4 ways to be more present (and why it is a shortcut to more charisma)


Have you ever wondered why some people seem to have charm than others?   By charm, I don’t mean they have better looks, but they are full of life and energy; they make you feel good and inspire you; they make you want to learn more about them or even work for them.

What I’ve noticed is that these people have one thing in common: their presence. Whether it is a conversation with clients at work or a dinner party with friends, they are fully present. When you talk to them, you know you are getting their full attention.

So when I came across this book “The Charisma Myth” by Olivia Fox Cabane, I wasn’t surprised to find that presence proves to be one of the key components of charismatic behaviour. It is the foundation of the other two elements of charisma, which are power and warmth. Cabane found that when people describe their experience of encountering a charismatic person, whether Bill Clinton or the Dalai Lama, they often mention the individual’s extraordinary “presence.”

Presence, however, is easier said than done. One of the biggest enemy to presence is our brain’s ability to work tirelessly. The brain is super good at multitasking, wandering around and setting us on an “autopilot”. We are so easy to be caught in different thoughts and it pulls us away from experiencing the here and now.

A study conducted by Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert shows that half of the time our mind is somewhere else (or on “autopilot”) – when we are driving we think about that email we need to talk to a client. When we are talking to a client, we remind ourselves about the email we need to send out, and etc. The study also finds that when our mind is wandering, we are less happy than if we were fully engaged in the task at hand.

So what exactly happens when we are on autopilot? A study by neuroscientist Norman Farb and his colleagues at the University of Toronto investigated how people experience their moment-to-moment awareness and found that there are two distinct ways people interact with the world.

The first one is called the “narrative focus”, which activates the medial prefrontal cortex, as well as the parts of the brain associated with memory (e.g., Hippocampus). When we are in the “narrative focus” mode, we tend to move away from what is happening in the present and think about how the current event links to our past and future. For example, when you are enjoying a picnic on a sunny spring afternoon, rather than feeling the warmth of the sun and the beautiful spring around you, you are more likely to think that the sunny days may not last very long (especially if you are in London) and may start planning your summer vacation away to get more sun! This is your narrative focus in working, which involves planning, memorising, and daydreaming.

The narrative focus is active for most of the time when we are awake, and it is almost the default mode of our brain (that’s why it is also called” the default network”, i.e the “autopilot”). It has its importance as it helps us plan ahead and make decisions. However, being too involved in this narrative mode can also deprive us of the rich experience of life at the present moment.

So here comes the second way of interacting with the world that Farb and his colleagues discovered – the “experiencing mode”.  When the experiencing mode takes over, different brain areas become more active, including the insula (the part relating to bodily sensation) and the anterior cingulate cortex (the part regulating the attention switching). In this mode, we experience information coming into our senses at the present moment, rather than filtering it and linking it to the extensive information network already in our brain. In the picnic example, it means that we are more likely to enjoy the warmth of the sun and notice the colours of beautiful spring flowers around us.

What gets more interesting is that the two modes, the narrative and experiencing, are inversely correlated. When you are involved in mind-wandering, you are more likely to go through something without noticing what you are experiencing. Likewise, when you focus your attention on the present moment, you are less likely to activate the narrative mode. This also explains why sometimes it feels good to take several breaths before you give an important presentation or speech to calm down the nerves.

Both ways of interacting with the world are useful as they work together to give us a more balanced view of self and life, allowing us to access different parts of the brain as needed. However, problems may arise when we are too involved in the narrative focus that we miss out on the present moment, which is all we have in life at any given time. The lack of presence can  also affect our relationship with others. How would you feel if you talk to a person who is not fully present?

So we can we do to be more present in our lives? Here are four ways you can try:

1. Pause and breathe. We breathe all the time, but we are not always aware of our breathing. Breathing is often used as the anchor point for mindfulness practices because it gets us back to the present moment and our body. Mindfulness doesn’t have to involve sitting in the lotus position for a long time. Sometimes having the awareness that you are spending too much time in the narrative mode itself is a practice of mindfulness. When you want to switch out of the narrative mode, pause and take a few deep breaths to bring you back to the moment and to appreciate what is happening right here, right now in your life.

2. Wander together with your mind (when you are on your own). From time to time, take a walk with your mind and wander with it. It might sound counterintuitive but wandering together with your mind helps you raise awareness of your thoughts and emotions. There are two types of meditation practices; one is based on attention training, which is about anchoring your mind at a specific point (breaths or physical sensations rising in the body). The other is based on awareness training, which is about raising awareness of what’s happening in your mind, noticing it and exploring it. It is a bit like sailing: you can choose to stick with an anchor point or allow the boat to go with the direction where the wind blows. Whilst most meditation asks you to focus on an anchor point, sometimes wandering with your mind is an unexpected way to get to know yourself and your mind better.

3. Remind yourself to notice your autopilot. It is not difficult to be mindful, but it is not easy to remind ourselves to be mindful.  So if you’ve just started practicing, it can be very helpful to have something close to you that reminds you to be mindful. It might be a small stick on the back of your phone, or even a model plane on your key ring which serves as a reminder for you to live more in the present moment.

4. Keep a journal.  Keeping a record of your thoughts and emotions as you experience them can help you raise your awareness on the way you interact with yourself and with the world. While one could argue journaling itself is a narrative process by putting down your experiences and thoughts into language, it can serve as a bridge between the narrative mode and the experience mode. This may work particularly well for those of you who find it difficult to switch between the two modes.

Now I’d love to hear from you. What’s your experience of the two different modes of interacting with the world? What is your top tip on being more present in your life?If you find this article helpful, please share it with your friends so that they can also bring more presence (and charm) in their personal and professional life.

If you find this article helpful, please share it with your friends so that they can also bring more presence (and charm) in their personal and professional life.

Until next time,


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