Nonverbal-behavior expert Amy Cuddy on how to feel empowered when it matters most.
Twelve years ago, Amy Cuddy was a nervous graduate student attending a high-stakes academic conference where she hoped to make connections that would launch her career. Finding herself in a hotel elevator with three esteemed scholars in her field, she had an unexpected opportunity to deliver a strong elevator pitch about her work to people she really wanted to impress.
In that critical moment, Cuddy found herself so self-conscious and preoccupied with what those professors were thinking about her that she completely botched the pitch. She rode the elevator down to the hotel lobby alone, her heart heavy with regret.
Most of us can relate to Cuddy’s experience. At some point, we’ve struggled to express our knowledge or convictions in key moments and were left feeling disappointed in ourselves.
Cuddy survived that embarrassing performance and went on to become a social psychologist and Harvard Business School professor. But the incident taught her the value of what she calls “presence,” an empowered state of mind she described in her popular 2012 TED Talk and explores further in her new book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. We asked her to explain more about presence and how to tap into it.
Experience Life | Why do we choke in high-pressure moments like tests, interviews, elevator pitches, and important conversations?
Amy Cuddy | There is something primitive about how we respond to these situations. We feel threatened and we overreact, going into a kind of fight-or-flight mode. We find ourselves in an avoidant psychological state, withdrawing from, rather than meeting, challenges.
So, instead of being optimistic and confident, we are pessimistic and self-doubting. We feel powerless. We’re less creative. All these cognitive and emotional things are really a reflection of being the opposite of present. If we can’t meet these situations when we’re feeling grounded and confident, we cannot perform well when it counts.
EL | You write that the ability to be present in important situations is a function of having “personal power.” What is personal power and how does it work?
AC | Personal power is about control over, and access to, resources we possess within ourselves. It’s knowing that we have the knowledge, we have the talent, and we have our values and our personality. It’s reminding ourselves that we can always access these qualities. This helps us show up fully at important moments.
For example, if you’re taking a test that you’ve prepared well for, personal power is the ability to draw on your knowledge, even in a stressful test environment.
Or let’s say you need to have a difficult discussion with somebody you love, or maybe a tricky conversation at work. If you go in feeling confident and comfortable about what you need to say, that conversation is going to go better for everyone than if you go in feeling personally powerless, threatened, and defensive.
EL | How do people who are truly present act differently from those who are not?
AC | Present people communicate confidence without arrogance. Their confidence is grounded and not flamboyant. I think arrogance is a smokescreen that hides insecurity. When people are really confident, they don’t feel like they have to take the floor first. They allow other people to speak. That’s one of the ways in which it manifests.
The other thing present people do is believe their own stories. When you’re telling a story you believe, when you’re being authentic, you’re being present. Your nonverbal and verbal signals align; they move in concert. This presence is really obvious to people, although they may not be able to articulate what it is.
EL | How does posture affect our ability to be present — and to convey presence?
AC | Our minds shape what we do with our bodies, and simultaneously, our bodies shape what we do with our minds. When we’re anxious, for example, our bodies often collapse. Our shoulders pull forward, and we make ourselves small — like frightened animals. That closed, contracted posture not only reflects our feelings of low personal power, but also reinforces them. Instead of being able to greet the moment and the people in that moment — to really see what’s going on and hear what people are saying — we’re instead self-conscious, thinking about what they might be thinking about us.
In my TED Talk, I spoke about preparing for big moments by using a really open, expansive posture. Before a big meeting, I recommend going somewhere private and standing with your arms in victory pose. Or when you’re speaking, make your shoulders square, and have your arms out, palms up.
The more I’ve looked into the research other people have done on posture, the more I see the importance of minding our posture throughout the day, as well — even when we’re doing mundane things.
Think about the amount of time we sit in front of a computer or slouched over our phones, for instance. Notice how we breathe in those postures — irregularly and shallowly. Our posture affects our breathing, which in turn affects our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems — which determine whether we feel anxious or relaxed. Our posture affects the way we feel and the way we interact with the world.
EL | Can presence be learned?
AC | First, it’s important to realize that presence isn’t a permanent state. It’s a fleeting, moment-to-moment thing. Second, if we understand that the body is in constant conversation with the mind, we can use this relationship to nudge ourselves forward into presence more often.
So something as simple as sitting up straight, like our parents taught us — which isn’t so much about showing respect to others as it is showing respect to ourselves — opens up the body. It tells our brain: “You’re OK. You have this. You’re allowed to be who you are. You are just as entitled to be your best self as anyone else is.”
EL | How have you changed as a result of writing the book?
AC | Writing this book was a transformational experience for me. It was really important for me to apply the work to my own life as I was going along.
One realization I had was that a lot of the things in my life that were stressing me out were activities and projects that just weren’t a great fit for me. When you’re doing too many things — especially if they’re not aligned with your core values — you can’t be present. You can’t bring your authentic self to them because you’re too distracted or stressed out.
I realized I wanted to be doing more things that fit my values. I came to understand that if I’m talking about the importance of believing your story, then I have to believe my own story. I can’t deliver that message unless I’m living a life that feels right.