Presence by Amy Cuddy: Book Overview and Takeaways

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Presence" by Amy Cuddy. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you tend to feel anxious about new situations or performances? Do power poses actually work? How can body language change the tone of a conversation?

Perhaps you’ve tried giving yourself a pep talk before an event, but you still didn’t quite feel like you put your best self forward. In Presence, Amy Cuddy says that embodying “presence” allows you to be your true self without thoughts of self-doubt.

Read below for an overview of Presence by Amy Cuddy.

Presence by Amy Cuddy

In Presence, Amy Cuddy explains how to navigate these stressful situations by embodying “presence”—a self-assured confidence that’s not arrogant but allows you to comfortably express your true self. By improving your presence, Cuddy says you can increase your likelihood of succeeding and reduce stress before, during, and after high-pressure moments. All of this can be done by making small changes to your body language and leveraging the body-mind connection to change the way you feel about yourself rather than worrying about what others perceive. 

Cuddy’s interest in the psychology behind presence started during her college years when she suffered a traumatic brain injury that diminished both her cognitive functions and her self-confidence as she tried to return to her normal life. In the years since, she earned a Ph.D. from Princeton University, taught at Harvard University, and gave a viral TED talk about the power of body language that launched her career as a keynote speaker and best-selling author. 

(Shortform note: Cuddy’s trajectory is similar in some ways to that of neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, who suffered a stroke and later incorporated her insights from the experience into her research, memoir (My Stroke of Insight), and popular TED talk on how we can achieve inner peace by increasing our awareness of how the brain works and how to access different parts of it. However, Taylor was already a neuroscience researcher when the stroke derailed her career for several years.) 

What Is Presence?

According to Cuddy, “presence” is having faith in your abilities and feeling comfortable in your own skin, which naturally leads to an easy, confident mindset where you don’t overthink what you’re doing or get distracted by what might go wrong. She adds that when you embody presence, you exhibit agency over your self-expression (what Cuddy calls “personal power”). For example, if you have presence while giving a presentation, you can communicate clearly and confidently engage with the audience through your body language and speech.

Cuddy explains that when you don’t have presence and instead feel anxious about a situation, you tend to project your negative feelings onto other people. For example, you think, “I’m not smart enough or talented enough to get this job” and then you assume that other people perceive you that way, too. 

This kind of self-doubt can spiral—you adopt a protective posture by hunching, for example, which gives off a negative, closed-off impression to others. You might start to panic, which inhibits clear thinking and lowers your performance despite your preparation. Or, if you overcompensate for your lack of confidence, others may perceive you as insincere or manipulative. Odds are, Cuddy argues, if you’re trying too hard to manage your persona, it’s likely to reinforce your initial anxiety and leave you fixating on how you could have done better. 

How Will Presence Benefit You?

In addition to avoiding stress and negative-thought spirals under pressure, Cuddy asserts that presence has numerous benefits: It encourages you to be proactive and take on challenges, improves your ability to build trust and connect with others, enables you to think clearly and creatively, and increases your resilience even when things don’t go your way. 

Each time you experience one of these benefits of presence, the behavior is self-reinforcing. With each small win, you’ll feel less anxious the next time you’re in a similar situation. Eventually, you’ll find that being fully present and putting your best self forward comes effortlessly. 

Presence Makes You More Proactive and Optimistic

One major benefit of presence is that it makes you more proactive and excited to take on challenges. This opens up new opportunities that you might have otherwise avoided due to a fear of failure.

When you have this enthusiastic mindset, you’re also able to reframe your nervousness as excitement, which improves your performance. For example, say you’re about to begin a competition, and you notice your heart rate increases and you have butterflies in your stomach. Presence—reinforced by your body language—allows you to acknowledge the feeling and frame it in a positive way (“I can’t wait to put my hard work to the test!”), rather than feeling like you might choke under pressure. 

Presence Builds Trust

In addition to making you proactive and optimistic, having presence and being able to show people the truest, most confident version of yourself enables you to gain the trust of others quickly. This ability to connect with people is beneficial in countless scenarios including professional settings (such as business pitches, interviews, and speeches) or simply meeting new friends. As a bonus to feeling less self-conscious and stressed, having presence increases your chances of being successful in situations where you want to build trust. By demonstrating that you’re open, friendly, and sincere through your body language, you tend to make people mirror that behavior, encouraging them to exhibit those traits toward you in return.

Presence Enhances Thinking and Creativity

The next benefit of presence is that feeling at ease in a difficult situation enhances your cognitive functions. This means that you’re better able to think clearly, easily access all of the knowledge and skills you already have, and come up with creative solutions and ideas on the fly. On the other hand, when you’re worried about how you’re perceived or how well you’re doing at a given task, your anxiety hinders your performance in these areas and makes you more susceptible to external pressures. 

For example, if you’re in a work meeting and you’re feeling like you don’t really deserve to be there, you’re more likely to agree with whatever other people are saying rather than processing information and expressing your sincere and original thoughts. 

Presence Increases Resilience

Lastly, presence fosters inner resilience so that even if you fail to dazzle everyone at a cocktail party or don’t get the job you interviewed for, you’ll still feel content knowing that you did your best. And when you experience setbacks, presence makes you more likely to maintain the risk-taking, proactive attitude we described earlier. In other words, even when you don’t get the outcome you hoped for, presence protects you from letting your fear and self-doubt control and define you. Instead, you’ll feel ready to try again with the knowledge that you’re capable and worthy of success. 

How to Increase Your Presence

Now that we’ve defined presence and described its many benefits, we’ll explore practical steps to achieve presence through incremental changes that are easy to implement in your day-to-day life. A key to presence is good self-esteem and clarity about your identity, and Cuddy says that one way to achieve this is by affirming your strengths and what’s most important to you by writing down or reflecting on these elements before you enter a challenging situation. The reminder of your priorities and strengths will reduce your fear of being rejected and put you at ease because you’re reassured by your positive opinion rather than speculating about what others may think. 

The other major component of Cuddy’s advice hinges on the link between your mind and body and the idea that you can improve your mindset by changing your body language. She explains that the body-mind link is two-way: For example, when you feel embarrassed, your face flushes red—a physical response to the emotion. But when you change your posture to exude confidence—by relaxing your shoulders, for instance—your emotions also take cues from your body, and you start to genuinely feel more at ease. 

In this section, we’ll break down the best ways to use body language to your advantage before a nerve-wracking situation, how to carry yourself during a challenging situation to enhance your presence, and how you can build presence in the long term through small changes to your body language.

Before the Challenging Scenario: Power Pose

Cuddy’s advice to calm the mind and increase self-assurance before a difficult performance or experience is to find a place to “power pose,” or adopt a physical stance that increases the feeling of presence (or simply the feeling of being “powerful” as researchers often refer to it). For example, raise your arms up in a v-shape, place your legs shoulder-width apart, or put your hands on your hips. You can also put your own spin on power poses and create your own—the important part is that they make you expand your body outward and foster a feeling of power.

The simple act of making yourself bigger—or even louder—is an expression of power recognized throughout the world and among both animals and humans. By extending your limbs, lifting your head, and raising your voice, you can bypass the negative thoughts fueling your anxiety and essentially trick your brain into feeling confident

Cuddy’s research on this topic found that power posing for a few minutes not only led to perceived feelings of greater confidence and agency in the subjects but also physically changed their hormone levels in a beneficial way. First, it elevated testosterone levels—the so-called “dominance hormone” that is both caused by and causes more assertive behavior. Second, it reduced cortisol levels, a hormone produced as a bodily stress response. Together, high levels of testosterone and low levels of cortisol are associated with more powerful people—they tend to be associated with successful leaders, for example. 

And what if you’re physically unable to power pose? Cuddy adds that even if you can’t find a comfortable place to power pose before your big presentation or if you’re physically unable to do it, you can still benefit from power posing mentally. Research has demonstrated that simply visualizing yourself in a power pose can have the same effects as the physical exercise.

During the Challenging Scenario: Adopt Open and Friendly Body Language

Although the power pose technique helps put you in a positive mindset before a high-pressure scenario, adopting overtly powerful body language while interacting with others is likely to be off-putting to them because it comes across as domineering. Therefore, in stressful situations, Cuddy recommends adopting open and friendly body language that communicates your self-assuredness without making people feel uncomfortable or defensive

Research shows that people perceive friendliness and trustworthiness before they assess your competence, so the right body language is more important for making a good first impression than showing how knowledgeable or talented you are.

To demonstrate open and friendly body language, stand up straight with your head up and shoulders back and relax your muscles. Cuddy also recommends making slow, deliberate movements when communicating. For example, if you’re on a stage, walk around slowly and use the whole space (which is also more dynamic and interesting for the audience to watch). Take your time and pause both your movements and speech when it feels right. Smiling when appropriate will make you feel better and also communicate kindness toward the other people present.

Increase Presence in the Long Term Through Small Changes

Cuddy says that in addition to modifying your body language before and during difficult situations, you can enhance your natural feelings of presence in those moments by making powerful postures habitual in your daily life—and conversely, reducing the time you spend in postures that reinforce anxiety and negative self-views. Being intentional about small adjustments to your posture can build over time into drastic improvements in your confidence and ability to express yourself.

Presence by Amy Cuddy: Book Overview and Takeaways

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Amy Cuddy's "Presence" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Presence summary:

  • How to navigate social situations, interviews, performances, and more
  • The research behind power poses, and how to use them effectively
  • Body language you should avoid so others won't resent you

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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