Book review: Presence, by Amy Cuddy

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Jamie Lawrence
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Title: Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges
Author: Amy Cuddy
ISBN: 978-0316256575
Reviewer: David Evans, Burn Bridge Associates
Reviewer's rating: 5 out of 5

AA Milne once wrote that "you're braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think".

This applies brilliantly to Cuddy’s fascinating, engaging and enlightening book. You may have already heard of the author, or even seen her TEDtalk, since she has quickly become synonymous with the topic of self-confidence and body-mind connectivity.

This circa-300 page tome provides the science, logic and real-life stories to support the overarching concept of personal presence. Described by Cuddy as the sense of “believing in and trusting yourself – your real, honest feelings, values and abilities”, presence is the state of “being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential”.

It is a transitory state of being and is therefore a moment-to-moment phenomenon. Presence is also like power: with it, we can do whatever we want; without it, we feel powerless.

Her story begins with a profound personal experience that challenged her very existence and led her to explore deeply into her own consciousness for life-saving strength.

One key theme about the concept of what came to be called presence is the importance of ‘synchrony’, by which Cuddy means the harmony of emotions, thoughts, physique, facial expressions and behaviours.

If there is inconsistency in one or more of these states, we will have a sense of being untrue to ourselves, or of not being quite real or authentic. And this generally betrays itself to those around us, as well as to ourselves.

Being authentic and being oneself is a fundamental of the human condition, and Cuddy points out that the authentic self is multifaceted, expressed through our thoughts, feelings, values and behaviours, and dynamic; it flexes with the context and situation we find ourselves in, in a way that enables us to be responsive and open to growth.

The authentic self is therefore a state, rather than a trait: it is the experience of feeling and knowing, in the moment, that one can act with the utmost courage and sincerity.

The author goes on to describe four narrative themes that seem to occur most commonly in people’s life stories: agency (people being in control of their life), communion (lives described through relationships), redemption (learning and becoming strengthened by the challenges faced), and contamination (positive beginnings turning into negative endings).

Thus, the description and justification of presence turns toward story-telling and the way that one describes one’s own life-story.

The important message here is that who we are and how we appear are as important as what we have to say and do; not from the perspective of personal impression but from a position of projecting oneself authentically to those around us.

Being able to do this creates the opportunity for rapport-building and the development of common causes.

A particularly interesting example of how one’s personal story acts positively is the description of personal strengths and values recognition compared with the impact of organisational cultural values (p55).

If we are able to bring our personal values to work, we tend to operate in a more engaged and productive state than if we are required to adopt values that may not sit well with us (for more on this, go to www.valuescentre.com).

Cuddy touches on a number of themes that form a large part of personal and leader development programmes: the power of listening; of seeking to understand; of asking simple and deep questions; of developing one’s own personal story. And she also asserts that it is difficult to ‘be present’ if one is not confident of one’s reason ‘to be here’: a challenge she sets the reader is to justify being there in the moment.

The authentic self is a state, rather than a trait: it is the experience of feeling and knowing, in the moment, that one can act with the utmost courage and sincerity.

After all, how can one be present if one does not fully understand who one is? We can define ourself by how and what we think, by what others think of us, by our achievements, ambitions and challenges; and by the company we keep.

Or probably, by a combination of all of these. 

As the book progresses, the author moves from the description of presence, and its manifestations, to a discussion of its impact and the ways in which it plays out.

Chapter 5 describes the way in which the body’s chemical balance shifts with the ebbs and flows of personal presence and self-confidence. In fact, there follows several sections on the impact of our body on the ability to maintain and develop presence.

Voice, eye movement, body posturing and gestures all build levels of self-confidence. Indeed, “bodily experiences cause emotions, not the other way round” (p.174), which links Cuddy’s work with – amongst other things – yoga.

The way one carries oneself is a source of personal power and the author’s early studies showed how open body postures create psychological, behavioural and physiological changes.

A specific example of this is the work Cuddy and others have done to explore how the increasing use of small, portable electronic devices and it effect on posture is affecting people’s general disposition: this is well worth reading more about!

Why is all this important?

Well, Cuddy provides ample examples from the world of mental health, physical challenge, sports, education and personal experience to demonstrate convincingly that sorting out one’s synchronicity has significant benefits for one’s wellbeing and one’s performance.

The book ends with many anecdotes form people who have experienced the benefits of mindful ‘presencing’.

Presence is also like power: with it, we can do whatever we want; without it, we feel powerless.

If you are interested in personal performance, psychological wellbeing, values-alignment and psychological flow, you will find this to be a fascinating and engrossing read.

For those who like reading self-help books, there is enough compelling material here to keep you engaged and motivated. It is well-written, in a style that is accessible and personal, and finds a good balance in the content between theory, opinion, research and anecdote.

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