Chances are you’ve heard of this author or even seen her famous TEDTalk. Written by social psychologist Amy Cuddy, Presence is considered by many to be a self-help book. The general premise of the book is (predictably) similar to her talk: “It is widely accepted that the state of our mind can affect our body language. But can the reverse be true?” Spoiler alert: yes, it can.
Cuddy started off the book with her personal experience of overcoming a difficult challenge that led her to study the science of presence and power. The first two chapters thereafter discuss the definition of presence. Presence, in this book, is described as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential. […] it is not a permanent, transcendent mode of being. It comes and goes, it is a moment-to-moment phenomenon.” (p. 29)
“Presence manifests as confidence without arrogance”
Moving on, chapters 3 to 5 discuss the justification of presence, particularly why having good (or at least decent) mastery of presence can improve one’s life significantly. Quite a number of real-life examples and scholarly works were cited to help demonstrate the benefit of presence. One such example is the story of how reverend Jeffrey Brown from Boston, USA applied what can be considered as some principles of presence, such as being genuine and simply being there both physically and mentally, to connect with at-risk Boston youth. His efforts resulted in a 79% drop in youth violence. These chapters also touched on some familiar problems related to presence: impostor syndrome, personal vs social power, and the paradox of powerlessness.
The next two chapters, Chapters 6 and 7, discuss the concept of body language (also called nonverbal communication) and its role in our day-to-day communication. In Chapter 6, Cuddy shares her observation that our perception of our own “power” affects our body language; when we feel powerful, our body “expands” and adopts broader and more open postures. Likewise, when we feel powerless, we start to “shrink” in on ourselves and adopt a closed, protective posture. Chapter 7 then discusses the opposite, which is how we pose our body can also affect the perception of our own power.
“Can we use our whole bodies–through posture, gesture, and movement (even imaginary movement)–to enhance our personal power in an adaptive way when we need it most? Can we pose our way to presence?”
Chapter 8 starts off with Cuddy discussing and giving examples on several expansive poses (also called power poses) and then describing the research done by her team to better understand the effect of power posing has on our mind. Chapter 9 gives more practical advice, and this is the chapter that I’d recommend you to read if you want to get straight to the essence of the book. The key advice is this: before going through a stressful situation such as school exams, job interviews, or ideas pitching, hold a power pose for at least 2 minutes. Keep up the good posture throughout (stand tall, chin up straight and generally open posture) and this should communicate power to those around you and also make you feel more powerful and confident at the same time.
In the last two chapters, Cuddy gives some tips to augment her previous advice on power posing. The first one described in chapter 10 is “self-nudging”, or making tiny habitual changes and reminding yourself every time you “slip” back to the old habits. Cuddy cites Daniel Kahneman’s definition of nudges (“nano-sized investments” for “medium-sized gains”) and also explains why these tiny nudges can actually be more effective than big changes and how you can apply it yourself. The second tip described in the last chapter 11 is “fake it till you become it”. Cuddy stresses the entire idea of power posing is not about fooling other people that you are powerful then continuing with the charade, but actually fooling yourself until eventually, you actually are more powerful and genuine. This chapter also features many stories that Cuddy received from her TEDTalk viewers.
Overall, I enjoyed this book and based on my personal experience (I’ve been applying her advice on power posing and self-nudges for at least 4 months now) I somewhat agree with her ideas, as I found some of her pieces of advice do work for me. I find it necessary, however, to provide this caveat that her findings have not been successfully replicated (check out these papers by Ranehill et al and Crede for more information). Taking this into account, I would still recommend this book, perhaps her methods might not work for everyone but it’s always good to broaden our perspectives, isn’t it?
These books include many examples (a little too many for my personal liking) and personal interjections which at times can be a little distracting. Nevertheless, Cuddy wrote comprehensibly and in a manner that makes research results understandable by the general public. If you want to get straight to the key point, you can also get summary through her TED talk that I’ve embedded below. The book simply gives you more examples, more references, and more details on her research. The book is about 300 pages long (not counting acknowledgments and references), and depending on your reading speed, it could take you 4-7 hours to finish.
Presence by Amy Cuddy is located at Business Library, with call number BF575.S39C964