Leadership, Body Language, and Adrenaline

Every face-to-face communication is two conversations, the content and the body language.    Leaders who are not aware of – and in control of – their second conversations leave success to chance.  If good luck prevails, and their words and their second conversations align, then it all works. If not, everyone in the room senses that something is missing.

Beware Lack of Control

Leaders who are not in control of their second conversations also risk ineffectiveness. I once saw the magic act of Penn and Teller, two accomplished magicians. Penn is the talkative one, and Teller is largely silent. Penn keeps up a running commentary designed to distract and bemuse the audience while they both perform the magic tricks.

I was astonished to see that the talkative one, Penn, had a bad case of “ happy feet.”  He had so much energy that he was wandering all over the stage randomly while chattering away. The random movement of his feet was his method of discharging his adrenaline – induced energy.

The result was so distracting, though, that I found myself unable to attend to his patter or even the magic tricks with any real pleasure. Nonetheless, he managed to hold his audience reasonably well until he and Teller performed an unpleasant trick that involved apparently putting a live rabbit through a wood chipper. He lost his audience then and never got it back, making it clear that the bond was weak from the start, partly because of those irritating happy feet.  Had he bonded strongly with the audience from the start, the relationship would have survived the murder of rabbits.

It’s impossible to believe that a successful professional like Penn was not aware of his motion around the stage. I’m forced to conclude that he was simply unable to control it, and that lack of control was fatal for the success of the show.

In fact, he was even heckled by one or two audience members and approached by at least one after the show, who gave him a lecture on the mistreatment of animals. Because he had not related effectively to the audience, thus building trust, when the moment of truth came, the audience didn’t trust him.

Use Your Fear

Fear is another reason that leaders fail to control and align their two conversations adequately.  How do you use adrenaline to help you in important communications?  The first thing to understand is that adrenaline-based fear is your body’s way of preparing you for crucial moments such as chasing down woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers.

That was long ago.  Today, giving speeches seems to have taken the place of the mammoth and the tiger. Nonetheless, you body is still preparing you, so your brain works a little faster, your heart pumps a little harder, you stand a little straighter, and therefore you’re readier for a fight than you otherwise would be.

In fact, you’re more like the leader you aspire to be.

The problem is that the physical sensations are unpleasant when they don’t lead to much in the way of physical action.  Running after a tiger, or from one, is a great way to discharge excess physical energy. Standing in front of an audience is not.  But instead of dancing around like a puppet minus the strings or like Penn, you should focus on those annoying physical symptoms and redefine them as the signs of the good energy that they are.

Tell yourself, My hands are clammy, my heart is beating fast, and my mind is racing. I’m ready to run with the mammoths and tigers! This is what I need to do a good job!

If you work on this each time you experience the sensations, you’ll learn to respect, value, and even enjoy the symptoms of adrenaline.

Focus Your Emotions

The other things you can do before an important meeting are to focus your emotions and breathe.   Focusing your emotions will help you clear out your mind from all the distractions the day normally brings, and will make you more charismatic.  Breathing – deeply from your belly – will help you relax physically.  Both activities will distract you and lead to a discharge of the adrenaline. If you’re still feeling twitchy, go for a walk or take some other form of gentle exercise. Don’t overdo it. You don’t want this to work too well and wear you out, so make sure that you’ve always got a little adrenaline at important moments for the boost it will give your brain.

Leaders need to learn to use their adrenaline for the benefits it brings to crucial leadership moments.  Leadership without adrenaline is not likely to be successful.  Adrenaline, in fact, is the oxygen of leadership.

Comments

  1. Ben says

    Seth Godin calls that fear “the lizard brain.” I think it’s a useful exercise to remember its purpose to keep you far away from saber-tooth tigers as you mentioned. If you can keep that in mind, step out in boldness, you can achieve a whole lot more than someone who is stifled by this fear.

    • Nick MorganNick Morgan says

      Thanks, Ben, for reminding us about the Lizard brain. I like your idea of stepping out boldly — that’s what you have to do: muscle through the adrenaline. Over time you learn to use it.

  2. says

    Succinct and poignant article. Stumbled across from twitter and really enjoyed your approach to the mammoth butterflies that I definitely want to run from. Perhaps just that image can help remind me to embrace the adrenaline and take command. Thanks!

  3. says

    Nick, this is one of the clearest and most effective descriptions I’ve read on using emotional and nervous energy in service of the presentation – and leadership. Thanks!

  4. says

    Great post, as always, Nick. There was a day that presenting literally terrified me. I could not present to a group of even 10 without having trouble sleeping the night before.

    Now I do it for a living. Learning that the fear can be turned into energy (to run with the tigers) was a key reframe for me.

    Thanks again for sharing your insights with us. Have a great weekend!

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