Sooner or later, most authors are called upon to speak publicly. Whether doing a reading at a local bookstore, or presenting workshops to other writers, you'll face a room filled with people prepared to make snap judgments about your abilities. It's not that they're expecting to be harsh critics. On the contrary, they wouldn't have chosen to be in the audience if they didn't have positive expectations. Those positive expectations can change before you even open your mouth, however, if you project an uncertain demeanor.
Amy J.C. Cuddy, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, has researched and written extensively on the messages conveyed through body language. Cuddy says that how you say what you say is more important than what you actually say. People judge your abilities by measuring your posture and stance. The larger and more expansive your physical presence (think peacock with fully displayed tail feathers) the more seriously you are taken. Fold your arms across your chest and tilt your chin down and you're practically begging to be ignored.
This video clip is a perfect example of what Cuddy talks about. Audra McDonald reeks of confidence and competence as she sings Rodgers and Hammerstein's I Have Confidence. Her body language is filled with large, sweeping gestures until she reaches 3:06, the point in the song where she says, "Oh, help." Her flagging confidence is reflected in her body language as she pulls her hands up to her chest and crosses them over her heart. As she regains her confidence, the large gestures return and she finishes the song with the intestinal fortitude she needs to face a captain with seven children.
For more visuals of master public speakers, check out the speakers at TED. Read more about Cuddy and her work here at the Harvard Business School site. And stand up straight!