See What Sticks: Presence Doesn’t Mean Perfection

Written by: Amma Marfo

I was so nervous about this moment, and so worried that I would look awkward on the stage, that I couldn’t even bring myself to stand. Instead I rolled forward a chair from the back of the stage, sat on it, and began.

I look back at that talk now and cringe — a lot. If I were critiquing it today, there are a hundred things I would change, starting with the wrinkly white T-shirt I was wearing. And yet … I had prepared carefully what I wanted to say, and I knew there were at least some in the audience desperate for TED to survive. If I could just give those supporters a reason to get excited, perhaps they would turn things around.

The passage above, shared in Chris Anderson’s recently released guide to TED talk-style speaking, conveys a lack of polish that strays far from the TED standard- a standard we’ve become accustomed to in the inspirational capsule talks we see online and live across the country. And yet, the capitalization on message and feelings of the audience was enough to inspire, we learn later, a standing ovation for the talk Anderson would go on to give.

Looking back on Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s new book Presence (itself inspired by her wildly popular TED talk), that was the piece that stuck out to me the most significantly. Before reading it, I believed it would be a treatise on how “power posing,” a practice referenced frequently in women’s empowerment circles and semi-officially endorsed by Shonda Rhimes, was a cure-all for fledgling communication and confidence. But as a nearly 300-page length would imply, there’s more to it than that. Cuddy defines presence as follows:

Presence, as I mean it throughout these pages, is the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential. That’s it. It is not a permanent, transcendent mode of being. It comes and goes. It is a moment-to-moment phenomenon.

This moment in the book was a powerful one for me, because it freed me from the obligation of having to be present all the time. My mind has to wander (and, because of anxiety, does often). But if I could, for whatever reason, only harness presence in the moments where I need it most, that would be enough.

Cuddy reinforced this idea when she references a study by Jennifer Carson Marr and Dan Cable, a pair seeking to determine whether a company would make better hires if they focused on the attractiveness and suitability of their candidates, or on making themselves appear attractive and suitable to others. What they ultimately learned: the more concerned they were with appearing likeable and desirable as an employer, the less successfully they brought on qualified and suitable candidates. That is, if you’re looking to bring someone onto your team, focus less on yourself and more on what they can bring to it.

Hidden within this study was an important gem that we often overlook, or convey in a well-meaning but eventually off-putting manner:

When we care deeply about something, presenting it to a person whose feedback we value might make us nervous. We can be both confident and a bit anxious at the same time [...] so don’t get caught up in the idea that you have to somehow magically erase all traces of nervousness. Trying to force yourself to feel calm is not going to help you become present.

Cuddy goes on to call out an odd paradox: when we’re going after something we want, we feel immense pressure to be seen as flawless, perfect, and unflappable. However, when we come across people who do convey this, we aren’t compelled to trust them. They seem too composed, too confident, too eager. How can we want a quality so badly in ourselves, and yet find it suspect in others?

The solution to this, in Cuddy’s and my eyes, is to strive for presence and not perfection in our most significant encounters. Focus, in the moment, on the end goal we’d like to see and doing what it takes to get us there. That doesn’t take nervousness or anxiety out of the picture by any means- it simply acknowledges it, but recognizes that it shouldn’t take over the encounter. It won’t magically erase our ums and uhs, nor will it steam the wrinkles out of the T-shirt we may have worn to the occasion. But it will draw us away from those anxieties, and toward the larger goal of what we’re working on. Dedication to relatable presence, and not elusive perfection, in those moments gives us the space to be our best selves when the stakes are high.