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Presence Is The Key To Confidence In High-Stakes Situations

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Show warm confidence without arrogance, says Harvard psychologist Amy Cuddy.

I recently had to give a keynote speech at a university fundraising gala. I've given more talks than I could remember, but this time I was a bit nervous. I had no slide deck or notes to lean back against. It was just me baring my soul before the audience.

I practiced and practiced and practiced, but I got to a point where practice was not helping anymore. I knew my material cold. I decided I just had to go out there and give it my best. I also power-posed, i.e. held the Wonder Woman pose, in the washroom prior to my talk -- a tip I picked up from Amy Cuddy, a Harvard psychologist and author of the best-selling book Presence.

In her wildly popular TED Talk, Cuddy says that our body language affects our self-perception. Her research shows that holding an expansive posture for a few minutes causes us to feel more powerful.

The trick worked. I finished my talk feeling that I'd given it my all. In fact, I was so happy with myself that I didn't care much about the outcome -- what the audience thought of my speech. Of course, I was delighted to hear that it was well received but that was icing on the cake. I was fully and wholeheartedly present, as Cuddy would say.

Presence, as she defines it in her book, is the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values and potential. We feel present when we feel personally powerful and that helps us bring our best and authentic self forward.

Here are some tips from Cuddy to help you achieve presence in high-stakes situations.

Believe your own story

One key factor that influenced my performance at the speaking engagement I mentioned above was that I believed one hundred per cent in what I was saying, and that came through.

In her book, Cuddy cites a study she conducted in which subjects had to speak for five minutes in mock job interviews to convince a panel of judges they were the right person for the job. Interviewees rated as more present were also rated as more authentic, believable and genuine, and those were better evaluated by the judges and recommended for hire.

"The more we are able to be ourselves, the more we are able to be present. And that makes us convincing," writes Cuddy. After all, if you don't believe your own story, how can others believe it?

Practice presence

The good news about presence is that the more you practice being present, "the more you learn to become present and the more present you are every time," says Cuddy. "It's all about that incremental change." Don't expect to achieve presence overnight. Rather, nudge yourself to make small tweaks to your body language and mind-set at every opportunity.

Fake it until you become it

Sometimes you have to fake feeling powerful so you can feel powerful. Ever felt like an imposter? You're not alone. Research shows that two-thirds of Harvard Business School students experience imposterim -- the belief that you didn't earn something and that you don't deserve your success. Overcome imposterim by tricking yourself into feeling confident so you can show your true self to others, explains Cuddy. "You are tricking yourself into being yourself."

Show "warm confidence" without arrogance

Strive to portray "warm confidence." Showing strength without warmth is not sustainable. For others to keep supporting and promoting you, it's important to show warmth and be able to connect with people. "A confident person -- knowing and believing in her identity -- carries tools, not weapons. A confident person doesn't need to one-up anyone else," writes Cuddy.

That warm confidence also comes through online in your pictures on social media. For example, crossing one's arms conveys strength without warmth. It also shows that you're protecting yourself. The best way to pose for pictures is to place one hand on the hip and the other down.

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