Clear thinking - Persuasive communication

If This Is What Passes for Scholarship at Harvard Business School…

Not the best way to prepare for a presentation, or is it?

Sometimes article ideas just fall into your lap, such as when you see something that sets you off. I’ve just viewed this video which is an MSNBC interview with Assistant Professor Amy Cuddy of the Harvard Business School, in which she explains the importance of appearing confident when presenting your ideas.

I actually agree with most of what she says: it’s helpful to use your posture and gestures to convey confidence and authority during a presentation. You can also “fake it ‘til you make it”: by adopting an expansive pose for two minutes (such as sitting with your feet on a desk and your arms behind your head) before a presentation or an important meeting you can increase testosterone levels (women too) and decrease cortisol levels which will cause you to feel more powerful and reduce your stress, helping you present a more confident and relaxed demeanor to the listener.

Where I totally disagree, however, is in the excessive and unwarranted claims made in the video, that “what you say is less important than how you say it and “style trumps content”.  People have tried to get away with this thinking for a long time, which is why Lincoln stressed that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time. Yes, presentation is important, and yes, people make snap judgments of your competence based on how you present yourself, but in the end, as I’ve written before, content is still king.

I thought that maybe the video misrepresented Cuddy’s ideas, as the press has been known to do from time to time, so I dug a little further. I found this article on a Harvard Business School website which goes into further detail. In it, she describes the experiment which involved 42 people asked to adopt either “high-power” (HP) or “low-power” (LP) poses for two minutes, after which their testosterone and cortisol levels were checked. For the HPs, testosterone increased 19 percent and cortisol decreased 25 percent. The low power posers decreased testosterone 10 percent and increased cortisol 17 percent. (Cortisol is a hormone associated with stress.) The HPs also reported greater feelings of power and being in charge.

So far, so good (notwithstanding the small sample size and other questions about the experiment design). It’s been known for a long time that physiological changes can lead to psychological changes, and here’s some additional support. I’m OK with that and I also teach this in my classes.

Here’s where she goes too far, though:

“It does appear that even this minimal manipulation can change people’s physiology and psychology and, we hope (my emphasis), lead to very different, meaningful outcomes, whether it’s how they perform in a job interview or how they participate in class.”

“We hope”…Two words that speak volumes about the factual support for her ideas. There is no additional evidence adduced for this further claim.

Here’s another quote that makes me want to scream:

“People tend to spend too much energy focusing on the words they’re saying—perfectly crafting the content of the message—when in many cases that matters much less than how it’s being communicated. People often are more influenced by how they feel about you than by what you’re saying. It’s not about the content of the message, but how you’re communicating it.”

Let’s follow what she’s saying here: instead of putting in long hours thinking about your content and making sure you have sufficient data to back up your conclusions, just make sure you practice your posing for two minutes and you’ll have better results.

First, why does it have to be either/or? I would have no problem with it if the statement were to read: “It’s not only about the content of the message…”, which would lead to serious exploration of the relative weights of the two factors. Second, I would submit that if you had to choose, there is a huge difference between the type of confidence born of conviction and the type of confidence born of posing.

If you’re a poser, you will be found out.

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1 Comment
  • Brilliant post, Jack!

    I immediately thought of the critical importance of an understanding of research methods when I read this quote from your article:

    “If you’re a poser, you will be found out.”

    Here’s something that just came to my mind – based on this quote:

    If you’re a poser, think about why you are more interested in posing than having something of substance to provide people with. If you do not know how to clearly differentiate between posers and people who have something substantive to say, you may wind up wasting tons of time, energy and money. If you live in a culture where posers are valued over people of substance, you may wind up with housing, financial, emotional, attentional, medical and other crises on your hands.

    Thanks for being a person of substance, Jack – you are an inspiration to all who are focused on the best interests of their clients, their culture and themselves!

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