Insane presence

Often, when we revisit places from our past we default back to the behaviours associated with those places. Weeks ago, I was at my parent’s house and I found myself flicking through the music channels, like I used to do as a kid when I was avoiding the outside world. I ended up pausing on some re-run of a music award ceremony. The host was introducing an artist’s live performance. In this case, Charli XCX. I watched as the lights in the arena dimmed, the camera’s flicked to the stage, and the music kicked in. What happened next astounded me.

Pyrotechnics flared and Charli XCX strode onto stage in a manner that took my breath away. She wasn’t wearing anything out of the ordinary. She wasn’t walking with an unfamiliar gait. No. What halted me in that moment was the purpose and the intensity with which she conducted herself. It was then that I realised the vast gulf that separates the average human being and the greatest performers in the world. In that moment I finally understood “presence”.

I recall listening to Robert Greene’s appearance on The Art of Charm podcast a few years back. Greene and the host got to talking about The 50th Law, Greene’s book with 50 Cent. Robert Greene went on to describe a meeting with Busta Rhymes. He described Busta as having an “insane presence”. For years, I wondered what that phrase meant. But thanks to my witnessing of Charli XCX’s purposeful, intense stride, I understand. Now, I’ll try to give voice to my comprehension.

My first interpretation of this abstract idea of presence has to do with division of attention. Consider this passage from Daniele Bolelli’s On the Warrior’s Path:

“Remembering his experience as a judoka, Mickey Hart likens the martial artist to a tiger: ‘Have you ever looked into a tiger’s eye? What immediately grips you is that the tiger is right there—all four hundred and fifty pounds focused with gleaming maximum attention on you. No distractions, no hesitations, just a calm, powerful contemplation.’”

When someone focuses on us with maximum attention, it’s unsettling. It feels as if we are being regarded by some Eye of Sauron, by some gaze that can penetrate past the masks and facades we erect to conceal our real selves. In fact, next time you have coffee with someone, try this; give your companion your undivided attention. Imagine that you can see a heads-up-display which indicates the allocation of your attention as a percentage. Try to get one hundred percent of your attention focused on the person you’re with. If you can manage it, one of two things will happen. Either your unyielding, questing gaze will make that person terribly uncomfortable, or you’ll have one of the most honest, intimate and memorable conversations of your life.

My second interpretation of the why behind presence has to do with status. It’s an idea from Keith Johnson’s Impro. Human beings are social animals, and thus our relationships and interactions are determined by status, by our relative positions in an ever-shifting number of hierarchies. Consider the relationship you have with your parents. Either you occupy the higher status position or your parents do. The way to tell is to look at gestures of deference, at the interplay of body language, and at who remains the focus of the interaction. Another way to understand status is to look to art. Johnstone makes the point that the majority of art revolves around status. Comedies are comedies because roles are freely usurped. Dramas focus on conflict between statuses; the ruler endeavours to keep the servants low, the servants wish to climb above and throwdown the mighty.

This idea of status all seems very abstract. Let me make it more practical. I’m going to describe two individuals. One is “high status” and the other is “low status”. Can you guess which is which?

Person A doesn’t talk very much. When he does he speaks quietly, and no more than necessary. His words are accompanied by the smallest of gestures; the slight motion of a hand, the imperceptible shake of the head, the ghostly presence of a frown or smile. His clothes are well-made and of neutral colour, and every movement he makes is accompanied by a sense of grace and gravity.

Person B doesn’t stop talking. And when he is talking—which is all the time—his words are loud and of differing character. The tone and tempo of his voices changes according to a scheme only he has knowledge of, and is coupled with wild gestures. His hands wave around, his legs twitch, his torso is in constant motion, bending, straightening and rocking side-to-side. His attire is threadbare, of faded, mismatched colour, and his garments barely manage to cling to his skeletal arms and pot belly.

It’s obvious who is high and who is low status, is it not?

Now, these two things together—allocation of attention and status—are, I believe, the key to understanding presence. What we mean when we comment upon someone’s presence is that they can devote all of their attention to a single activity and that they signal a high status. 

Going back to Charl XCX walking on stage: her “presence” mesmerised me, firstly, because all of her attention was directed towards her performance. She was, in common parlance, “in the zone”. Secondly, she was high status in that moment. Everyone was focused on her. Her movements were strong and graceful. Her gestures were measured and deliberate, rather than superfluous and exaggerated. Which is why I was stopped in my tracks, prevented from immediately switching the channel. 

In summary, consider this simple formula: high status plus singularity of attention makes for an “insane presence”.