The One Skill You Must Develop

How you can use executive presence to win over any room

Written by Bart Egnal

Time and again I sit with senior executives who share similar comments about talented team members whom they can’t promote:

“She can make a balance sheet sing but when I put her in front of the Board she wilts and they lose confidence in her.”

“He is one of the hardest workers on my team and I’d like to promote him, but the reality is he can’t hold a room and no one picks up on his very good ideas.”

“My CFO asked us to put together a list of our up-and-comers for an offsite, and though I wanted to include this individual I don’t think he’d make the right impression because he tends to mumble and act stand-offish.”

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These comments and observations all speak to the increasing importance being placed by organizations on how their leaders show up and connect (or don’t) with others. This ability to be seen and heard the right way is often described as presence.

Yet presence isn’t uniquely important for aspiring CEOs; presence is fundamental for anyone whose success stems from the ability to connect with others and be heard. Think of the basketball coach who must connect with a team of strong personalities, or the teacher who needs to hold the attention of a classroom of 30, or a financial planner who wants to build relationships through networking. All of these individuals depend on their presence to succeed professionally.

The good news? Presence can be developed. Here’s a look at this important quality—and how you can learn to project it.

Presence means being present

What exactly is presence? It is not a loud, rah-rah style that one might associate with the likes of Tony Robbins or other motivational speakers.

At The Humphrey Group we believe presence is the ability to create a genuine and powerful connection with an audience. When this occurs you and the audience are present—and everything else falls away.

This ability to connect is critically important in today’s busy, distraction-filled world. If you can speak with presence listeners will put their phones away, banish competing thoughts and be totally focused on you and what you are saying.

Presence Begins With Intention

The ability to project presence begins with the desire to create a strong connection with an audience so you can share your ideas with them.

This means you can’t be present all the time. You have to have a clear reason in your head to project presence—and clarity about whom you wish to project it with.

Jeff was an up-and-coming geologist at a major mining company, when I started coaching him. He told me he had recently got some negative feedback following a company social event. His boss had told him he had been loud and had come off as over-eager with the executives who were at the event.

Jeff confessed he had tried to “turn up the dial” because he felt like he wanted to be seen and heard by the senior people in the company. Yet when I asked him why he wanted to connect with them, he wasn’t sure.

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Over the course of a few coaching sessions Jeff realized that the person he really wanted to connect with was the COO, with whom he wanted to share an idea about improving exploration practices. At the next networking function he focused on starting a genuine conversation with him, and drew confidence from the knowledge that he had something important to share. He was able to demonstrate presence with the COO in a way that was genuine and effective.

Identify whom you need to connect with and for what purpose before you try to turn the presence dial up.

Presence Is Projected Through Your Body And Voice
You create a strong connection with your audience through your physical and vocal tools.

You should use your eye contact to establish and hold a connection with your listeners. You should use open, confident body language to show you are present, and your gestures to convey your ideas. And you should use your voice to signal your commitment to your ideas.

Initially you may find the purposeful use of your voice or body language feels forced, but remember that what really matters is the impact it has on your audience. Eventually you will reach the point where what resonates with them will also feel good to you.

Begin by using eye contact to establish a strong connection with an individual in your audience before you speak. Avoid scanning the room and remember that presence begins with a meaningful connection with one person, which everyone else will feel.

True presence is authentic

It’s crucial to remember that you have your own unique presence, and to find ways to consciously project that presence rather than emulate someone else.

You are projecting your authentic presence when you are fully connected with your audience, and are using all your physical and vocal tools to convey your ideas to them. Everyone has moments like this in life—what sets leaders apart is that they are able to intentionally achieve this when they need to.

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To identify when you are projecting authentic presence, ask your co-workers to tell you the moments when they felt you were at your best.

Presence requires conscious effort to project

Just because true presence is authentic doesn’t mean it is effortless. Often people who are characterized as “naturals” have worked unnaturally hard to project presence. Consider Steve Jobs, whose product introductions for Apple were ostensibly relaxed. He spoke conversationally and was fully connected with his audience. Yet Jobs was notorious for his meticulous and extensive rehearsals in the weeks leading up to his presentations.

Even if you aren’t giving a keynote talk, get your thinking clear and practice delivering your remarks or elevator pitch in the mirror before the real thing. Presence is an increasingly important skill in and out of the corporate world. It’s by no means an innate ability but with commitment and intention presence can be nurtured and developed. If your success depends on it, I encourage you to begin consciously working on your authentic presence.

Bart Egnal is president and CEO of The Humphrey Group, which teaches people to communicate as inspiring leaders and express ideas that move others to action. The company has offices in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Mexico City, and serves clients around the world.


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