then they do. They reach for the skies like a superhero! I point out the impracticality of attending meetings in such a position.

When I coach my clients on presenting and public speaking, I always discuss body language. I ask: What does your stance, your posture, even the tilt of your chin say about you? Or how does it get  in the way of your message or the image you want to project? It is a complicated issue, because you are using several body parts, not to mention your breathing apparatus, as well as eye contact. (And that's just the non-verbals!)  This degree of complexity just disappears in Cuddy's talk. She simplifies the whole process, which of course makes listeners want to believe it is true. I have to give her credit for being an excellent story teller. She has been held up as a model of someone who put together a superior TED talk. Her highly personal story provides emotional stickiness, and some scientific findings back up her thesis, for good measure.

But now the science backing up her claims has been shown to be. . .well. . . not very conclusive. And so I hope we can begin to stop swallowing her central tenet whole. A mere two minutes of engaging in an expansive pose does not, by itself, make you feel more powerful. This is too facile. Believe me, having spent the better part of my adult life around actors, it is an absolute falsehood to claim that just mimicking a posture can transform you to that degree. Not even taking on a character's posture for two hours can make you "become" the character.  Actors spend weeks of rehearsal figuring out all the things we need to do before we can even come close to any sort of transformation. Not to oversimplify my objection to Cuddy's over-simplification, but the fact is each speaking situation has a different context, and the role you play varies within each context. You need to know what to do, physically, vocally and mentally, to convey strength, focus, decisiveness, collegiality, and any number of positive "leadership qualities."

If only it were as simple as striking a pose!

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