The Surprising Science Behind Confidence and Presence

Child pretending to be a superheroAll of us want to get through our toughest challenges – job interviews, idea pitches, public presentations, tough conversations – with grace, confidence and executive presence.

But what is presence?

Amy Cuddy, the Harvard professor who gave the immensely popular TED talk Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are, recently authored a book which explores the fascinating research on presence.

In Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Cuddy defines presence as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential.”

What does the research tell us about presence?

Presence is not a permanent state. Presence has more to do with the everyday, ordinary moments than an enormous transformation. Small tweaks in our body language and mindset lead to a state of psychological presence.

Impression management does not work. When we choreograph the impression we want to make on others, we come off as fake and insincere. Presence stems from “believing and owning our stories.” We’re better off focusing less on the impression we want to have on others, and more on the impression we make on ourself.

Confidence and nervousness are not mutually exclusive. In challenging moments, nervousness results from the release of flight-or-fight hormones. Instead of trying to force ourselves to be calm, channel the nerves to demonstrate your passion and enthusiasm. Showing that you care, even if it means you come off a little nervous, is a sign of confidence and endearment.

Low stress is a fundamental aspect of feeling and being powerful. Research does not support the notion that powerful people are stressed by their responsibilities. On the contrary, the hormone profile related to “responsible power” is one of higher testosterone (which increases our assertiveness and likelihood of action) and low cortisol (stress hormone).

Our body language shapes how other people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves. Studies show powerful people make more eye contact, speak more slowly and pause more often. They take up more space and expand their bodies wide and long. They sit and walk upright, not hunched over. When we carry ourselves with pride and personal power, we create strong internal connections that improve our performance and help us manage through the most challenging situations.

What does presence look like?

  • Sit or stand up straight in every interaction
  • Maintain your shoulders back and chest open
  • Raise your chin slightly
  • Ground your feet so they are planted solidly on the ground
  • Move away from the podium and closer to the people you are speaking to
  • Don’t pace
  • Use big open gestures; unpin your armpits and elbows to avoid penguin arms
  • Speak slowly
  • Project your voice across the room
  • Pause

Presence is not something we’re born with. With small changes to our body language and mindset, we can completely flip the way we view ourselves and how others view us.

As Amy Cuddy says in one of her most commonly quoted lines from her 2012 TED talk:

“Don’t fake it till you make it, fake it until you become it.”

Marta Steele is a partner @People_Results, where she trains leaders and wave makers to communicate with presence and passion. Connect with her on Twitter @MartaSteele.