Establishing executive presence doesn’t always require words

Part of being a C-level executive involves being a leader, whether the professional in question is the CEO serving as the face of the company or the CIO to whom members of the workforce turn when they have questions about data security or need guidance related to the firm’s IT processes.

Frequently, executives will find themselves in front of an audience, whether they’re addressing the entire company, making a presentation to board members and other stakeholders, updating employees, courting would-be investors or speaking at an industry event. Invariably, at some point throughout their careers, they’ll likely have become acquainted with the cardinal rules of public speaking directly related to the verbal aspect itself: Rehearse beforehand, deliver the speech in a confident tone, don’t talk too fast, connect with the audience by reaching out to them at their level, don’t overstay your welcome at the podium, etc. A big nonverbal aspect that most people know to pay attention to is eye contact, but that’s just one of the body language-related factors that may mean the difference between crashing and burning and being a roaring success.

SOAP Presentations recently released an infographic outlining 10 body language tips that can help make or break a presentation. Of course, looking the audience in the eye is on there (“People tend to naturally pay attention and to like people who look them in the eye,” the infographic notes), along with the almost-as-common advice to make natural gestures in order to punctuate key points, but there are also some deceptively simple tips included that many speakers tend to overlook. These include smiling at the audience to make them feel comfortable (“Smiling is our most powerful weapon”), varying gestures to avoid motions becoming staid or repetitive (the infographic suggests “open gestures, small gestures, gestures that involve your head, arms and hands, gestures that involve only your hands or only your head, broad gestures…”) and pointing directly at the screen during a part of the presentation that needs to be underscored.

Gravitas, presence and executive success

Through a mix of strong verbal and nonverbal cues, professionals can optimally position themselves to deliver successful presentations by establishing something known as “executive presence.” In a 2012 piece for Forbes, staff writer Jenna Goudreau outlined the findings of a study by New York-based nonprofit research organization the Center for Talent Innovation, which revealed the importance of executive presence in terms of commanding respect, influencing decisions and even standing out to management recruiters or earning internal promotions. According to the executives who took part in the survey, “the ability to project gravitas – confidence, poise under pressure and decisiveness” is the core characteristic of executive presence, while communication skills (including public speaking ability) and appearance are other key parts.

“It’s important to think about the three aspects of your leadership presence: the assumptions that you bring to every situation, the communication skills that you use and the physical aspects of your presence,” Muriel Maignan Wilkins, co-author of “Own the Room: Discover Your Signature Voice to Master Your Leadership Presence,” told Tom Fox, guest writer for The Washington Post’s On Leadership blog.

Writing for Business Insider, Jun Medalla outlined the seven core tenets – or C’s – of executive presence: composure, connection, charisma, confidence, credibility, clarity, conciseness

The results of the 2013 Gartner CIO Survey underscored the need to establish executive presence. When asked to name the top three leadership traits for CIOs, the 485 professionals who elected to answer the question identified business knowledge and acumen, communications and influence, and personal and professional demeanor as being more critical than a number of other important characteristics, including innovation (ranked seventh), organizational skills (ninth), technology skills (12th) and cost management (15th). Clearly, having executive presence is important, but how can leaders go about beginning to embody the seven C’s? Writing for The Daily Muse, Ashley Cobert outlined a few tips for leaders eager to improve their image:

  • Prepare for meetings ahead of time to avoid on-the-spot improvisation or uncertainty, as this will get in the way of appearing “calm, collected and the person with all the answers.”
  • Use body language to take control of the room without saying a single word. “Stand (or sit) tall, look engaged by leaning slightly forward and take up space by putting your arms on the table, not huddling them to your body,” advised Cobert.
  • Speak “clearly, firmly and loudly,” avoiding rambling and imprecise language.
  • Don’t hog the spotlight. Show other people that you’re engaged with what they have to say by soliciting feedback from the room at regular intervals, then maintaining eye contact and leaning toward them when they do speak.

Ultimately, honing the components of executive presence is crucial for aspiring or current members of the C-suite eager to strengthen the way people perceive them.

About Caldwell Partners

Caldwell Partners is a leading international provider of executive search and has been for more than 40 years. As one of the world’s most trusted advisors in executive search, the firm has a sterling reputation built on successful searches for boards, chief and senior executives, and selected functional experts. With offices and partners across North America and in London, the firm takes pride in delivering an unmatched level of service and expertise to its clients.

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