What is ‘executive presence’, and can it be learned?
This enigmatic and elusive notion of ‘executive presence’ (EP) may be a term surrounded by secrecy and shrouded in a certain degree of mystique. Many of us may view it as something obscure and elite that is set aside for the use of the leaders.
How do you acquire it, and how may you project it?
A highbrow concept
What first springs to mind when thinking about executive presence is that it can’t be easily described, but it is recognised immediately when encountered. We all know people who have it. Before coming up with a list of politicians and celebrities, it may be prudent to think of someone we know or have encountered on a professional or personal level.
That someone had the demeanour projecting an air of confidence and we are immediately engrossed in their presence. This person had the power of transforming the rooms and conversations. That is how we know they had it. The revelation here is that EP can be learned, and it is not such an implausible dream as may be commonly thought.
No one lands a top job or develops a significant following without this subtle but necessary combination of confidence, poise, and authenticity. This amalgam of qualities subtly persuades us we’re in the presence of someone remarkable. In other words, it’s a blend of attributes projecting to others that one deserves to be in charge.
Cracking the EP code means you’ll be given a chance of doing something extraordinary with your life. What is notable about EP is that it steadily proves to be a precondition for success regardless of your social standing and your profession.
The practical stuff
The first thing to know about EP is that it is a skill and not a personal characteristic, which means it’s something you can learn and nurture. EP is inarguably attainable for everyone, but like every skill, it requires regular practice and systematic effort in order to advance. As I mentioned already, you can have all the experience and qualifications of a leader, but without the cultivated EP, you won’t progress.
That being said, expressing those qualities doesn’t come easily. Your topic may be universally interesting and fascinating, however, unless you minimise distractions for your audience, you’ll never manage to convey that interest.
In 2013, Chia-Jung Tsay, an associate professor at the University College London School of Management, demonstrated through her piano competition experiment that the most accurate predictor of success in competition was not the musical performance itself, but whether a pianist could communicate their passion through body language and facial expressions.
Then, in 2020, she carried out a similar study, this time in a venture capital pitch competition. The participants were asked to forecast interviews winners after reviewing the contestants’ presentations in different ways, which included videos with sound, silent videos, sound recordings, and transcripts. The silent videos most accurately allowed people to identify the winning entrepreneurs, showing that, in the context of entrepreneurial pitches, stage presence is more than crucial – it is fundamentally everything. That being the case, a question arises whether effective communication is more about the medium rather than the message – and EP appears to be the answer.
Having or projecting EP begins by making the decision to start using EP. Workplace expert and professor, Sylvia Ann Hewlett makes a distinction of the three areas that are the backbone of EP:
- Gravitas – How you act;
- Confidence – How you look; and
- Communication – What you say and how you say it.
She also points to how interdependent these features are: if your communication skills lend you a “command of a room,” your gravitas will proportionally expand.
These universal dimensions are not equally important, however. According to Hewlett, gravitas is the very essence of EP. It is the gravitas that helps articulate qualities that mark us as worthy to be entrusted with accountability and serious responsibility. Without it, you will not be seen as a leader, no matter your credentials. Gravitas is what signals to the rest of the world that we should follow you. In opposition to charisma – the former superstar term in the world of business communication – gravitas is understood as the “ability to appear calm, confident, and steady” in the face of uncertainty is vital for every business’s survival.
The DNA of Executive Presence
The importance of appearance
As we saw from the two of Tsay’s studies, appearance is our main critical filter. It is quite deceptive and contrary to what people may be articulating. A person’s “grooming and polish” is a key contributor to executive presence. It’s very important to understand that the key to EP in the area of appearance is not a matter of what you were born with, but of what you do with what you have. The good news is that this can be learned and cultivated.
The authenticity conundrum
The primary struggle between conformity and authenticity is complicated. To what degree should we attempt to fit in and how much should we stand out? This tension can be particularly harrowing for women and minorities, due to the ‘straight white man’ archetype still so prevalent in the professional/corporate world. With age and experience, however, many of us notice that being different and authentic doesn’t necessarily keep us from moving up – on the contrary – it drives our progress.
The three pillars of EP
This ‘command-the-room and zoom’ quality essentially rests on the following three pillars:
Credibility can come in the form of your source of information and a formal introduction.
When it comes to your source of information, there are a few questions you can ask yourself: where does the information you are sharing with the audience come from? Are you providing information that is current and well researched? Are the findings and facts true, and from a reliable source?
On top of your sources, it’s important when you are addressing an audience you share your background and your experience, and the longevity of your career, especially if you’re talking to external stakeholders. Sharing the credibility of your team is critical in demonstrating the integrity and authenticity that surrounds you.
Lastly, the trustworthiness of the organisation you represent – their values and vision for the future, as well as how well they align to your own values and outlook – will contribute substantially to yours.
You engage with the audience through your speaking skills and ability to remain amicable and authentic. Staying true to yourself and letting your enthusiasm shine speak through your body language connects you to your audience. Being able to look your audience in the eye when speaking and presenting has a transformative effect on your ability to meaningfully engage and inspire. Be mindful of other non-verbal cues: your tone of voice, poise and your attire can also add to, or detract from, your power to hold their attention.
EP relies heavily upon solid structures, and without proper preparation, rehearsal and a routine that is consistently practised, EP will become scrambled and non-existent. Thorough preparation leads to more confidence. I believe that we all need to find our own structured routine that will support us prior to connecting with our audience over video, but also projects our EP in person, such as what social psychologist Amy Cuddy refers to as a power pose.
When it comes to handling questions and objections from the audience, your EP is under the microscope. As Leil Lowndes, author of How to Talk to Anyone says, “Every smile, every frown, every syllable you utter, every arbitrary choice of word that passes between your lips, can draw others toward you, or make them want to run away.” Hence the reasons why a structured response is vital to maintaining approachability and credibility all the way to the end of your presentation. While knowing your topic is a prerequisite, practising your delivery is crucial.
Building and cultivating your executive presence comes down to three aspects of our behaviour that can be learned with training and practice. The crucial next step is a decision to acquire and cultivate one’s executive presence. It is a choice on how you want to act, how you want to be perceived, what to say, and most importantly, how you say it. For some people, it is a strenuous process, more obvious for others.
There are no quick fixes; the practice requires commitment and effort. Once you develop an awareness of your behaviour, have a personal power pose, know your stuff and constantly practice your delivery, you will be on the way to finding your own EP formula.
Contact NxtGEN today to find out more.