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Writing with Presence, Part I

Posted on Wednesday, December 30, 2015 at 4:19 PM

Aiming for presence in your confidence, communication, and subject matter.

By Peter P. Jacobi

The dictionary says "presence" has two meanings: "fact or condition of being present" and "appearance or bearing." Both can fit into a discussion about writing, the power and significance thereof.

But consider also social psychologist Amy Cuddy, who works at Harvard and has written and recently published an already much-discussed book titled Presence, a state she says we can achieve by accessing our personal power, by applying the right body language, a posture of confidence, even when we don't feel confident. Such a level of control has an impact on testosterone and cortisol levels that, she argues, directly impact our chances for success.

"When we judge others, especially our leaders," Cuddy explains, "we look first at two characteristics: how lovable they are (their warmth, communion, or trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (their strength, agency, or competence).... Researchers agree that they [lovability and fearsomeness] are the two primary dimensions of social judgment." And why are these traits so important? "Because they answer two critical questions: 'What are this person's intentions toward me?' and 'Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions?'"

Presence in Your Language and Confidence

Well, these ruminations on presence can work in our favor as writers and editors, too. Not so much with our personal selves; our body language has only the slimmest of connection as we seek success. But the language we push forward on others has considerable importance. What we do verbally requires presence, some sort of distinguishable bearing. Confidence is part of our presence. Warmth and fearsome strength are parts of our presence in copy we produce. Our own personality, as deciders of how we use the language and how we pass along the substance of our message, contributes.

Presence in Your Communication

Humdrum work on our part is out of the question if communication is a goal. We need to know up front what it is we want to accomplish. We need to seek the best possible, most interestingly possible information, to which we add our most attractive scene stealing and storytelling, our most convincing explanation and argumentation. We need to enrich all we do with language that does what it must do for presence: startle, soothe, impress, inspire, sway, inform, engage, or sell.

With endless choices available to our reader, our writing must acquire presence, that way to earn and keep the reader's attention.

Presence in Your Subject Matter

Subject matter can gain you presence, as did New York magazine recently: two pages with outsized letters stretching across them, titled "Some Reviews of Some Opening Lines of Some Recent Books." Here are several taken from the lot: "I was made in a small square dish" (from Katherine Carlyle by Rupert Thomson); "Tamara sat before a runny omelet on a plate, the vestiges of sleep still clinging to her" (from The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya); "Dogs start the day with a spoonful of Alpo or some other canned meat on top of a heap of patented vitaminized kibble" (from This Old Man: All in Pieces by Roger Angell), and "Chapter One. He adored New York City. He idolized it all out of proportion" (from Capital: New York, Capital of the 20th Century by Kenneth Goldsmith).

There are four more beginnings, and all eight books are given dwarf reviews. The one for Katherine Carlyle reads: "The narrator is an IVF baby, and this is a good example of an attack sentence that immediately puts a novel's preoccupations on the table. The key words are 'made,' because it's not 'born' or 'conceived,' and 'square,' because squares are unnatural." The large type, the rundown of beginnings, and the reviewing service add up to a readable and creatively put together piece. Presence aimed for and achieved.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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