What makes Amy Cuddy a great communicator?

There felt to be something fitting about viewing Amy Cuddy’s TED talk (the second most viewed ever) in the week that Mattel brought out three new more diverse Barbies. Tall, glossy lipped, wearing a black belted cardigan, Cuddy starts out her talk brittle as moulded plastic. Then, two thirds of the way through, everything changes. She tells how a car accident when she was nineteen left her with brain damage, a diffuse axial injury or DAI. Crucially, for someone who had always thought of herself as highly intelligent, she was told her IQ has dropped by “two standard deviations”, removing her chances of going back to university. You can feel the audience connect, extending her an empathy that Cuddy clearly finds almost unbearable.

It’s a remarkable performance, one you feel just could not have been planned or scripted to have the impact it had. Clearly, Cuddy did make it back to university; she’s now Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard. And in her recently published book, Presence, Cuddy acknowledges that watching the talk now makes her wince; she hadn’t planned to reveal as much about her own story as she actually did.

It’s well worth reading Presence, particularly if, like me, you want to help people be more comfortable communicating who they are – particularly in high stress situations. One of the endearing things about Cuddy is that she suggests we start small; focusing on small tweaks that can help us to summon up the presence we need to get through interviews and pitches. Here are three of her ideas:

Firstly, Cuddy nails the inconvenient truth that it is not always what you say to your audience (the 7% of communications which everyone is familiar with). It is what you say to yourself that makes the big difference. “Presence emerges when we feel personally powerful, which allows us to be acutely attuned to our most sincere selves. In this psychological state, we are able to maintain presence even in the very stressful situations that typically make us feel distracted and powerless. When we feel present, our speech, facial expressions, postures and movements align. They synchronize and focus. That is palpable and resonant – because it’s real. It’s what makes us compelling. Our search for presence is not the search for charisma; its about the honest, powerful connection we create internally, with ourselves”.

Even though Cuddy has become more widely known for the Power Poses (discussed below), this work feels just as important. Many of the people I coach struggle with the Who am I Really? question. Particularly when working in firms that may well ask them to communicate enthusiasm they may not feel for the products and services they have to promote.(One of my first clients was Brand Manager for Toilet Duck). And while many think it’s nothing to do with anybody else, this conflict always shows – in our face, body and the way we express ourselves. The more we are able to be our “real” or authentic self, the more we are able to be present.

All of which requires that we are able to find and believe in our authentic best self. Rather than taking a battery of psychometrics to determine your strengths, Cuddy suggests asking yourself some simpler questions such as: What three words best describe you? Or When did I feel natural and “right”? What was I doing?

I’d agree. Increasingly, I am seeing the value in coaching of asking people to tell their own story (not the Toilet Duck story). A powerful way to do it is by starting with the bedtime story intro: This is a story about…. All too often people haven’t heard themselves tell their story to someone, such as a coach or colleague, who is vividly interested. The more you can clarify your story to yourself, and connect with it, the more you can trust that who you “really” are will come through more easily in what you say and do. And by grounding yourself in your authentic story, you become less dependent on the approval of others.

Secondly, Cuddy is interesting on the way that the body influences the mind, and the way that tweaking the way you hold your body can influence your mind; the story you are telling yourself. This thinking isn’t new; William James argued the case over a hundred years ago. But some of her material suggests ways to make yourself more effective in high stress situations. She has a nice example of the way that a crowd watching a football game will – world over – put their hands over the face if their team does badly. The same move in a meeting signifies defeat; shame, even. So getting out of the way of touching your face or neck in a meeting – something too many of us do unconsciously – is a good idea. And by adopting more open and expansive postures, we can make ourselves feel better and more powerful.

Thirdly, the thing you are most likely to know already about Cuddy, is her work on Power Poses, the idea that “we can pose our way to presence“. In brief, Cuddy is suggesting that if the body influences the mind, you can adopt certain poses – usually in advance of, rather than during – meetings – that will help you feel more authentic and, hence, more powerful. This thirty second clip shows how standing like Wonder Woman for 2 minutes can increase testosterone, associated with power, and reduce cortisol, associated with stress. (Sadly, though, it doesn’t explain how to get toned upper arms like Cuddy’s in the same space of time).

The thing that makes Cuddy a great communicator is the way that, almost despite herself, she tells a personal story – and makes herself so vulnerable in doing so that her audience can’t help but connect with her. And her generosity of spirit in sharing some simple suggestions that can help us fake being our best self until we become it. Let’s all hope that Mattel learn the lesson: we need Power Pose Barbie.