In recent posts, I have written about my attempts to get better at pitching for investment capital in general and closing deals in particular. A related issue that I’d like to address is my body language and what it says about me.
I have long been plagued by self-doubt. I have found myself discussing major deals with senior executives of large companies and thinking, “What am I doing here? My business is tiny, I am unimportant, and it will only be a matter of time before I’m found out.” I know that I’m a strong presenter and can woo an audience, but I’ve often wondered if there is something that gives me away and accounts for my struggling to close deals.
MIT Media Lab recently released a study of business pitches and sales calls (the study can be found in “The Charisma Myth“). Without hearing any of the content of the meetings, the researchers predicted the outcome of negotiations with 87 percent accuracy just by reading the presenter’s interactions.
The obvious implication is that my internal dialogue of self-criticism while presenting must affect my body language and tone of voice. When my thoughts were calling me a small fry, my body language betrayed the same thought. It didn’t matter what came out of my mouth.
First, I tried to fix what was going on in my head. I read up on impostor syndrome, which has been said to affect 70 to 80 percent of business people (it’s even higher for women). A study of Harvard Business School students found that three quarters of them imagined they were accepted to the school only because of a failure in the admissions process. I was comforted to discover that I’m not alone, but it didn’t help me solve my problem.
Recently, I’ve been out on the fundraising trail looking to raise several million dollars – our largest round yet. I’ve been meeting with a different class of investors, brokers and large venture firms. I knew I needed to step up my game, and I decided that if I couldn’t change my internal thoughts then I should at least work on concealing them better. I researched body language and tried some simple tricks, and the results were astonishing. Here’s what I did.
1. V is for victory
Psychologists have written a lot 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 bodies in expansive high power poses — hands above head, shoulders back — for two minutes increases our testosterone, which is linked to power and self-esteem, and decreases our cortisol, which is linked to stress. She showed in a trial that job candidates who stood in a high power pose for two minutes before their interviews were 80 percent more likely to be hired than those who sat in contracted positions (hunched shoulders, chin tucked down).
I decided to test the theory before my investor meetings. 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 started arriving early for each meeting so that I could visit the restroom beforehand. I stood in front of the mirror for at least two minutes in a victory pose (hands above my head in a V shape). During the meeting, if I 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 instinct, but it worked. Instantly, I felt more confident, assertive and powerful.
2. Give a strong handshake
Every meeting starts with a handshake. I hadn’t given much thought to the process, but I did notice when something was off. Sometimes the other person gripped too hard or too softly; sometimes the hand was extended palm facing down, forcing me to take the submissive position; sometimes — and this is my pet peeve — people don’t dry their hands properly after visiting the restroom. Also, 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 where we practiced shaking hands and introducing ourselves with our full names. At first, I found it awkward to say my first and last names while also shaking hands, but as I practiced, I became more comfortable. It was a powerful exercise, and I’m now more confident that I’m making the right first impression.
3. Sit at the head of the table
When I arrive at a meeting, I’m usually seated in a boardroom by the receptionist before the investors arrive, which means I can decide where I sit. I used to sit along the side of the table 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 a room.
More recently, I’ve started sitting at the head of the table. I choose 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 computer. I also think that taking the head of the table sends the message that I’m leading this meeting.
4. Know how to make an exit
At the end of each meeting, I try 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 investor meetings, and some suggested that I try to leave the investors thinking I don’t care whether I hear from them or not. That’s not my style. I’ve learned that being authentic is my priority. I have to be myself. I want to come across as someone they would look forward to dealing with again.
In recent weeks, I’ve focused on making these body language changes in every pitch meeting. At first I felt uncomfortable, as if I were pretending to be someone else, but I stuck with it. After two weeks, I noticed that I’d started thinking differently; negative thoughts and feelings of inadequacy started to fade. I can now say they’re 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.
Right now, stand up and lift your arms into a victory pose. Hold it for two minutes. Feel the difference? Our minds change our behavior, and our behavior acts on the mind, shaping our outcomes. Will my changed body language lead to a successful close of our funding round? I will let you know right here.