The confidence and respect that successful executives enjoy isn’t simply conferred upon them by their job title. It’s the knowledgeability they project, the manner in which they conduct themselves, and the overall impression they create. These people embody “executive presence,” a term coined by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, and the title of her book. Her five-part Big Think+ expert class, Embody Executive Presence explains the inner workings of executive presence and how to cultivate it in yourself. It’s the key to attaining the sort of personal credibility that causes others to trust you and your vision.
The three elements of executive presence
For her book, Hewlett investigated executive presence by talking about it with some 4,000 mid-level professionals, including 300 leaders, across the U.S. and in a range of different business sectors. She found that executive presence comes down to three basic elements:
- Gravitas — This is the way you act, and it’s the most important element of executive presence by far. You exhibit grace and authority in high-pressure situations. You’re able to be tough and assertive with decisions, yet you have emotional intelligence that allows you to connect with all sorts of people.
- Communication skills — You’re good at making compelling and concise contributions, without props, and are comfortable reshaping your presentation on-the-fly to connect with any audience. You read the room well, and you command attention.
- Appearance — You’re well put-together, appropriately attired for any meeting, and you look fit, ready to handle the demands of the job. Hewlett makes the interesting point that though appearance isn’t a big factor all by itself, it is the way you make a first impression, and thus has the potential to disqualify you from further consideration.
Strengthening communication skills
In “Embody Executive Presence: Communication Skills,” Hewlett talks about how to strengthen your communication skills. She admits she likes talking about this element most of all, because it’s so learnable. The professionals with whom she’s consulted named three things that make for an executive-level communicator.
Lose the props
It’s understandable to feel as if you’ve got to back up every assertion in a presentation with charts, lists, graphs and other Powerpoint-like visuals. It’s likewise no surprise that you may want to continually check what you say against your written notes. All of these things, however, stand in the way of your delivering concise, germane, and thus persuasive information.
It’s not elementary school — you don’t have to show your work. You just have to make your case. “There’s huge preparation required,” says Hewlett, “if you’re going to walk into a meeting really knowing that there are four amazing points you want to make.” Just know them so well that “you can be nimble and present them in different ways, depending on how the conversation goes.”
The second most important ability is getting and holding an audience’s attention. Of course this is easier if your content hits its mark, but body language can also help. Sit squarely, showing that you’re paying attention — preferably with eye contact that conveys your attention to the speaker — and make sure you’re not “fiddling with your devices, massively important,” cautions Hewlett.
Read the room
Whether you’re talking to an individual or a group of people, it’s immensely helpful to know ahead of time who you’re trying to engage. Do your research on what’s important to them, and think about how you can frame your message so that it resonates with them — no need to hide your appreciation of their needs since it’s a sign of respect. You might even see if there are non-work interests you have in common with your audience you can unobtrusively fit into the conversation.
The Embody Executive Presence expert class
The five lessons in Sylvia Ann Hewlett’s Big Think+ expert class are:
- Embody Executive Presence: Overview
- Embody Executive Presence: Gravitas
- Embody Executive Presence: Appearance
- Embody Executive Presence: Communication Skills
- Embody Executive Presence: Getting Feedback