“It will never work,” said Professor Adrian Furnham, Head of Psychology at University College London and world-renowned expert on behaviour and influence. “The reason this study has never been done is that it cannot be done.”
I’d just pitched him my first idea for a research study. After years of planning, Furnham laughed my idea out of the room. He has published over 1200 scientific papers, so he knows what works and what doesn’t in the world of research.
But I wasn’t ready to give up.
I spent six months rethinking and redesigning my theory until I finally had a version of the study that would work. I wanted to identify the most useful behaviours someone could apply when they stood up to speak, to increase their influence. If we could find evidence that certain behaviours gained a better response than others, then I knew we could teach those behaviours to help people boost their confidence along with the impact of their words and ideas.
Furnham warned me that even though the new design of the study was very strong it might not yield any significant results. We went ahead regardless.
And what we discovered was far beyond our expectations.
The study itself was simple.
We filmed someone speaking for just 30 seconds.
Then, we gathered more than 2,000 people from across Europe, India and North America. Each person watched the 30-second video and evaluated the speaker, rating them for how inspiring, convincing, knowledgeable and confident the person appeared to be.
Each participant saw only one video, but what no one realised was we had created dozens of different versions of this video.
In each version, the presenter was asked to do everything exactly the same way apart from one slight change to body language. We wanted to see whether or not that single change generated a different rating. We also needed to find out if these changes in body language would work if we changed the speaker’s gender, age, skin colour or perceived attractiveness.
We used four actors:
- A man with fair skin.
- A woman with fair skin.
- A man with darker skin.
- A woman with darker skin.
In some versions of the video, we aged the actors, using make-up and prosthetics to make each appear roughly 30 years older than their real age. We also kept the clothing and words the same in every video. The only differences we were analysing were the movements.
The results were far beyond what we expected.
It turns out, a few key behaviours can influence your audience by as much as 42%.
The data proved that you can increase how inspiring and knowledgeable people think you are by 25%, without changing your words or clothing. Furthermore, by making a few small changes to your behaviour the number of people who believe you are confident increases by 29%.
I was stunned.
We also found that when you let go of bad habits and take on a more effective communication style, 42% more people are convinced by your ideas. In effect then, you don’t need to change what you say or what you wear if you want to be heard. You simply have to change how you behave.
But what about leadership?
Being viewed as a good leader is a highly valuable character trait, whether you are a CEO, team leader, or if you just want to lead a conversation.
In this study, we found that small changes to your communication style will increase how confident people feel in your ability as a leader by 44%. Same words, same clothes, same person—just a few tweaks on how to communicate.
That’s a pretty big percentage and you may not achieve it with every audience you speak to. But even a 5 percent sway in your favour could be the difference between gaining a job, a promotion or a leadership position—and being passed over.
The best news about all of this is that it works equally well for men and women, no matter what your skin colour or age may be. You don’t need to learn strange manipulation strategies. Instead this is about removing habits and returning to the way you were born to speak.
So, for your next talk, try a few of these science-backed behaviours to up your influence.
- Use gravity: Your personal ‘gravitas’ will increase if you stand or sit in a position where gravity is working with you, not against you. When you lean, tilt, or stand with your feet together you are physically weaker. When you stand the way you were born to do it - with feet shoulder-width apart - you are naturally grounded, you appear strong and project confidence.
- Own your space: Most people have a bad habit of gesturing with their elbows against their body. You’re not a T-Rex! Children naturally gesture with their arms free, owning their space. Adults develop habits to hold themselves back and limit their movements. If you gesture with your elbows further from your body you have more ‘physical presence’ by owning the space around you.
- Variety and Congruency: Putting on a professional poker face may feel like it makes you look authoritative, but instead it causes you to lose connection with people and switch off from your message. You must bring your face and body to life to fully engage us. Allow your arms to move freely, to create visual variety. Plus ensure your words and actions match - so that you have congruency. This requires you to make a decision on how you want people to feel in your next meeting. Focus everything you do and say on achieving this goal. This will allow you to behave congruently, communicate authentically and fully connect with us.
My aim has always been to help great people to do great work. That can only happen if people have the means to communicate effectively.
Ideas will not speak for themselves. You have to do it.
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