what I learned from Amy Cuddy about power and presence

What I learned from Amy Cuddy

There is nothing like the rush of adrenalin that a seriously compelling speech triggers. When you hang off the speaker’s every word.

When their observations – big and little – open up an array of possibilities. When they make you think about something you hadn’t previously, and the world suddenly becomes bigger because of it.

Yesterday, the American social psychologist and author, Amy Cuddy, shimmied open a door I didn’t even realise was closed.

I sat alongside 1,000 others, gathered by Business Chicks, and listened to her talk about power, presence and posture. Captivating barely does her presentation justice.

(There is a reason her talk on body language is the second most watched Ted talk in the world.)

And I fear my words won’t either, so if you have the chance to hear Amy speak, run don’t walk to take it.

In the mean-time here are a few of the things I took away.

Why fear can get in the road

“That was the worst elevator pitch I have ever heard,” Amy was told by the man she was supposed to impress, as the elevator doors were literally closing and she was still inside.

She was a Princeton graduate student when this occurred and she had been invited to attend a prestigious conference. Even being invited was a big deal and her supervisor had warned her that the senior academics present really wanted to talk among themselves but would ‘tolerate’ graduate students.

The trick, she was told, was to perfect an elevator pitch so you could quickly convey your body of work.

When the opportunity presented itself, it didn’t go well.

“It was my biggest professional challenge and I fell on my face,” Cuddy said.

She was paralysed with fear even before the moment arrived and that fear meant she couldn’t be present in the moment when she needed to be. She couldn’t nail the pitch because of it.

“I still haven’t made peace with the whole elevator pitch idea because I don’t think you can communicate the essence of who you are in a few words.”

But that exchange taught her an invaluable lesson: when you approach a situation with dread and anxiety you will undermine your own performance.

Presence is everything

When you approach a task that fills you with dread, whether it’s presenting an idea to the board, having a performance review or tackling a tricky topic with your teenager, Cuddy says more than anything else you need to be present.

“Presence isn’t a grand state you reach at the end of your life if you have meditated and practised yoga every day, she says. “None of us are present all the time – we are humans and we get distracted so make peace with that. But in challenging moments, particularly those that are high stakes – is when you need to be present most.”

She defines presence as being attuned to, and able to access and express your authentic best self.

Authenticity doesn’t mean unfiltered

“It’s not unleashing on your boss and telling them all the things you really think,” Cuddy says.

Being authentic is what happens when you are present, when you believe what you are saying, when you feel connected and when you are at your best.

Venture Capitalists say when they hear five great pitches, they will always go for the one who believes their story.

“If for one moment they sense the person pitching, doesn’t believe their own story – they won’t buy it.”

Being present and authentic makes you credible.

The difference between arrogance and confidence

“Arrogance and confidence get conflated but they are not the same things. Arrogance is a wall we put up when we feel threatened.”

It is not appealing and it doesn’t win friends, jobs, investments or influence.

“And confidence is not a weapon – it’s a tool. It means you don’t put up a smokescreen and you can be open to criticism.”

How to pick a lie

Eye contact is not an accurate way to catch a person in a lie. Instead look for “the gap between words and emotions.”

Cuddy says we have all lied and when we do we are telling one story while suppressing another – so there is emotional conflict. Guilty adds another layer.

“People will get the words right but the rest falls apart. Look for a-synchronies – when the words and emotions don’t match.”

Presence begets presence

Why would you share your authentic self with someone who isn’t being authentic? Cuddy says most of us won’t and the same goes for a person who isn’t present.

“In leadership roles, your people need you to be present. Even when you have a million other things to do, by being present with them you are inviting them to thrive.”

The case for feeling powerful

Research shows when people feel powerful as opposed to powerless:

– they feel more optimistic
– have a greater sense of self efficacy
– see challenges – not as threats but as opportunities
– think more clearly
– are more creative.

Powerlessness does the opposite. It shuts you down, makes you present a socially restrained version of yourself and makes you more stressed. More likely to get sick.

Why making yourself bigger will make you feel more powerful

When Amy Cuddy was in the lift as a grad student attempting her elevator pitch, her body reacted as if it were being chased by a tiger.

“But I wasn’t being chased by a tiger. Often the challenges we face are not the same as being chased by a predator but our body reacts that way.”

It is a primitive instinct. When primates have power they make themselves look bigger. They physically expand their body to show power.

Humans do too. After a sporting victory, athletes from a variety sports, events and cultures spontaneously adopt the same stance. They throw their arms above their heads in a V and open their mouths wide.

The pose represents pride, power and confidence and it’s universal.

“Research has shown that even congenitally blind people adopt the same pose after a victory – it is as hard wired as smiling is to happiness,” Cuddy says.

“We do the opposite when we feel powerless: we collapse and making ourselves small. We cover our faces – not to avoid seeing but to protect ourselves.”

Fake it til you become it

Before a challenge, like a job interview, important meeting or performance, make yourself big. Adopt powerful positions. Sit up straight, stand up tall and expand your size. Trick your mind into following your body.

“Acting the way you want to be perceived works.”

Adopting high power poses rather than low power poses improves a person’s sense of power.

Doing this to prepare for a challenge has been shown by research to create the following changes:

– people can lift more weights at the gym
– women suffering eating disorders to consume more calories and feel less guilt afterwards
– older people are more willing to try new technology without feeling threatened
– improved the likelihood of an individual to be hired
– lessened symptoms of depression

It’s not just about the poses

“I regret calling my Ted talk “power poses” because it’s not just the poses. It’s about expansiveness – it’s about carrying yourself in a more open way.”

Our feelings mimic our posture and tiny tweaks make big changes.

Stand tall. Don’t be afraid to take up space. Expand yourself. Stretch widely.

And most importantly, teach this to you daughters.

They absorb from a young age and from 4 years old girls are already wired to view boys and men as more powerful than they are.

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