Top takeaways from “The Power of Presence” with Amy Cuddy

For some time now I’ve been following the work of Amy Cuddy, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School. Cuddy’s work burst onto the global platform after her 2012 TED Talk, Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are. It ranks as the second among the most-viewed TED Talks.

I couldn’t resist the opportunity to hear Amy Cuddy give a talk in Sydney presented by Business Chicks.

So what were the top takeaways?

1. If you don’t believe your story, no one will believe your story

Cuddy stated that when we lie, the biggest giveaway is that our body language doesn’t synchronise with what we’re saying. There is a conflict between the emotions, the voice and body language.

Whilst it may take a trained eye to pick up on conflicting messages between your body language and what you’re saying, even an untrained eye will unconsciously read the messages coming across from the speaker and have doubts.

People will often say ‘I feel fine when I’m talking about things I know and have a handle on. It’s when I’m not familiar with the material that I feel nervous and my voice sounds shaky.’

When you feel like that, it’s likely that your body language conveys your uncertainty, and that comes across to an audience.

You have to believe in what you are talking about, or at least believe that you are the right person to be talking about it.

An audience wants to hear the truth – they want to see the truth communicated in voice and body.

Your body will inhabit the physical space around you if you believe you are deserving of being there and speaking on the topic.

2. “We convince by our presence” Walt Whitman

Cuddy quoted Walt Whitman, one of the greatest American poets of all time.

This line comes from his poem Song of the Open Road (1856). The full line is

“I and mine do not convince by arguments, similes, rhymes,
We convince by our presence.”

In voice and presentation coaching, and even in teaching, we talk a lot about “owning the space”, i.e. being physically present in your environment, and conveying confidence through your body language.

Whitman gives a quick and powerful reminder in five words.

3. Expansiveness conveys comfort and confidence

When we’re nervous or afraid, our bodies generally become smaller. As we feel more comfortable, our bodies relax and occupy a bit more space. Even our fingers spread to take up more space!

Consider a speaker you’ve seen recently.

Were they clutching a podium? Were there hands held tight in a fist?

Or were they gesturing openly, with their hands relaxed in front of them or gently resting on the podium?

These physical states are an indication of the speaker’s level of comfort.

4. 75% of children have an expansive bias at age four

Cuddy stated, “There is a difference in how adults carry themselves. Women and men carry themselves in a different way when it comes to expansiveness. Women are less expansive than men, but little kids are not.”

Cuddy talked about how young girls and boys run around freely, stand tall, do cartwheels, and take up space.

But Cuddy went on to share some research that indicated that from an early age, children associate expansiveness with boys.

She talked about a study where 4 – 6 year olds were presented with a series of side-by-side photos of wooden figurines. One figurine was in expansive, open position, the other was in a small, closed position. The children were asked to point to the girl and point to the boy.

Not one child said they couldn’t do it.

These were wooden figurines – no faces, no hair, no clothing, no gender.

Yet 75% of four year olds identified the expansive figurines as boys.

“By age 4, 75% of kids showed a male expansive bias, by age 6 it was 85%.

“But more alarming is this number: by age 4 it’s only 13% who have a perfect score, meaning that consistently through the whole survey they think the expansive one is a boy. By age 6, that’s nearly half of them.

“This tells us from a developmental perspective that they are learning this. They’re not born knowing this; we’re exposing them to images and messages that tell them this.”

5. Little girls aren’t afraid to take up space, but by age 11 – 12, girls become shrinking violets

Cuddy referenced a project called #StandLikeASuperhero that a father started when he saw his daughter’s posture changing as she started middle school. He wanted to encourage young girls to keep standing tall and taking up space.

Cuddy’s research shows that children are learning an expansive bias from early childhood, and this starts to affect girls around the age of 11 or 12.

What happens to girls’ bodies at this critical age also happens in their voices.

Thanks to the work of Carol Gilligan and others, we’ve known for some time that around puberty, girls become acutely aware of the social impact of how they use their voice and how they carry themselves. They change their voices and bodies in order to ‘fit in’ or be perceived in a certain way. The weigh up the social consequences of their behaviour.

Even the most confident, playful, expressive young girls can change dramatically around this age.

6. Girls need to see examples of women who own their strength and power, and not in an evil way

Since first seeing a poster for Wonder Woman earlier in the year, I’ve been talking about how important that film is for women, and especially young girls. It’s crucial for us to see women owning their physical strength.

Cuddy said the same thing, and took it one step further.

Cuddy used examples from children’s films to get us thinking about characters who carry themselves with power. She made the striking point that it’s usually the villains; that we often associate strong posture and powerful body language with ‘the baddies’.

Think about the Disney films you’ve seen and that children still watch today: there’s the Evil Queen in Snow White, Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty and Ursula in The Little Mermaid. Cast the net a little wider and you can include characters such as Bellatrix Lestrange in Harry Potter, and the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

If we associate strong body language and power poses with villains, there’s no wonder women shy away from using it day to day. We need to see examples of powerful female bodies who show strength unapologetically.

7. Don’t ever tell girls to stop

Cuddy is often asked how to get women speaking up in boardrooms and contributing more in meetings, and she has one answer: Don’t ever tell them to stop.

“Don’t tell your daughters to sit like a lady. Do not send them signals that they’re not supposed to speak as much or that they might be seen negatively if they step up and share an idea.

“Let’s teach our daughters to expand. To take up space. To express their ideas. To show their strength.”

8. Voice coaching has an important role to play

Cuddy didn’t say this, but everything that she did say reinforces the importance of voice coaching for many professionals, and the importance of speech and drama for kids.

It’s easy to say “don’t tell girls to stop”, but it’s hard to do that when environmental and social messages are so strong.

In watching the speech and drama classes for school students at Viva Voice, I’ve seen even the most confident young girls change their body language dramatically as they enter high school. In attending Viva Voice, these girls are a part of an environment that encourages them to stand tall, speak up and share their strength, and yet something still tells them to take up less space. The advantage for these students is that their teachers identify what’s happening, and with extra encouragement and a safe, creative space to learn in, they bounce back into owning their space relatively quickly.

This is not always the case for students who aren’t a part of a similar learning environment, who don’t have the opportunity to nurture speaking skills from an early age. They may grow up to occupy less physical space, speak in a small voice, or not speak up at all.

That’s why voice coaching is crucial.

We are born with a free and expressive voice. We use it openly and expansively in childhood, but we are taught to be more measured and monitored in our voice use as we grow up. Some of us receive stronger environmental messages than others. Some of us need more help reacquainting with the expressive voice that we used to use so freely. Voice coaching is not about learning a new way to use your voice, it’s about reconnecting to a voice that already exists within you. It’s about allowing your voice to expand and take up space around you.