Harvard professor Amy Cuddy has done extensive research into the development of an executive presence. Hailed in the media as the ultimate “body language hacker,” Cuddy is the author of New York Times bestseller, Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. Her TED talk is the second most popular presentation in the history of the inspirational program.
While there are countless writers on the web who advise on how attorneys can enhance their professional presence, Cuddy’s message is singular in that it is based on solid scholarly research. It has been covered everywhere from Forbes and Business Insider to NPR and The New York Times.
Professional presence is a key element of success for any attorney. It is needed when we present a strategy to a potential client, when we face a jury, when a TV journalist wants our opinion for a prime time news show, and virtually in every aspect of our profession.
Named a “Game Changer” by Time, Cuddy has revolutionized the way we think about securing promotions or partnerships, presenting a case in court, negotiating a deal, or interviewing for our dream jobs. In her book, she emphasizes the importance of being present, “being able to hear [people who work with you] without a sense of threat, to go into those meetings with confidence and not arrogance.”
A leadership professor and social psychology scholar, Cuddy believes employees need to feel that their leaders understand them. “Trust comes before strength, and it becomes a conduit of influence. Your strength is a little bit threatening before people trust you. But when they trust you and you are their leader, it’s a gift to them,” she says.
Amy Cuddy’s Best Tips to Develop Impactful Presence
1. Know Yourself
Think about who you are, what your values, and best skills are. What makes the core of your personality? Cuddy recommends listing your core values and ranking them. “Write about why they are so important to you,” she advises, “write about a time when you were able to really express [your top values] and how it felt.” According to the author, when people analyze what happened and how they felt after expressing their core values, they “feel so much more grounded,” and this allows them to face potentially uncomfortable situations with confidence.
If you analyze any top-tier attorney’s personality and career, you will find that they are constantly expressing their core values. They are not chameleons who become whoever is necessary based on the circumstances, but rather, people who know themselves and feel comfortable inside their own skin. It can take many years to get there, but Cuddy’s vision can help fast track you on the road to self-knowledge and confidence.
2. Expand Your Body to Expand Your Power
What would happen if our body language conveyed that we feel powerful when we actually feel powerless? Can our posture affect the way we feel and the way others see us? Dr. Cuddy’s research has shown that it can. Cuddy and her team asked a simple question, “Since we naturally expand our bodies when we feel powerful, do we also naturally feel powerful when we expand our bodies?”
In one very revealing study, subjects were split into two groups. Group 1 was instructed to assume “low-power” poses: taking up less space, clasping hands and resting them close to their bodies, lowering their heads. Members of Group 2, on the other hand, assumed high-power poses, expanded their bodies, took up a lot of space, stood with hands on their hips and chin upwards, and sat with their hands clasped behind their heads in a confident and relaxed manner.
After a couple of minutes, the participants’ testosterone and cortisol levels were measured. The individuals who adopted high-power poses showed a significant increase in testosterone and a decrease in cortisol. The low-power pose group’s results were the opposite: lower testosterone and higher cortisol.
Cortisol is our body’s “built-in alarm system.” It is the most important stress hormone, the one who fuels the “fight-or-flight” mode when we find ourselves in threatening situations. In contrast, testosterone is associated with dominance; it can boost both competitiveness and self-esteem. Low testosterone can cause loss of confidence, reduced motivation, inability to focus, and sadness.
Cuddy advises that rather than focusing on assuming a power-pose, it is more crucial to stop posing in a powerless way, which we tend to do far too often.
3. The Smaller The Device, The Smaller Your Presence
When we are using a smartphone or another small-size device, we tend to contract our bodies, assuming shrunken postures that can increase our feelings of powerlessness. According to Cuddy’s research, “while many of us spend hours every day working on small mobile devices, often with the goal of increasing our productivity and efficiency, interacting with these tiny objects, even for short periods of time, might reduce assertiveness, potentially undermining our productivity and efficiency.”
Hunching over a tiny screen undermines your sense of presence. To prevent that, Cuddy advises configuring your space in a way that allows you to assume an expansive posture even when you are using your tiny device. Likewise, it is important to maintain an upward position while using your computer. In this case, ergonomic chairs or standing desks can help.
4. Fake It 'Til You Become It
Cuddy believes the old maxim, “fake it ‘til you make it,” is poor advice. “I think fake it 'til you make it, is about faking out to the other person,” she explains. “It’s about tricking the other person into thinking that you are something you are not.” On the other hand, “Fake it 'til you become it,” is about “tricking yourself into being able to reveal your fullest best self.”
If you assume a high-power pose and a confident attitude in a situation that makes you feel powerless, tricking yourself into believing that you are actually confident can boost your confidence and, ultimately, reveal your hidden powers. Fake it ‘til you become it is, in fact, about making yourself believe that you have the confidence you need to become your true self.
5. Focus on Growth, Rather Than Immediate Success
When you focus only on the outcome, you may stop being present. For example, if you have a meeting that might lead to landing a crucial case, it is important to be prepared and focus on being present during the meeting, on developing your skills, and expressing your true self. When you are only focusing on a positive outcome, this may negatively impact your confidence levels. Likewise, you may miss out on opportunities for growth and learning that may bear fruit at a later date.
6. Walk the Path of Personal Power
The legal profession requires projecting confidence and feeling powerful in many complex scenarios. As a young attorney, I find Cuddy’s advice tremendously inspiring. When you are starting out and don’t have much experience, how can you boost your confidence to move up the ladder?
Cuddy has some words of wisdom in that respect: “If power reveals, then we can only know the truly powerful, because they are bold enough to show who they are without subterfuge and without apology. . . . the path to personal power is also the path to presence. It’s how we, and others, discover and set free who we truly are.”
Watch the full TED Talk below.