The Problem with Presence

There’s a reason people use the word “presence” interchangeably with “charisma.” Just the simple act of being here in this moment, being mindfully present with another human being can be so powerful that people instantly notice it.

But there’s just one small problem: what if THIS moment is where all of our worst fears lie? What if in THIS moment, an audience of blank faces is staring at you? In those moments, being told to “stay present” is like being told to just “stay put” in a burning building.

As a communication coach, I also know that THIS moment is the only one of value. So how do we reconcile these two true, but seemingly contradictory ideas? It is true that this moment is the only moment we have, and we function best if we accept this and embrace it. It is also true that sometimes, living through this moment is so terrifying that we can barely function, let alone stay present to it.

What’s a human to do?

Like any good puzzle, the solution shows up once we’ve shifted perspective.

Present-Day You. Here’s what I know to be true from years of working with people to overcome their public speaking anxieties: this moment is asking you to be present as the adult version of yourself, rather than your inner 9 year old who is scared witless of the audience.

Too often, it is that scared 9 year old who leaps out of your past and into your present. This inner 9 year old believes your life is on the line every time you get up in front of a group of people, and wants desperately to protect you by screaming that the best course of action is to turn tail and RUN. And if you’re 4 feet tall with only 9 years of life experience, flight is not a bad technique.

But if you’re a grown person and your only tool is flight, it’s time to expand the skill set.

The present day adult version of you has a very, very different perception of the audience you face. In fact, I’m going to pass the mic to the adult you for a sec (and feel free to say this out loud. It can be very therapeutic!):

"You are a grown-ass adult. This audience isn’t an angry mob coming to kill you. In fact, this audience is a group of every day people just like you, and they want you to win. All they ask is that you tell them what they need to know as clearly as you can, with as much of your personality shining through as you can muster. That’s it. Afterwards, you can go get a cup of coffee and a snack. Everything will be fine."

It can be a wonderful relief to remember that you get to choose which version of you is in charge.

So the next time you hear someone give the advice, “just stay present!” Remember that they are suggesting that you inhabit your adult skin and meet your audience with empathy, creativity and energy. When you combine that with good preparation, (and deep, calm, belly-breathing) nothing can stop you.