You don’t have to look like this to have executive presence
Whether you’re trying to sell important ideas internally, or complex solutions to customers, chances are you’re going to have to convince a high-level audience at some point. To the uninitiated, this can be pretty intimidating, unless they can figure out a way to cloak themselves in that indefinable aura called “executive presence”.
On the surface, it may seem difficult if not impossible to define exactly what executive presence is. We may be left in the position of Justice Potter Stewart when he said of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
Yet, if you define it properly, it then becomes possible to deconstruct and examine the elements that contribute to executive presence. In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, ethos was one of the three pillars of persuasive argumentation. Ethos is a quality of the speaker that determines whether the audience believes and trusts them. It is the impression created by your reputation, behavior, and appearance that adds to the persuasive power of your presentation.
Ethos is also specific to the audience; every audience has a different view of what constitutes credibility. Mitt Romney would be very credible to an executive audience, but probably not so much if he were to speak to Occupy Wall Street protesters.
Putting those two ideas together, we will define executive presence in this chapter as reputation, behavior and appearance that creates a positive feeling of credibility and trust in you among an executive audience.
That definition allows us to create a model that captures the ideal elements of executive presence, as shown in this figure.
On one side of the chart is competence: do you know what you’re talking about, and do you apply that knowledge and ability with their best interests in mind? If you can do that, we will respect you and your message.
Competence is not enough, though, if you can’t communicate effectively. If they can relate to you personally, they are much more likely want to listen to you. Here we see five qualities that make a difference in how executives perceive you: candor, conviction, confidence, genuineness and appearance.
Just like any other model, it’s a simplification of reality, but it allows us to isolate specifics that we can work on. Let’s define each of these essentials:
- Knowledge: Do you know what you’re talking about? For many, their reputation and credentials are an advance signal of their knowledge. If someone is introducing you, have them tout your credentials, so you don’t have to come across as boastful or defensive. Otherwise, you can subtly signal your credentials through your stories, examples and questions.
- Motives: Do you have my best interests at heart? You can be the smartest person in the room but if they don’t trust your motives anything you say will be immediately suspect. The best situation is to have no motives other than the good of your listeners. If you are completely disinterested—you have nothing to gain if the listener does as you advise, your credibility goes sky-high. But of course, that’s not possible to do as a salesperson. They know you’re there to sell them something and that you benefit if they buy. So, don’t try to hide it; see #3 below.
- Candor: Do you tell it like it is? Sophisticated audiences prefer two-sided arguments, so they will appreciate a speaker who candidly discusses disadvantages and weaknesses, or who is open about their motives.
- Conviction: Do you believe it? This is probably the most important element of all in projecting credibility. Your listeners may not agree with you, but they will respect and appreciate anyone who clearly and strongly believes in the proposal they are presenting. Don’t be afraid to let your conviction show through. Conviction is not the same as passion, which can be viewed with suspicion at executive levels.
- Confidence: Are you confident? As social beings, humans are exquisitely attuned to the relative power between individuals, and confident language and demeanor are our principal tools for expressing our power, so it’s important to be aware of how your speech patterns and demeanor affect your persuasiveness. As to speech patterns, be concise and avoid power leaks, such as hedges and excessive filler words. For a confident demeanor, follow the advice your mother taught you when you were very young: “Stand up straight, look people in the eye, and smile”.
- Genuineness: Are you real? People want to relate to you as a real person. It does not mean “letting it all hang out” and being completely transparent and honest. It means presenting your best self for that particular situation. Be friendly and professional, and act like you’re excited to be there.
- Appearance: Do you look the part? Even though we’re all familiar with the old saw that you can’t judge a book by its cover, we all do. In fact, in our increasingly distracted society, we are probably less likely to take the time to look past the cover if it does not attract us. It’s the same with your presentations: the world is not a fair place, and the unfair fact is that attractive people are more likely to get their way. While you can’t control your physical looks, you can dress professionally, pay attention to your grooming, and make sure that all accessories, such as slides and handouts, are professional and well-designed.
If you can project these qualities, you should easily be able to project executive presence, even if you aren’t tall, grey-haired and square-jawed.