The fifth step in brain mastery involves focusing in on certain aspects of your body language and others’ behavior to increase your success rate as a leader and a colleague in your organization – or indeed, in your personal life.  Sandy Pentland, of the MIT Media Lab, has studied what he calls “honest signals,” meaning aspects of behavior that reliably (honestly) predict how successful a particular human interaction is going to be, whether it’s speed dating, or a venture capital pitch.  What he’s found is that these signals more accurately indicate the likelihood of the interaction working out well for the participants than any other method of prediction.

So, for example, independent analysis of the strength of a start-up’s business plan is a poor indicator of whether or not that start up will get funding.  More importantly, perhaps, asking the VCs themselves to rate the strength or weakness of a pitch is not as reliable as Sandy’s honest signals.

What are these secret indicators of how likely you are to control the meeting, win the vote, or rule the kingdom?  There are four:  influence, mimicry, activity, and consistency.

Let’s see what each one involves.  ‘Influence’ means the extent to which you dominate the conversation.  That’s pretty clear: you’ve got to do most of the talking – at least 51%.  Which suggests that you have to do your homework, know what you’re talking about, and have some passion for the subject.  Faking that will be difficult in the long run.

‘Mimicry’ denotes how much mirroring of each other’s body language is going on.  This one is interesting.  If you’re appearing before a panel of venture capitalists, for example, you might want to start out mirroring the body language of the most important people on the board.  That will make them unconsciously believe that you’re a good, trustworthy person.  After you’ve mirrored them for a while, then you want to start leading – getting them to mirror you.  If you’ve made a strong impression on them, and they like what they’re hearing, they will.  If not, you’ll know right away, because they’ll adopt body language stances that are at odds with you.  Our bodies signal what we’re thinking before we’re consciously aware of it.

‘Activity’ indicates the level of energy a person has.  So go in with some energy and enthusiasm!  And avoid the classic mistake that inexperienced speakers make, which is to lose all affect – the face becoming expressionless – because of the adrenaline coursing through your system.  It’s an old evolutionary trick – the mind focuses on the important stuff when you’re in danger, like increasing your mental alertness and heart rate, but it neglects your facial expressions, because those don’t matter much when you’re fleeing a woolly mammoth.  Because facial expression is one way that we judge activity in others, you don’t want to become the Great Stone Face when you’re pitching something vital, whether it’s a date, a price, or a company.  But be aware that the rest of your body matters, too.  If you’re slumped, and your posture and other gestures indicate a low activity level, grinning from ear to ear constantly won’t save you.  Your whole body has to be involved, and that is difficult to fake.  That’s why the work of the first four steps is so important to get right before attempting this step in brain mastery.

‘Consistency’ has to do with how even-keeled you are during the course of the meeting.  The reason this particular sign is important to our unconscious minds is best illustrated with an example.  Let’s say you’re in the middle of an important negotiation, and the other side throws you a lowball figure.  You get flustered, and your previously smooth conversational tone and pace becomes temporarily erratic as you attempt to figure out what to say next.  That demonstrates a lack of consistency, and it means that you will be less likely to succeed in your efforts.  Consistency is an important measure of how cool you are, in effect, and we all know that the cool kids tend to win.

Now you know how to land that next job, that date, or that $40 million in funding.  Dominate the proceedings, within tactful and appropriate limits.  Establish harmony, trust, and connection with your mirroring body language, and then lead the room, getting others to mirror you.  Show a high level of engagement throughout the proceedings.  And be consistent – don’t let anything throw you.  Sound like a tall order?  It is if you try to wing it.  But with preparation of both content and body language, there’s no reason why you can’t be a winner nearly every time.

More in this series:
Step 1 »   |   Step 2 »   |   Step 3 »   |   Step 4 »   |   Step 5


  1. I found the bit about facial expression especially interesting. I always tell students to realize that the physical feelings they think are fear are simply the body’s way of dealing with an overload of adrenaline and that their bodies are reacting exactly the same way they would had they encountered a sabre-toothed tiger tens of thousands of years ago.
    So the butterflies they get in their stomach is their body wanting to go to defecate and shed a few pounds in case they have to fight or run away from the tiger, and their minds go blank because they won’t need their brain to do either; their blood flows to their limbs instead. But I’ve never thought about it leading to ‘stone face.’ As you say, you’re not going to smile at the tiger, so why worry about facial expressions?
    Have a look at my article Adrenaline Attack!

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