Projecting Power

In a short piece “how to project power” writer Malia Wollen quotes social psychologist Deborah Gruenfeld at Stanford University: “keep your limbs away from your body.” She says some research shows people posed in expensive postures feel more powerful, exhibit higher testosterone levels and have lower levels of stress. Additional advice: make eye contact while you’re talking, but feel free to look away when others do. This is called by scientist having a high “look – speak to look – listen ratio.” Gruenfeld  has spent decades studying the psychology of power. In 2008 she and a theater instructor began offering a class at Stanford business school called acting with power. Her advice includes: Don’t bother over explaining yourself. Speak succinctly. Take ownership of the space around you, whether it’s a board room or a cubicle. Say to yourself “this is my room. This is my table. This is my audience.” Gruenfeld uses the example of a Queen  who has dignity and respect, makes people feel safe, but underneath her cape is a sword.

This brought to mind the famous TED talk by Amy Cuddy made famous in 2012 and viewed by a record number of people regarding power poses. Cuddy suggests that taking a wonder woman like stance before a tough negotiation or high-stakes meeting can improve how others perceive you, measurably alter the testosterone and cortisol levels in your brain as well as change your and others’ perspective.  Standing with arms on hips and legs spread for a few minutes before the important meeting can boost your confidence and risk tolerance.


In August of this year Joan Acocella writing in the New Yorker discussed what’s behind stage fright and a book review entitled “I can’t go on!” In 2012 researchers at the University of Nebraska – Omaha surveyed some 800 college students asking them to select their three greatest fears from a list that included such things as heights, flying, financial problems, deep water, death and speaking before a group. As has been the case in other research, speaking before a group beat out all the others including death.stage fright has been described as “self poisoning by adrenaline.”

In response to stress, the adrenal glands pump a hormone (adrenaline) into the bloodstream causing the body to shift into a state of high arousal. Muscles tense, sweats and shakes, heart pounding, mouth goes dry, trouble breathing, nauseated or dizzy,  constricted throat and a voice rising in pitch. This is all from the “fight or flight” response. It all originates from a feeling of exposure. Actor Stephen Fry says that stage fright means the audience sees “the shriveled penis in your head.” Actor Daniel Day Lewis playing in the production of Hamlet in London’s national Theatre turned on his heel in the middle of a show and walked off the stage never to return. In the 26 years since then he has acted only in movies.

Cicero, ancient Rome’s acclaimed orator, said “I turned pale at the outset of a speech and quake and every limb.” Thomas Jefferson, who was said to of been mortally afraid of public speaking. As president, he gave only two speeches, his inaugural address twice. Gandhi was terrified at having to speak to a group: his vision would fog over; he would fall mute. Barbra Streisand is well known for her problems in that regard. There are numerous examples: Ella Fitzgerald, Luciano Pavarotti and Mel Gibson.

There are various ways of dealing with the problem. One is drugs, notably beta blockers which interfere with stress hormones. There is a wide range of behavioral and mental exercises including yoga and meditation. I have no magic formula. However we all know that the most powerful force we have is what we say to ourselves and believe. The first thing that happens with becoming stage fright struck is that we focus on us. We see everybody as looking at us and we are looking at ourselves as well magnify all things out of proportion. In fact, it is the ability to step out of ourselves view the situation as if we were in another part of the room seeing the entire picture. In addition, the visual image we put in our head is key here. Visualizing slow calm confident words and demeanor creates reality for our subconscious. Playing it as a movie in our mind as realistically as possible with color and sound makes it reality in our subconscious. It goes  without saying you have to know the material, you have to be prepared, you must have reviewed everything in your mind well enough to avoid as many surprises as possible. In the end, it’s a matter of having the courage to stand and deliver in spite of fear. After all dignity is grace under gunfire.

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