by Ken Lopez
I wrote about Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy's body language TED Talk in 2012. Her findings about how striking a power pose can measurably affect your persuasiveness are as relevant for litigators today as they were four years ago.
Professor Cuddy has released a new book called Presence, and it is filled with an even greater wealth of useful information for litigators. She goes into detail about what one can do to prepare for a high-pressure situation like a job interview, a competitive swim meet, or a venture capital pitch - all situations similar enough to an opening statement that we can safely assume the same advice applies.
When one is delivering as their best self, they are said to be exhibiting "presence." She says that presence is most clear to others when "we feel personally powerful, which allows us to be acutely attuned to our most sincere selves." In other words, when we believe in our message and believe in ourselves, we are in fact scientifically more believable to others - and there are ways to hack your own brain, like the power pose, to make these findings work for anyone.
Make no mistake, presence is not about feigning confidence or passion. Instead, exhibiting presence is more like being in sync with your true self. For these techniques to work and for you to maximize your persuasiveness in the courtroom, you really must authentically believe in yourself. But how?
Her suggestions for achieving presence are not conjecture. Cuddy roots her advice in solid science and rigorous study. For example, one study involved analyzing videos of 185 pitches to venture capitalists. In this setting, much like the courtroom, there is a clear winner and loser. Key behaviors (all sub-elements of presence) of all the presenters were assessed and compared with those who were successful in getting venture capital funding.
The results are fascinating. Four factors clearly dominated all others in determining who got funding:
- Lack of Awkwardness
If you think about the great opening statements (and the worst) you have seen, don't these factors just make perfect sense? Doesn't that last point, in particular, resonate with some experiences you've seen (and hopefully not had) in the courtroom? For me, it certainly brings up memories of poor uses of PowerPoint, courtroom technology failures, and litigators who flubbed all sorts of things in front of a judge or jury.
Cuddy goes on to discuss a study involving mock job interviews where the candidates have to speak for 5 minutes to a group of judges who, by design, appear stoic during the entire interview. Some of the interviewees prepared by using a variety of mind and body power-enhancing techniques and some did not. Like the VC funding study and others discussed in the book, the findings of this study offer key lessons for litigators.
It turns out that you can cause others to see you as more persuasive by practicing a few key physical and mental exercises in advance of delivering your message (e.g. your opening statement). Of course, these findings apply to any high stress situation where you must be persuasive or "on."
If you want to increase your presence and thus your persuasiveness, practice some or all of these behaviors in a quiet place when no one else is watching you:
- Make Belief: Professor Cuddy encourages that, based on scientific studies, those going into stressful situations where persuasion will be critical, should first conduct this short three-part exercise. Step one is to identify several personal values that are important to you that you know are valued by others about you. Next, identify that value or trait that you rely on most (for me, I value my ability to deliver creative thoughts very quickly). Now, reflect on a time when you did that very well. This exercise tricks your brain into getting into a state of increased power and confidence so that you come across as more persuasive.
- Convey Confidence to Yourself: Before your next opening (or mock opening), assume a superhero-like power pose or a victory post for a couple of minutes. Just this act will significantly increase testosterone and decrease stress hormones. Also, before walking into the courtroom, avoid working in a hunched position, as you would when looking at your phone. Doing so causes your brain to behave in a less powerful and confident way. If you are anxious, trick your brain into treating that anxiety as a positive by repeating, "I'm excited, I'm excited, I'm excited."
- Act as if: Related to the above two concepts is the idea that we really can fake it until we make it. As Cuddy analogously explains throughout the book, if you act as though you have won your case before you walk into the courtroom, as you walk into the courtroom, and throughout the entire case, the natural swagger that this will cause you to exhibit will make you more persuasive.
At A2L, we're not usually hired to increase a litigator's presence, but we often end up delivering that result. You might ask how does a litigation consulting firm like ours help litigators achieve presence? Well, by helping litigators develop their presentations, making them highly persuasive, testing the presentations, practicing the presentations, and doing all the aforementioned work while being encouraging and not critical, we normally send a litigator into battle more confident than ever. It's exactly the kind of authentic from-the-inside kind of confidence that helps a litigator be more persuasive.
One of our mottos at A2L is that "We Make Belief." I bet Amy Cuddy would approve of our approach.
Other articles from A2L Consulting about trial presentation, trial preparation, and courtroom presence include: