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Amy Cuddy on Power, Presence & Your Boldest Self

amy-cuddyI’m excited to be speaking to Amy Cuddy, who you may remember from her incredible TED Talk on power poses. Amy has a new book out, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, in which she presents the underlying science behind feeling authentically powerful, and the connection between body language, behaviour and mindset. In this conversation, Amy and I discuss:

  • The connection between presence and power
  • What we think of when we think of power
  • Strategies to put into play whenever you feel powerless
  • Why a stress-free state is unrealistic, and how some situations call for a certain level of nervousness

And much, much more! So, click that play button below and listen in. Don’t forget to rate this podcast on iTunes.

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Full Transcript

Michael:   You may well know the name Amy Cuddy because her TED Talk on presence is the second-biggest viewed TED Talk of all time. So if you’ve even half bumped into a TED video in your time, it could be that it was Amy’s. And here’s what really struck a chord. She really talked about the sense of powerlessness that some of us get and how, with a few power poses, you can actually shift that sense. And I love this in part because I have a deep belief that the body leads the brain. If you want to think differently, if you want to behave differently, change how you are physically and that will shift the way you perceive the world.

So Amy has got a book out, two or three years after her TED Talk. It’s called Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. And here’s one of the things that’s great about the book, is it’s not all about power poses. In fact, that’s just a small part of the overall conversation. And in my chat with Amy, we get into something that I think is even more interesting than power poses, and it’s about power. What is power? Where does it come from? Is it something that you exert on others? Is it something that you tap from within? And how can you use some of the understandings and research that Amy has brought through her book into your own understanding of how do you use power so that you get better access to your best self, to your best resources, during times of stress?

I think you’ll enjoy this. Enjoy my conversation now with Amy Cuddy, author of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges.

So, Amy, I’m excited to be talking to you and I’m holding in my hand a copy of your book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, which is fantastic. And I mean, Susan Cain prints a pretty high bar for you to meet on her blurb on the front. She says, “You are the high priestess of self-confidence for the self-doubting. This is a must-read for everyone.” I mean, that’s pretty fantastic.

But here’s one of the things I’m going to bet that happened. When you went in to negotiate the book deal with your publisher, I’m going to guess that one of the things that you said is, “I want the cover to be yellow,” because yellow keeps showing up. It’s in the book. It’s in some of the social media stuff I’ve posted. So what is it about yellow as a kind of totemic colour for you?

Amy:           Oh, that’s funny. Definitely probably one of my first words was “yellow,” probably not pronounced correctly, but it’s a combination of kind of bold and warm at the same time. So I see it as a colour that’s strong and also warm and optimistic, so it feels like it captures both of those qualities I care about so much, which is to be bold and strong and also kind of warm and generous. Yeah.

Michael:       Yeah, I love that. I mean, you open with a little poem or maybe an excerpt of a poem in the front cover.

Amy:           Yeah.

Michael:       And the last two lines are, “Bright as yellow, warm as yellow.” It’s a kind of culmination of a powerful, bold, intimate moment, so it’s lovely.

Amy:           Yeah, it’s a beautiful song. It’s a song called “Bright as yellow,” but yeah, and as it begins, “You live life with your arms stretched out, eye to eye when speaking, enter rooms with great joy shouts, happy to be meeting, bright as yellow, warm as yellow,” so I think that captures it pretty well.

Michael:       So one of the things that we were actually talking about as we kind of set this conversation up, and I was, like, “So what should we cover? What should we not cover?” You know, just kind of checking in. And you’re, like, “You know what? Please don’t just talk to me about power poses.” I mean, it’s been two years since your very popular TED Talk came out and you’ve probably felt like you’ve talked about power poses nonstop since then. And power poses are in the book, for sure, but how has your focus and your learning shifted away from that kind of useful but now two years old insight about the power of power poses?

Amy:          I guess I would say more than shifted away. It’s kind of broadened beyond. So I feel like power poses are sort like kind of a metaphor for this much bigger theme, which is that when you feel powerful and confident, you expand in many ways. Not just physically, but also you might speak more slowly. You might take your time doing things in a good way. You feel like you have bigger opportunities. You are more likely to act. And when you do those things, it also makes you feel more powerful, so the relationship between feeling powerful and confident and expanding is bidirectional.

And you know, the power poses are one little example of how that works. You know, when you feel powerful, like if you’ve just won a race, you throw your arms up in the air. And if you throw your arms up in the air even when you haven’t won a race, it might also make you feel more powerful. So I think that that theme goes far beyond standing in a particular pose like Wonder Woman for two minutes.

Michael:       Right. So you’re talking about a sense of powerfulness, and yet the book is called Presence. So what’s the connection between presence and power?

Amy:           Well, I think presence is really about being able to kind of unapologetically bring your true best self to stressful situations and to do that without your guard up, and that’s exactly what happens to your brain when you feel powerful. You are able to let your guard down, to show people who you really are, to be much less anxious about those stressful situations, and when you’re less anxious you’re able to actually listen to what’s going on, not what you fear is going on.

So presence, you know, psychological presence, sort of being in that moment with confidence and openness, is very similar to psychological power, feeling that you have the control to bring your best self forward.

Michael:       And to unpack that further, one of the distinctions you make in the book is the difference between social power and personal power, and it feels like you’re talking about personal power here.

Amy:           Very much so. I think social power is what people think of when they think of power. So if I ask people if you’re doing a word association, what’s the next word you think of after “power”? What word do you think most people say?

Michael:       Control?

Amy:           Corrupt.

Michael:       Oh, of course!

Amy:           Yeah.

Michael:       Because absolute power corrupts absolutely, and so on. Yeah.

Amy:           Exactly, right. And which is too bad, right? But that’s what we think of when we think of power. But it also means—it tells me that people are thinking of power over others, that social power, because it’s hard for power over the self to be a corrupting force, right?

Michael:       Right, it’s paradoxical to do that. Yeah.

Amy:           Exactly. Personal power is power to—so if social power is the power to kind of control resources that you and other people need, personal power is the power to control access to resources that you already possess that you need. So really, your psychological resources like your strength and your real personality and your skills and your talents. So when people feel personally powerful, they are able to access those things and, you know, use them when they need to use them. Just like you would be able to access a bank account and use the money when you need to use it, here, say you need knowledge to do well on some exam; when you feel personally powerful you can access that knowledge and use it to do well on that exam.

Michael:      So I like the distinction and nuance you bring, which is it’s not just about accessing these internal resources, but specifically accessing them during a stressful situation.

Amy:           That’s what, I mean, I think that if I hadn’t narrowed it, I could have been talking about everything. It would have been sort of a book about life, you know?

Michael:       Right, right.

Amy:           And I still think it is sort of a book about life, but the reason I focus on those stressful moments is because that was such a common theme across all of the letters and emails and calls and all of the people who wanted to talk to me after the TED Talk in the year—it’s actually been three years now. The theme was that they all have these stressful challenges. And the funny thing is they very dramatically across people, you know, what that situation is, yet everyone kind of feels that their challenge is everyone else’s challenge.

Michael:       Right, right.

Amy:           You know, so public speaking isn’t a challenge for everyone. It is for a lot of us. But so, I thought that’s really where we need to be present, is in these moments, and it’s exactly the moments that tend to take us away from the present because we’re dreading them as we approach them. We’re kind of borrowing trouble from the future. We’ve decided already that it’s gone poorly and it hasn’t even happened.

Michael:       Right! Right.

Amy:           When we leave them, we leave them with a sense of regret and feeling like we want a do-over, and during those moments we’re not in them. We’re worried about what we should have said a minute ago or what’s going to happen because we did this thing wrong or what this other person might be thinking of us, so we’re not able to even be there in the present.

Michael:       Right. So are there—I mean, I can see how a stressful situation in general kind of creates that impact, but I’m wondering if there are any kind of patterns of kind of repeatable symptoms that stressful situations bring out. I mean, are there kind of two or three ways of recognizing the stressful situation and recognizing maybe two or three different impacts it’s having on you.

Amy:           Ooh, yeah, that’s good. So I mean, one thing is some people don’t know really—if you just ask them off the top of their head, “What’s the most stressful situation for you?” They may not be able to come up with it. But so, one is to just start recognizing what things make you feel powerless. And in your day to day life, notice sort of what your body is doing. When do you start to kind of collapse and touch your neck and your face and start slouching and, you know, wrapping yourself up? Those are moments when you’re feeling powerless. So if you notice your body doing that, ask yourself, “What’s happening right now? Why am I doing this?”

And it’s really interesting: when you start paying attention to that, you become so much more aware of your own posture and the things that really stress you out. So one is that your most stressful moment or your biggest challenge is likely to cause you to do those things with your body.

You also will feel other visceral signs of anxiety, right? Your heart racing and sweating and your face flushes and things like this.

They are also moments when you feel the stakes are really high. Maybe your perception of how high the stakes are is not really a good reflection of how high the stakes actually are. So you feel that the stakes are higher than they are.

And let’s see. Another is that you find that you’re spending a lot more time worrying about what the other person thinks of you. So you’re not really in any kind of flow state. You’re not really having a balanced interaction, because what you’re thinking about is what they think of you. And you are managing the impression you’re making on them and you’re probably not doing it very well.

Michael:       Right, so now you’re in a death spiral, making up how to behave in response to something that you’ve made up about how you think somebody might be thinking about you.

Amy:           That’s exactly right. And you can see, like in there, there are so many places where you go off-track, right? And that take you out of that moment. And if you can’t focus on what’s actually happening, how can you possibly accurately and adequately respond to what’s actually happening?

Michael:       Okay, so let’s imagine that I’m in one of these situations. I’ve somehow escalated the stakes, so I’m now going, “My very survival depends on me getting this thing right,” whatever that might be. And let’s say that I’ve actually seen the TED Talk, so I know if I had the time, I would rush off to a washroom and do a power pose for two minutes, but I can’t do that. What other strategies might you suggest to shift myself so I can kind of reconnect to that sense of power and that sense of presence that you talked about earlier?

Amy:           I mean, first is just to recognize, to know that everyone has these moments. You are not alone. Everyone, it’s universal. It’s a universal human experience. It may not be the same moment for everyone else, but everyone has felt this way.

Michael:       Got it.

Amy:           And just because they’re not showing it in a way that you see doesn’t mean they haven’t felt it. So that’s one of the things I also learned after the talk, was that people felt alone and they feel alone in this experience, and they think, “Why is everyone else so confident and I’m not?” And I can tell you, everyone else is not so confident.

Michael:       That’s useful to hear.

Amy:           So that’s the first thing. The second is that there are physical things that you can do during these stressful moments that will pull you out of that sort of, you know, abyss of powerlessness. Because once you do get really into a sort of fast-moving, well, death spiral—it is sort of a death spiral—in that moment, that doesn’t mean that you can’t move on after that, but it’s …

Michael:       Yeah, but if you’re in the amygdala, your brain is going, “It’s life or death! It’s fight or flight!” So it does feel like a death spiral.

Amy:          Completely. That’s exactly right. So what’s happening, I mean, the second thing is just to realize that what your body is doing is what you would do if you were actually being chased by a predator in the wild, right? And you’re not being chased by a predator in the wild, you’re just in a situation where somebody might not like you, and that feels bad, right?

Michael:       Right.

Amy:           So it might be a first date or a job interview or a pitch or, you know, some other social interaction. The worst outcome is probably not as a tiger taking you by the throat, you know? So what you’re sort of …

Michael:       I don’t know, I’ve been on some dates where you could argue either way, but anyway.

Amy:           I know! You know how it feels. But so, you may—basically, your body’s reaction does not really fit with what’s happening in the situation, so stop your body from telling you that you’re being attacked by a tiger because you’re not being attacked by a tiger. And what your body is probably doing is collapsing into a fetal ball or wanting to run, wanting to flee. Or for some people, and I think this is an interaction of personality and situation, it might be wanting to fight in a way that’s really kind of self-destructive.

Michael:       Right, so this is like fight, flight, or faint. The three Fs, yeah.

Amy:           Exactly, it’s fight, flight, or faint. That’s right. So that’s what your body is doing and none of those things is going to help you right now, right? So what you want your body to do is tell you that you’re completely safe. Not that you are the predator. You want your body to say, “This is a safe situation. I’m fine.”

And so, what you do is probably your shoulders are starting to collapse. They’re starting to hunch. Pull them back. Open up your chest. Breathe more deeply. Breathing is so critically important. It’s amazing. Doctors know this. There’s so much work on breathing and how it affects patient compliance and help outcomes, but somehow we forget about it in our daily lives. When you breathe slowly and deeply, you are indicating to your nervous system that you’re safe because when you start breathing quickly and shallowly, your nervous system goes, “Uh oh! This is a crisis. It’s really bad,” and your brain follows.

So by opening up your posture, you’re also—not only are you signalling to yourself that you feel powerful and confident, you’re also allowing your body to breathe more deeply, and that will signal to the nervous system that you’re in what we called a ‘rest and digest’ state, not the ‘fight or flight’ state. So that’s another …

Michael:       Got it. So you’re in that virtuous circle where you’re basically going, “The more I breathe, the more my body goes, ‘I’m able to relax.’” The more you relax, the better you are able to breathe and you get to flush the brain and the body through with oxygen.

Amy:           That’s exactly right, and it is a virtuous cycle. And you know, just as collapsing and going into the fetal position is a vicious cycle, it’s the same thing.

The other thing that people I think really forget about is not just the words they’re saying but how they’re saying them. And one of the things you might recall from college or high school or whenever you last spoke in class is that it might have been nerve-wracking. For a lot of people, it is, at least in the beginning, and they speak way too quickly. And their pitch tends to rise and they also sort of truncate their comments. They don’t say everything they want to say and it comes out in a way that’s not very organized.

 What you want to do is slow your speech, because when we’re nervous we think we’re speaking much more slowly than we actually are. We feel like, “Oh my God, we’re taking up way too much of everybody else’s time.” We’re not. You will never sound like a record that’s been slowed down. Like, it takes so much to speak that slowly. We’re almost always speaking more quickly than we think we are. So by slowing your speech, you are again telling your system, “Everything is okay. I’m not in a fight or flight situation. I don’t need to race through this.”

Related to that, take pauses. People are terrified of the silence of pauses.

Michael:       For sure.

Amy:           And the truth is that they’re powerful. You know, when you pause, all of a sudden people aren’t distracted. They sort of refocus on you, and that’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to do. So by pausing, not only are you sort of actually focusing attention on you in a good way, but you are allowing yourself the time to collect your thoughts, you know, reset. You can even use pauses as a kind of punctuation, you know, to say, “What I just said was really important, so now I’m going to pause.”

Michael:       Right, so you get to hear it. Very nice.

Amy:           Yeah. And other people go, “Oh, right, let me reflect on that.” I mean, give people an opportunity to consolidate and process what you’ve just said, to think about what you’ve just said so that they can actually have the experience, you know, so that they can actually be present with it as well.

But all of those things, not only are they sort of changing the impression you’re making on others, they are changing the impression that you’re making on yourself. So you’re …

Michael:       Which I love. I love that twist, which is this isn’t just about calming down other people, because you can only influence that at best. It’s really about controlling your own physical response by going, “I’m going to …” I mean, your last chapter is called “Fake it till you make it” and you can do that with physical symptoms. You know, breathe slowly even if you’re feeling stressful because your body will go, “Ah, you’re breathing slowly: you must be relaxed!” And then your body goes, “Oh, well I’m relaxed! I can breathe slowly.” And so it goes.

Amy:           That’s right. Yeah, and it’s actually “Fake it till you become it,” which I see as different.

Michael:       Oh, sorry. You’re right.

Amy:           No, it’s okay. I mean, because you know, I had originally thought of this whole line of research, this body/mind stuff, as faking it till you make it. And the way I see that as different from faking it till you become it is, you know, making it is sort of getting through it, right?

Michael:       Right, right.

Amy:           It’s like you—and in the context of class discussion, where at Harvard Business School, you know, half of your grade is based on participation and some people really hate doing that, I really wanted to just get these students through it for their two years at HBS and then they could leave and not have to do that again. So it really was faking it till they made it through.

What I eventually found was happening was that the more people did this kind of thing where they would sort of trick themselves into feeling powerful of confident, the more they left those situations feeling like they had shown people who they really are, which is amazing.

Michael:       Nice.

Amy:           So I never expected that. But what they would say is, “Yeah, I really felt like I did the best I could do,” or, “They really saw me.” And people, they want and need to be seen. You know, that’s how you kind of move forward in life, is by knowing that you’ve been seen. And so, then you can live with the outcome, whatever it is. Whether it’s positive or negative, you know that you were seen and you did the best you could do.

So that’s what ended up happening. People were saying, “I’m more and more myself,” which is pretty amazing. So yeah, they’re faking it, but they’re only faking it to themselves.

Michael:       Right, right, they’re just evolving to become the person they’re trying to become.

Amy:           Exactly.

Michael:       But there’s a twist in all of this because it sounds like if you get to this place of presence and a self-centred degree of powerfulness, personal power, somehow you’ve now reached this stress-free state. You just get to kind of float around being yourself. But actually, there’s a role that stress actually plays in contributing to a sense of power, so can you just kind of through that twist in the tale(?)?

Amy:           Well, yeah. I mean, one is you’ll never get to a stress-free permanent state.

Michael:       Right, okay.

Amy:           I mean, at least I haven’t met anyone who has.

Michael:       “I was that close and then—gah!”

Amy:           And I think it’s actually—just I think it’s an unreasonable goal that is daunting and ends up sort of discouraging people.

Michael:       Yeah, stressing you out, ironically.

Amy:           Yeah! Exactly, exactly. That’s the best way to say it. But the other is that, to some extent, and it’s not—let me just shout out another researcher, Kelly McGonigal, who does great stuff on the benefits of stress.

Michael:       Oh yeah, of course.

Amy:           And direct you to her work, which really focuses on some of the benefits of some level of stress. Chronic stress is bad. We all agree that that’s the case. What I talk about a bit is that some level of nervousness is called for in some situations. It brings you to the adequate, the right state of vigilance when the stakes really are high. And it also signals to other people, say you are making a pitch for money and, you know, the stakes are high for everybody, including the people investing in whatever it is you’re pitching; a little bit of nervousness I think indicates that you take it seriously.

Michael:       Yeah.

Amy:          You know, people who come in looking super relaxed and laid back, like, I have students who will sit sort of slouched and their arms are hanging down, and they don’t look like they care at all. I don’t really find—I don’t take them nearly as seriously as a student who might seem a little bit nervous. So this is different from paralyzing anxiety or debilitating anxiety or anxiety that gets in the way of the expression of your real thoughts.

Michael:       Sure.

Amy:           But some level of nervousness should be expected and might even signal that you take the situation seriously.

Michael:       Amy, we’ve only had a chance to kind of scratch the surface of the book, but for people who want more, they can find your book, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges by Amy Cuddy at bookstores around their place. But if people want to find out a bit more about you and your work, is there a place you would direct them to?

Amy:           Oh, well, let’s see. My neighbourhood coffee shop? No. Or you can call my third grade teacher.

Michael:       Excellent.

Amy:           Yeah, I would say I do have a website,, Cuddy with two Ds. Not cuddly. That’s probably the best place to go.

Michael:       I like that. Amy “don’t call me cuddly” Okay, perfect.

Amy:           Exactly. Yeah.

Michael:       Amy, it’s been a real pleasure. Thank you for talking to us today.

Amy:           Thanks for having me.

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