If you've ever found yourself in an office washroom stall posing like Wonder Woman or an alpha male gorilla before a big meeting with the boss, you're probably familiar with Amy Cuddy. In 2012, the Harvard Business School social psychologist gave a TED talk explaining how tweaking your body language "could significantly change the way your life unfolds." It's become the second most popular TED talk of all time – with 15.9 million views and counting.
Prof. Cuddy is one of more than 50 so-called TED All-Stars coming to Vancouver to speak again at TED's 30th anniversary conference, which begins Monday. She'll be joined by other speakers selected by the TED community, such as musician/Kickstarter success story Amanda Palmer (The art of asking, 5.2 million views); Jill Bolte Taylor (My stroke of insight, 14.9 million); and the father of all TED talkers, Sir Ken Robinson, whose talk on how schools kill creativity is the most watched, with 25.6 million views.
TED alumni will tell you attending the exclusive conference can change lives. This applies even more so to speakers – who may emerge from academic obscurity and suddenly find themselves TED talk rock stars. Prof. Cuddy's talk on the power of body language demonstrated in a profound way the power of TED.
Prof. Cuddy was invited to speak at the 2012 TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh. She was excited – but nervous.
"I was about to bare my soul to potentially millions of people. … I think you could take the world's greatest speaker and they're nervous to speak on the TED stage; it's unlike anything else."
The day before the scheduled talk, she was struck down by acute abdominal pain – likely a gall-bladder attack – that sent her to an Edinburgh hospital. Doctors wanted to admit her that night, but she refused.
"I was sort of about to pull the IV out," she says. "I said telling me that I can't do this thing tomorrow is like telling an Olympian that they can't run the race they've trained their whole life to run, and there is no way I'm not getting out of this hospital."
Against their advice, she left, and gave her talk the next morning.
She shared study findings that showed power posing for two minutes before a stressful evaluative situation such as a job interview or performance assessment with the boss can boost testosterone, decrease the stress hormone cortisol – and make you feel more powerful. She showed photos of power poses, some taking their cues from the animal kingdom, and one that was dubbed "the Wonder Woman" by media reporting on the study.
On the advice of TED curators, she talked about the head injury she suffered in a car accident at 19, but rarely spoke about. It had sunk her IQ level; doctors warned her she would never finish college. She did – but carried the fear for years that she was an intellectual fraud.
Toward the end of the talk, she told a story from Harvard, where a student had come to her, suffering from the imposter syndrome. The advice Prof. Cuddy gave her echoed the advice she herself had received from a mentor back when she was a student at Princeton. In recounting this onstage, she choked up – something she had vowed not to do when it also happened at rehearsal.
"I did not want to cry," she says.
The response to the talk – in the theatre where she received a standing ovation, and later online and out in the world, has been extraordinary. Prof. Cuddy is frequently stopped by people in airports, grocery stores, coffee shops calling out "hey – there's TED girl" and requesting a photo.
"I think there are more pictures of me standing like Wonder Woman with strangers floating around on Facebook and Twitter than I could have ever imagined."
More to the point are the thousands of notes from people sharing their imposter syndrome anxieties.
"I get e-mails from every age group, equal numbers of men and women, I think we have more than 100 countries represented in these e-mails – people who have absolute no power all the way up to CEOs and members of Congress and everything in between."
This has not just been gratifying, but useful in her work. After hearing from several people with disabilities who said they couldn't power pose but just imagining themselves doing so has helped, her lab put it to the test and confirmed that yes, even imagining the power pose gives people a sense of confidence and empowerment.
"To be a scholar, a social scientist, and have your work make an impact like that, it's something that you would never dream of," she says. "It's humbling and it has changed my life in a way I could not have imagined."