Amy Cuddy, Body Language Expert, Reveals What It Takes to Have 'Presence'

By making a connection with your mind and body, you may be able to present more confidence in stressful situations, says body language expert Amy Cuddy.
April 20, 2016

Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School professor and psychologist best known for having the second-most-watched TED talk of all time (over 33 million views so far), is also the author of the new best-selling book Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Based on years of research, her central message is that we can gain strength and personal power by taking advantage of the mind-body connection. According to Cuddy, making a few tweaks in our body language can increase our self-confidence and change not only how we see ourselves, but others' perceptions of us as well.

In her book, Cuddy shares observations she's gleaned from interviewing many successful venture capitalists who must swiftly decide whether an idea, and more important its owner, are worthy of investment. She quotes one venture capitalist as saying, "I'm watching out for clues that let me know they don't completely buy what they're selling. If they don't buy what they're selling, I don't buy what they're selling."

I spoke with Cuddy to find out how her research on presence can help entrepreneurs, small-business owners and anyone who has to pitch an idea or deliver a presentation to a roomful of powerful people. 

Can you define what you mean by presence?

Presence is when you are attuned to—and [are] comfortably able to access and express—your best qualities, your boldest self, your core values, your skills, your knowledge and your personality. When you're able to do that in a really stressful situation, you're able to be present. You're able to interact with what is actually happening, not what you fear is happening. You can actually be there and [respond].

What is presence behaviorally?

There are a lot of behavioral outcomes of presence, a lot of manifestations. The ones that I look at, and that I find really interesting, are things that you see when somebody is actually interacting with somebody else. In high-stress situations, when people are present, they clearly believe what they're saying, so there's an authenticity that you pick up [on]. There's a genuineness, a believability that is obvious. That's the first quality.

The second quality that you see when people are present is that they are confident, but not defensive, cocky or arrogant. When people are confident, they're able to let their guard down, so they can hear criticism without being too upset by it and they can respond to criticism. They don't act as if they have all the answers, because no one has all the answers. I think people only act as if they have all the answers in order to avoid getting questions. 

amy-cuddy-headshot-martinuzzi-embedAmy Cuddy.

The third point is that people's verbal and nonverbal behavior synchronize. When you're present, your verbal language matches your non-verbal language. So, if you're telling a happy story, your body is doing what it does when it feels happy. If you're telling a sad story, your body is doing what it does when it feels sad.

When we're not present, we're trying to manage the impression that we're making on other people. And what happens is that our body language doesn't really match our words perfectly. You look a little discombobulated. And it's because we're trying to manage all these different things: the words and the body language. Our body language is made up of many different parts: your tone of voice, your facial expressions, your hand movements, your posture. You can't manage all of those. Some people can make it look harmonious, but it's like trying to move a car by moving each wheel separately instead of driving. When you're present, you're not having to do that, you're being yourself. It's a very different approach.

I was intrigued by this statement in your book: "Presence stems from believing your own stories." Can you explain?

This is not about making up a story and convincing yourself it's true. It's about believing in the things that are true and real, and that you care about. What happens often is that when we get to [a] stressful situation, we suddenly start questioning our story, the things that we believe in, because we're full of self-doubt. That actually has nothing at all to do with the validity of our story, with our knowledge. That only has to do with our emotions, the fear of being judged and being ostracized. I think it's a self-doubt that is not grounded in reality. 

But, when we believe our story, we're able to share what we know—and what we know to be true about ourselves—about whatever it is we're pitching, whether it's about our business or about our research. Whatever it is we're pitching, we're able to present that in a way that is grounded with a sense of self-trust and not self-doubt. We believe in the validity of it. That's important. It's not about making up a story and then convincing yourself it's true. You can't really do that. Very, very few people can do that.

I don't know why, but I think adults are so worried about people lying—they're vigilant to look out for liars and cheats. But many more people in the world are not lying and cheating; they're actually sort of underrepresenting themselves and their knowledge. They're mistakenly self-doubting when they should feel comfortable sharing their story.

So much of the mind-body connection is about really understanding what your body does.

—Amy Cuddy, professor and psychologist 

What is your advice for minimizing the anxiety one feels before a major presentation or public-speaking event?

Pay attention to your body. Keep in mind when you go into these situations, your body is sort of responding as if you're in a really threatening physical situation. Your body is going into fight-or-flight mode, and that's not adaptive to the actual circumstances that you're in. It would be if you're running from a predator that's about to pounce on you, but you're not. So first notice that your body is actually overreacting. Your nervous system is overreacting. That's not uncommon, but that's not helping you. You were wired to respond that way if a tiger was chasing you, not if you're about to go in and give a pitch that you might not do too well at. So just knowing that helps.

The second thing is to start paying attention to when your body language starts to collapse. For example, paying attention to when you start to wrap yourself up, or when your shoulders start to collapse. Also, notice when those things happen [in your life] so you can identify your triggers. Ask yourself, what are the things that make me feel particularly powerless? Then, when you can identify that, you have a lot more control over it. So much of the mind-body connection is about really understanding what your body does. Then, when you are in these stressful situations, if you feel that you're collapsing as you start speaking, you have to force yourself open. Force your shoulders open and don't allow your chest to go concave. Make sure that you are stretching out—move around, if you need to—rest your hands on a table or podium to make sure that your body is staying open.

Also, take a pause, and slow your breathing, because apart from the postural things that are happening, we also change our breathing when we're in fight-or-flight mode in a way that signals to our nervous system that we should run. Again, not what you want to be signaling to your nervous system. What you want to be signaling to your nervous system is that you are in what we call rest-and-digest mode—that you are safe. One way to do that is to learn good breathing. Slow your breathing and take deep breaths. All this advice that we heard as little kids is based on the reality of how the body speaks to the mind.

So open up your body, do not allow yourself to collapse, pause, breathe slowly and deeply. Even slow your speech because, if you get nervous, you will likely start speaking too quickly. And that makes you feel less powerful and it also makes you appear less powerful. And all of these things that you can do will not look strange to other people at all. In fact, they're going to signal to people that you're confident.

My last question is on the chapter in your book called "iPosture." You conducted some fascinating research on the connection between hunching over our electronic devices and behaving less assertively. Most of us have to spend long hours in front of a screen. What is one thing we can do that might make a difference?

My favorite is to set a reminder on your phone for every hour that will alert you to check your posture. This will make you so much more aware [of], first of all, how much time you spend in that corrupt posture and, as you notice that, you will start to correct it. That's the best, easiest thing to do.

Read more articles on leadership.

Photo: iStock, Bob O'Connor