Amy Cuddy on Being Bold and Building Presence

People quickly ask and answer two questions when they first meet you: “Can I trust this person?” and “Can I respect this person?”

That’s what social psychologist and bestselling author Amy Cuddy states in her book, Presence. Since its release in 2015, the book’s message of bringing your boldest self to your biggest challenges — and building presence to overcome fear in high-pressure moments — has been heard loud and clear.

Women today want to appear competent, smart, and capable. They want to be prepared both socially and professionally to handle life’s challenges. Yet, when given the chance, many become saddled with fear.  We recently sat down with Amy at the Adobe & Women Leadership Summit to discuss her research, and capture her thoughts on how female professionals can take bold steps to build their presence both inside and outside the workplace.

Your TED Talk about “power posing” has been widely circulated. How can people move beyond “power posing” to actually build presence?

I feel like the term “power posing” makes people miss the bigger picture. It’s not just about standing for two minutes like Wonder Woman, it’s about minding the way you’re carrying yourself all the time — speaking more slowly, taking your time, not being afraid to share ideas, and expanding in all of those different ways. It does shape the way you feel about yourself. The way you feel about yourself is really the most direct driver of how you behave. How you carry yourself, how you orient yourself, and how you choose to interact with and treat people — all of that becomes self-fulfilling.

During your talk onstage at our summit, you said “Power reveals.” What exactly did you mean by that?

As you become courageous, I do think most people become more generous. They’re not afraid, they don’t feel threatened by people, and they don’t look around a room and see someone in need as threatening. They see it as an opportunity to connect with someone, or to learn from them.

The kind of power that I’m talking about is not — and should not — be a corrupting force. If that power reveals that someone is corrupt, that’s different. That doesn’t mean that it is the corrupting force. It just happened to be the light that shines on the reality of the person. Everything from psychology that we know about the science of power directs to this answer: It reveals rather than corrupts.

You also made an important distinction between social power and personal power.

It’s not zero sum, it’s infinite. It’s the kind of power that you should want everyone to have. As a leader, you should want everyone who works with you, everyone that you’re “leading,” to feel powerful. You are so much better off if people who you’re leading feel powerful and feel they’re going to be seen, have a sense of purpose, and that what they do will actually have an impact.

You’ve done extensive research on body language, and have previously said that women can learn effective body language from watching children. Why aren’t most people aware of the nonverbal communications they send, and what cues we can potentially take from children, or other unlikely sources to communicate better?

Young girls and boys, before they hit middle school, are really honest in their body language. They’re not thinking about how to hide things. I feel like when people get older they become much more focused on controlling what they convey. It’s not just wanting to convey something different — it’s wanting to convey less of themselves. Kids aren’t doing that. They don’t call openness vulnerability; they’re just being themselves. It’s funny that as adults we call it vulnerability. It wasn’t vulnerability as a little kid. It was honesty — it was just raw, pure authenticity.

As adults, we’re too fearful of looking foolish. That leads us to limit our nonverbal communication — how much we use our bodies to communicate. We never really develop an awareness of why using our bodies to communicate matters of how it affects us, and how it affects other people. It’s really more about that self- consciousness. For me, it’s more about not focusing so much on the impression you’re making on others, but rather the impression you’re making on yourself.

You’ve talked a little bit about Impostor Syndrome. Is this something that women tend to deal with more than men?

Imposter syndrome is as common among men as it is among women. The woman who first studied it, Pauline Clance, thought that it was a women’s issue in the 1970s because she taught at a place where women were coming to her and telling her, “I feel like an imposter.” Men weren’t. She realized that surveys were anonymous and controlled for it and it turns out an equal percentage of men were feeling it.

I really have a lot of sympathy for men because they don’t feel they can talk about it. They are feeling it, they just don’t feel like they’re allowed to express it. This is an example of how gender stereotypes go both ways.

I think that what happens when we feel like imposters is we feel like we’re at the very bottom of the hierarchy. We feel that we need to hide because we don’t want to be found out. That puts us into this very powerless way of carrying ourselves. I would guess that when people feel like imposters, their body language looks much more powerless. Knowing now that changing your body language changes the way that you feel, the imposter experience is exactly the time when you need to fake it until you become it. That’s when you need to trick yourself into feeling victorious.

How does building presence ultimately affect how we move through the world and interact with those around us?

I think it’s really about how you choose to carry yourself, and it is your choice. I’m not saying that it’s easy, but it is the most inexpensive tool that we have to change our lives — to change how we carry ourselves and how we carry out our interactions —  to be a little bit more expansive and courageous. It just builds on itself. Your whole world gets bigger in a way that’s not overwhelming, but that’s bountiful.

The Adobe & Women Leadership Summit is one of the ways we’re working to drive greater diversity and inclusion worldwide. Learn more about our diversity initiatives here.

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