Need some presentation tips to help you nail your next business pitch, conference talk, or in-class presentation? Check out Dr. Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing. Even if you have no interest in science, social psychology, or power dynamics, this talk is one to watch (trust us on this). At over 32 million views, it’s the second most viewed TED talk ever! So we would say that it’s not a bad example to learn from if you want to figure out how to give a good presentation.
In her talk, Cuddy, a social psychologist at Harvard, talks about her research on power posing. In a nutshell, she explains how assuming a high-power pose (think Wonder Woman stance) for two minutes can make you feel more powerful and help you achieve success.
Cuddy’s TED talk has had an impact that can be described only as enormous. (After all, 32 million views isn’t too shabby.)
Since delivering the talk in 2012, Cuddy has been invited to give talks to organizations like Zappos and FEED, asked by Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (who is also a big fan of Cuddy) to develop teaching materials for Sandberg’s Lean In initiatives, and had her work featured on TV shows like Brooklyn 99. She’s also received messages from scores of ordinary people, including students, surgeons, politicians, and sexual assault victims, who claim that Cuddy’s advice has been the key to helping them boost their confidence.
The impact of Cuddy’s talk is impressive, especially when you consider the fact that the science behind her advice has been called into question. In particular, independent research teams have been unable to replicate her power posing findings. If you’re familiar with the scientific method, you know that this isn’t a good thing.
And it’s not that these failed attempts at replicating Cuddy’s findings have been reported only in obscure academic journals. Established media outlets (e.g., Slate) and members of major professional societies (e.g., the Society of Personality and Social Psychology) have reported on it.
So what is it that makes Cuddy’s talk so powerful?
It’s the way she delivers it. Here are the 5 most important presentation tips you can learn from Cuddy’s talk:
1. Tell a story
If we had to choose just one thing that makes this talk epic, it would be the personal story that Cuddy tells at 15:41. As many content writing books will tell you, storytelling is a powerful way to build a connection with an audience – a connection that facts and statistics usually don’t let you achieve. It’s also a huge trend in marketing these days.
So how does Cuddy use storytelling? In her talk, Cuddy explains that you can use power posing to fake it until you make it (or as Cuddy like to say, “fake it until you become it”). She then takes a few moments to tell the story of how she felt like an imposter in grad school because she was thrown from a car at the age of 19 and told that she wouldn’t regain the mental capacity to finish her undergraduate degree. Cuddy felt like such a fraud in grad school that she was ready to quit her program when it came time to deliver her first-year talk. She explains how her grad school advisor convinced her to stay by telling her to fake it until she made it, a message that ties into one of the key themes of Cuddy’s talk.
By weaving this personal and powerful story into her talk, Cuddy humanizes herself and her message. (After all, haven’t we all felt like an imposter at some point in our lives?) And when she tells her story, she isn’t just listing off some statistics or explaining data collected in a lab; she’s explaining how the idea of “faking it until you make it” ties into ordinary people’s everyday lives.
2. Infuse emotion into your talk
Part of what makes Cuddy’s personal story so powerful is that she becomes visibly emotional while telling it. It’s something that you’ve got to watch to truly understand (see 18:12), but we’ll try to do it justice:
Toward the end of the story, Cuddy describes how a female student came into her office one day and confessed to feeling like an imposter, the same experience Cuddy had had years ago. Cuddy then emotionally describes how she pumped the student up by telling her that she deserved to be in her class and that she could fake confidence until she truly felt confident. Cuddy brings her narrative full circle and displays such raw emotion while doing it that the audience erupts into cheers and applause at 18:56.
The emotion Cuddy displays during her talk helps us see her as a real human being, someone we might want to go for coffee or eat dinner with. And when people seem like real human beings instead of like someone who’s trying to sell us something, we tend to be more likely to trust what they have to say.
3. Start with an activity
When giving a talk, it can be easy to launch right into an outline slide, a set of facts about your topic, or even the meat of your presentation. However, watch how Cuddy opens her talk at 0:16: she starts with a brief activity.
Instead of starting her talk by focusing on herself or her research, she asks the audience to pay attention to how they’re sitting in their seats and to sit up straighter and taller for just two minutes. This strategy is effective not only because it wakes people up but also because it allows people to experience instead of just hear about her topic right from the beginning. And if you watch the video of the talk, you’ll see that people have fun with it – did you notice the guy at 0:46 who immediately sat up straighter and smiled?
By starting with an activity, you can grab people’s attention and make them excited to hear about everything else you have to share.
4. Include real-world examples
Like any technical field, science isn’t always inherently interesting to people. After all, when was the last time you sat on a beach and reach a journal article about the latest findings in chemistry or physics?
Why isn’t science always exciting to people? Because it’s not always clear how research findings matter to us as individuals. And even when a scientific topic may be somewhat inherently interesting, it’s not always clear how findings generated in a lab apply to things that happen in the real world. This challenge doesn’t apply just to science, though. It can come up any time you’re presenting to an audience outside of your organization or niche.
Did you notice how Cuddy tackles this challenge? She demonstrates the relevance of her work to real life by incorporating fun, real-world examples into her talk at 1:11. Remember the images of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former French President Nicolas Sarkozy? And what about the fun clip showing President Obama but not former Prime Minister Gordon Brown shaking a police officer’s hand?
These examples don’t just make the audience laugh. They also show people why the topic of her talk, nonverbal behaviour, is relevant to their everyday lives. If you can convince people that what you’re going to talk about is relevant to them, they’ll be more interested and willing to listen to what you have to say.
5. Show them the evidence
It’s great to be able to make claims about how great your product is, how successful your company has become, or how important a research finding that you’re presenting in class is. However, to make your claims stick with people, you need to be able to back them up with evidence.
Of course, because Cuddy is a scientist, it’s relatively easy for her to back up her claims with data. Notice how she uses her slides to display graphs that illustrate her power posing findings at 11:34. It’s easy to be skeptical of what speakers says when they just make claims, but it’s a lot harder to refute someone who’s up there showing you scientific findings from a study. Maybe this is why Cuddy’s work and talk still attract so much attention even though the science behind them is questionable.
However, even if you aren’t a scientist, you can still provide evidence for your claims. If you sell a product, talk about a case study that illustrates what your product allowed a customer to do. If you’re a company with a good track record, incorporate information about your revenue, customer retention rates, and blog traffic. Remember that “evidence” doesn’t need to be a set of research findings; it can be any quantitative or qualitative information that backs up your claims.
Room for Improvement
Although Cuddy’s talk is pretty solid overall, as with any talk, there’s room for improvement in it. Especially at the beginning of the talk, you’ll notice that Cuddy uses filler words (e.g., “ums” at 0:43, 0:46, and 0:50) and speaks so rapidly that there aren’t any pauses between some of her sentences (e.g., 2:10). She also has this odd habit of touching her face at certain points, which can be distracting for an audience (e.g., 1:01, 3:40, and 9:42).
If you’re brave enough to do it, a good way to pick up on these kinds of weaknesses is to record a video of yourself giving a talk so that you can watch yourself present. Yes, we know – it’s bad enough to listen to a recording of your own voice, so having to watch yourself deliver a talk seems like it would be excruciating. If you can push yourself to do it, though, you’ll find that it can be a valuable way to learn about what you’re doing well and how you can deliver better presentations. And if recording yourself really sounds that bad, you can find a friend or colleague to watch you present and give you some brutally honest feedback.
As we mentioned, Cuddy’s talk isn’t perfect, but it’s a great way to see some effective presentation strategies in action. We could have sat here and simply described the five strategies using generic examples, but we thought it would be much more useful for you to see how someone incorporated them into a talk (don’t you think?). Even if you don’t feel 100% confident about using these strategies, try one out the next time you need to give a talk and follow Cuddy’s lead: fake it until you make it.
Do you always use slides during your presentations? Read our blog post on why you should be prepared to present without them.
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