I’ve been procrastinating this review for most of the year because this book, Presence, influenced me so deeply that I wanted to do it justice. While I may not be able to do just that, at least I can share this resource with people who would benefit from it: musicians, creatives, and people living in the world today.
Dr. Amy Cuddy is a social psychologist with experience in the business world. She is probably most known for her TED Talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.”
This is how I discovered her work. While I was at first skeptical of the content of her talk, her story of physical mental trauma as the result of a car accident combined with research and helpful anecdotes won me over to the idea of the body informing our self-belief.
After the success of her talk, Cuddy wrote Presence to more deeply share this knowledge with those who need it. In reading this book, I am caught by her humility and genuine desire to just help people. Thus, this book is filled with much more research and explanations than a 20-minute talk could hold, but I still read it in two days.
One of the first things I noticed in reading this book is how connected I felt to Cuddy from the first sentence. Her vulnerable honesty left her feeling like an actual friend, even though I’ve never interacted with her.
On top of this, Cuddy’s style is approachable to those who have never read scientific studies, which is impressive given the number of studies she cites. She does an excellent job of explaining methodology and results in ordinary English, and this book acted as my introduction into understanding studies by reading the original sources after reading her descriptions of them.
Overall, the style of this book is conversational enough for anyone to enjoy it without sacrificing clarity in terms of discussing the scientific points.
Content and Organization
Presence is organized much like a narrative in which you, the reader, goes on the journey. The first chapter, “What is Presence?” defines what the book is about and how people have conceived of presence throughout history. Using a few anecdotes and quotes from a poll she took from people around the globe, she defines presence as relating to self-esteem. If you are present, you’re not really worried what people think of you; you are confident without being arrogant. Further than this, she spends the second half of the chapter discussing what present physically feels like, which seems to be when every part of you contributes to the task at hand; you’re no longer fighting parts of yourself.
I’m unsure if all copies have an insert within the front cover, but my copy at least has a list of the ten principles of presence, which is helpful to refer back to as you read or to remind yourself years after you’ve read the book.
From Cuddy’s description of “presence,” the problem of you, the protagonist and reader, is highlighted. This has to do with low self-esteem and self-belief in your own abilities and intelligence. Personally for her, she relates it to her feelings of inferiority after her accident that dropped her IQ, but what I love about this book is that it’s never about just her own story. She collects stories from other people and uses her own story to shape the narrative of the book. The following chapter discuss how common these feelings are and how they relate to imposter syndrome.
She involves Clance and Imes, the authors of the first study on imposter syndrome, as well as celebrities like Neil Gaiman who also suffer from imposter syndrome. These chapters are “Believing and Owning Your Story,” “Stop Preaching, Start Listening: How Presence Begets Presence,” “I Don’t Deserve to Be Here,” “How Powerlessness Shackles the Self (and How Power Sets It Free),” and “Slouching, Steepling, and the Language of the Body.” In terms of a sort of plot structure, these chapters show where the problem exists and how it continues and grows.
The rest of the book focuses on subverting each of these ideas and spinning them to be more positive: “The Body Shapes the Mind (So Starfish Up!),” “How to Pose for Presence” (which draws on her TED talk, so if you’d like a look into this definitely check it out), “Self-Nudging: How Tiny Tweaks Lead to Big Changes,” and “Fake It Till You Become It.”
The chapter in the latter half of the book that had the most impact on me was “Self-Nudging.” Most self-help books I’ve read leave me feeling like I can just change my entire life overnight based on the principles in the book, and Presence left me feeling more at peace with this idea that it most definitely will take a lot of time to become confident in myself because the concept of a nudge is just a small little habit, so small you don’t even really notice a change, and this is something I can definitely do without getting frustrated that there’s no massive change overnight.
Cuddy even references governments that have Nudge positions that seek to nudge the people of these nations to make healthier choices. If an entire government has to nudge in order to change things, then I can certainly afford to nudge.
The last chapter, “Fake It Till You Become It” also stems directly from her TED talk, and this idea is what I took most from the talk. In my cognition studies (working on an MM in Music Theory and Cognition), I’ve been learning about how much the body actually informs the mind and our own self-belief (it’s insane how much your mind relies on your body for judgment). This idea, then, that if you make your body act like you belong in a place (like a job interview, giving a presentation, at an academic conference), you can begin to believe it is scientifically based. And it works.
The advice is to spread your body out when you’re waiting to go into an interview, don’t scrunch up and look down at your phone. Go in the bathroom and starfish in a stall for a few minutes, and then when you have to wait, sit tall and take as much space as you want. It should also help with nerves because you’re forcing confidence on your body, and this lowers your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels and slightly raise your testosterone (associated with feelings of power).
Finally, Cuddy includes 30 pages of end notes that cite the numerous studies she discusses throughout the book. Being a cognition nerd, I found it extremely helpful to have all the studies listed in one place rather than being cited in text as footnotes. In some cases, she notes that there are thousands of studies on certain subjects, but she still cites more than one. Thus, this book is a valuable resource for those who’d like to do research on presence, nudge theory, or embodied cognition. Just begin your search with the sources listed in the end notes, and that should give you a lot to start out with.
I frequently found myself crying in reading this book because for the first time in a long time, I began to feel hope again that I could achieve or become my dreams. All I had to do was act like I could do so until I finally began to believe them.
The conversational style of this book differs from other scientifically based self-help books, and because of this, I read the entire book in about a day and half, which is pretty quick for me. I tend to ruminate over these ideas, but I could not put this book down.
Many of my personal impacts are included throughout the content section of this review, so I’ll end with this: Amy Cuddy’s attitude to bettering oneself really resonated with me. She focuses on the idea that if you learn to be present, you can spread that feeling to others by just being present. Confidence does not rely on arrogance. You can be confident and build others up, and that motivated me more than any other self-help book I’ve encountered.
I tend to feel selfish for wanting to make myself better, but by framing it as making oneself better in order to better help others, Cuddy left me with this feeling that it’s okay to want to become better, and that’s actually how I can make the world a little brighter.
I am humbled by her humility and desire to help others, so I cannot recommend this book enough.
Who is this for?
Honestly, this book is for all humans. If you have ever felt less than confident or like you were a fraud, then this book is for you. As a musician in academia and in the real world as well as a fiction writer, I feel a deep connection to imposterism in the creative fields and in upper-level academia, but this feeling is common to pretty much everyone. If you haven’t felt this way, good for you! Otherwise, I think this book has the potential to change your life.
This is what a self-help book should do. It should make you feel deeply because than internality becomes your motivation when it gets hard. It gives you hope that you can be better. And it provides a direction to make the world a better place, which is something most people want to do.