A strong baseline
During her coaching, Riley and I worked to develop her executive presence. She was a determined learner and had made strides that were already getting noticed.
“I have something for you to watch,” she said one day as we sat down to begin a coaching session. She spun her laptop towards me. On the screen was a video freeze frame of Riley sitting at a conference table, a spiral-bound slide deck on the table in front of her. No one else was in the frame. She was clearly the presenter.
She said, “I delivered thirty minutes on our Asian energy strategy to the global investment team. I have it on video. I’d love for you to give me some feedback.”
“Great!” I said. “How do you think you did?”
“You tell me.”
“I will!” I answered. We both laughed. “But your experience is important, too. A lot of times, what people tell themselves is what makes them succeed as a presenter.”
“Or fail,” she added.
She went on. “I think I did well. I knew my stuff and was well prepared. I’m pretty comfortable when I know the content.”
“Sounds like it went well,” I said, pleased for her. “Let’s see.” She hit ‘play.’
Riley as a presenter was not much different from the Riley who sat across from me during coaching conversations. She was a confident young executive with a pleasant presence. She wasn’t overly serious. She seemed efficient and genuine.
We watched about five minutes before she paused the playback and asked what I thought.
I told her that, of course, I couldn’t comment on the content; her data was a language I didn’t understand. But in relation to her executive presence, I said there were three things I thought were going well for her and three things I wanted to continue to watch for on the rest of the video.
I named the three behaviors that were working for her:
- Her conversational style
- Her physical composure;
- Her use of language.
Riley’s three strengths, plus her three growth areas, are not the only behaviors that will help you display executive presence when presenting, but they’ll give you a dynamic baseline. If you’re not certain how to develop these behaviors, this archived Executive Coaching Tip will provide a method.
About Riley’s conversational style, I said, “You’re so natural, Riley. It doesn’t feel like you’re ‘presenting.’ It sounds like you’re just talking. It makes you easy to listen to.”
“Sometimes I worry I might be a little ‘perky,’ you know?”
“Well, you’re expressive, yes. But you’re not super-caffeinated. It’s a completely professional style. And very relaxed. Which actually connects to the second thing: your physical composure.”
“You mean my gestures? Because I’m not doing much of anything.”
“I agree. Your hands are not busy. You’re not touching your hair or touching your water bottle or fingering the pages of your deck. Which is great. Your hands look composed.”
“I never thought of that,” she said, “but I guess it’s true. I’m not playing with my hands.”
“You’re not fidgety anywhere in your body,” I said. “You’re not bouncing your heel under the table, for example. Physically you seem composed. You look like you belong there.”
“I do belong there,” she said sincerely. She knew I agreed.
I said, “You not only look like it, you sound like it, too. That’s number three. Your use of language.”
She gave a little smile and said, “I have no idea what you’re about to tell me.”
Engaging our ears
“I bet you do,” I replied. “You know you’re well-spoken, don’t you?”
“Well, you are. And it sounds executive.”
“Can you give me an example?” she asked.
“When you talk, you naturally mix up the the length of your sentences. Some are long, some are short. At one point you said three words very distinctly. You said, ‘Not. Even. Once.’ Very emphatic. And then you stopped. Nice short sentence. Just. Like. This.”
“I planned that.”
“Good! It worked! Short sentences get our attention. But then, at another point, you dropped a long parenthetical digression inside a sentence, clearly off the top of your head, and managed to follow that whole sub-thought and come back to the main part of the sentence perfectly. It was impressive.”
“Did I?” she asked.
“Yes, you did! So you naturally mix up long and short sentences. That variety of structure keeps our ears engaged. It’s good. Plus, you just speak smoothly. You aren’t searching for words and stumbling. But you don’t sound memorized, either.”
Behaviors to develop
“OK! Lucky me,” she said. She did a quick mental inventory, then counted on her fingers. “So I’m conversational. I’m composed. And I talk good.” She smiled at her intentional bad grammar. “So what are the three things I have to work on?”
“Well, they sort of overlap the three strengths.”
“Really? So what are they?” she said.
Now it was my turn to count on my fingers. I ticked off, “Your posture right at the start; your eye contact and”—I gave a little laugh and shrug—“something else in your use of language.”
She nodded, then asked, “What was I doing with my posture at the beginning?”
“You were like this.” I pulled my pad towards me until it was almost at the edge. Then I folded my hands, put them in my lap, and sat up straight.
She laughed. “Oh, no! You’re perky! Was I perky? Tell me I wasn’t perky!”
I laughed back. “No! You weren’t perky. But you weren’t executive, either.”
She twisted her lips. “If that’s what I looked like, I agree, not executive.”
“So show me ‘executive’ in that setting,” I said, giving a point with my chin.
She immediately raised the height of her chair and scooched her body forward to the edge of the seat. She placed her forearms on the table and shifted her weight onto them. Then she pushed her iPad forward, out onto the table in front of her.
She looked at her computer, comparing herself to the frozen image on the screen. She nodded at what she saw. “My posture is pretty close to that.”
“By that point, yes,” I said, indicating the screen. “But that’s five minutes in. Why not look like that from the instant your butt hits the seat?”
“Point taken,” she said, and made a note. “And number two was what? Eye contact? Really? I think my eye contact is pretty good.”
Seeing, not looking
“It is pretty good. In fact, it’s better than most, Riley. You are not looking at your deck. Hardly at all. And that’s great.”
“But . . . ?”
“But I’m not sure you’re seeing us,” I said. “Your eyes are in a mode I call ‘pan-and-scan.’ Your head is up, yes. And, yes, your eyes are on us. But you’re scanning over our faces. You’re not really seeing us. You’re just looking towards us.”
She looked away, recalling. Uncertainly she said, “I guess.”
“How many people were in the room?” I asked.
“About thirty, and another thirty around the world.”
“Here’s my test about eye contact. If one of the thirty people in the room had suddenly had a question, would you have noticed? I’m not talking about someone raising their hand. That’s too obvious. But what if someone suddenly tilted his head and screwed up his face a little. Would you have seen that?”
“Maybe. I’m not sure. I’d like to think so.”
“That’s the goal. Really look at us. See us.”
“Ew,” she said with a little shudder, “there are some people in that room I really don’t want to connect with when I’m presenting.”
I laughed sympathetically. “And that’s fine. But don’t turn everyone into a blur. Listen, Riley, this is hard. Seeing us while you’re presenting means knowing your content, presenting it confidently, and still having enough capacity left over to register what you’re seeing. It’s like you’re adding a function that has to take data in, not just pump it out.”
She shook her head. “I never thought seeing them was something I was supposed to be doing. I thought I was lucky I could focus on myself, let alone take them in!” She stopped herself and said, “What was the third thing? Use of language. What was that?”
Giving ideas space
“Oh, this was interesting.” I said. “It doesn’t show up until about minute three. In the beginning, you’re exactly like I mentioned. Crisp. Well-spoken. No ‘uhs’ or ‘you knows.’
“I hope not!” Then she cringed. “Did I start saying ‘um’?”
“No more than any one else. We all have some ‘ums.’ That’s not an issue. No, what I noticed is that you stopped pausing. Your sentences started butting up against each other. You weren’t talking faster in terms of words per minute. You just stopped leaving space between your ideas.”
“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”
I found a place on the video when the pauses between her sentences almost disappeared. We listened.
“Golly,” she said, “I’m hardly taking a breath.”
“But it’s not like you’re having an anxiety attack. Quite the opposite! I think you’re hitting your stride. Your thoughts are flowing more quickly, so your sentences begin to connect to each other. And that makes it harder for us to take in your ideas. They begin to blend together.”
“It’s like I’m not putting periods at the end of my ideas.”
“Exactly. And when you eliminate pauses, our ears get tired faster. Plus, you send an unspoken message that it’s no longer a conversation. You’re doing a monologue. People are less likely to ask questions.”
“Oh, you don’t know this crowd. They’re not shy.”
“Maybe,” I said, “but you don’t seem as open. That’s why it’s an executive presence issue. I think really dynamic executives appear to welcome dialogue.”
“Instead of giving a lecture no one can interrupt,” she said in agreement. “No, I don’t want to sound like that.”
Riley wanted to watch the rest of the video together. Before we did, she made a list of the six behaviors we’d discussed. She wrote:
- Conversational style
- Physically composed
- See people
- Assume a power posture from the first instant
- Lay out each idea distinctly.
For Riley, those six behaviors enhanced her executive presence. For you, integrating any of those behaviors into your style, whether at a staff meeting or a formal presentation, will enhance your Look & Sound of Leadership™.