Some people naturally shine in meetings. Others have to work at it. I count myself in the latter category. I’d like to share some tips that have helped me to improve my executive presence.
Ask a question, and then wait
I once got feedback that I didn’t wait for people to answer my questions. Instead, I would ask a question, and then another question. For example, I might say, “what do you think about how that last meeting went? I noticed you were a little upset. Have you had issues with Pete’s communication style?”
Offering a barrage of questions and comments is more confusing than helpful. Instead, ask a question, and wait. If it’s excruciating, count to yourself.
One of the biggest enemies of executive presence is anxiety. Anxiety causes you to want to fill in gaps in the conversation. Practice asking questions and waiting.
What you will find is that this helps improve your executive presence. Asking questions is a very important leadership skill. Asking and waiting is your friend.
Use powerful language
Many leaders speak gobbledegook. You can do better. A few tips to improve your delivery:
Use active voice.
Instead of “it was decided”, say “I decided”.
Passive voice sounds like passing the buck. It is weak. When you use active voice, you sound like you’re taking charge. Use active voice!
Use simple words and short sentences
Try to say things in the simplest way possible. Ahem, let me try that again. Speak concisely!
This is typical management speak: “We’re implementing an operational improvement plan which should result in higher velocity”.
Instead, say, “Our plan should speed up engineering”
Avoid weak adverbs
Many people use adverbs to avoid responsibility. For example: “Likely this project will have problems”.
Remove the adverbs and add precision. For example: “This project will have problems, due to these reasons…”. Or, you might say, “This project resembles projects that have gone off the rails”.
Practice with your writing
The way to be a better writer isn’t just to write more frequently. It’s also to edit better. You can practice your executive presence by editing your writing. This forces you to think about how you communicate. As you tighten your written communication, it will help your spoken communication.
My favorite way to revise my writing is to copy and paste my writing into the free Hemingway Editor. It color codes your writing to show where your language is problematic.
Notice your intonation?
Some regional accents make statements sound like questions. I have such a dialect. It makes me sound uncertain, because I sound like I’m asking questions when I’m not.
I didn’t notice this until an executive coach pointed it out to me. I use a rising tone at the end of my sentences.
To combat this, I’ve practiced making my statements sound like statements.
Instead of “I think this is a good plan?”
I try and say, “I think this is a good plan.”
Be definitive, but make space for disagreement
I like to create space for people to bring up concerns. This makes me bias towards language that sounds hesitant. But you can do that without sounding weak.
For example, “I think this is a good plan” could be better phrased as “this is a good plan”. The “I think” is implied.
If you want to make space for disagreement, ask for it: “This plan looks great. But I’d like to consider all sides. What do you all think is the weakest part of this plan?”
Record and critique yourself
You can take advantage of virtual meetings by recording and watching them later.
I use Fathom to record my meetings. You can use a similar tool to record your meetings, and then watch and critique yourself. Look for times you weaken your own position.
Copy the people around you
I find it easier to copy other people than critique myself. I take an inventory of the skills of the people I work with. Who is good at what? Then you can observe how they do what they’re good at.
What has surprised me is that I could copy many of their skills. For example, I once worked with someone who was devastating in his strategic thinking. I watched him and learned from him. A few years later, I realized he wasn’t in a different world than me any more. He was still much better at it than me, but I had caught up.
You can use this same approach to improve your executive presence skills. Watch your peers, and copy from them.
Ask others to help you improve
You can ask a management peer, or your manager, to help you improve your executive presence skills. When I was working on this, I would ask my peers for feedback. I also asked my manager to observe me during meetings and give me feedback and suggestions.
They will notice things you won’t.
Don’t do all your thinking in meetings
One thing a coach pointed out for me is that I like to use meetings to get people to think through things with me. In executive settings, this can sometimes backfire. Executives look for certainty and don’t always want to dive into the details with you.
I now assess each meeting I’m in separately. They all have different expectations. A large executive meeting should bias you to concise and action-focused statements. An exploratory meeting might welcome investigation or debate. Your executive presence should vary depending on the circumstances.
Don’t worry about umms and ahhs.
Focusing on your failure modes while presenting in public may make it worse. A trick I learned in an executive presence class is to focus on connecting with your audience. They taught me to look around the audience, and look at a different person as I make each statement. To my surprise, that eliminated all my verbal tics!
Schedule time to prep for meetings
If you are the expert of what you’re talking about, you’ll have more to say, and will say it better. Schedule time to anticipate how a meeting will go. And think through what you should do to prepare ahead of time. Do your homework.
You don’t always have to think on your feet
If you’re the type of person that takes time to integrate something, own it. Say “Hmm, that’s really interesting. I’m going to take a day to think that over, and I’ll get back to you Wednesday with next steps”.
I’m not the best at thinking on my feet, and I used to get stuck when someone was asking me something I wasn’t prepared for. Nowadays, I try to respond with a quick action item about getting back to them.
Gender and racial stuff
I wrote this advice from the point of view of a white male in engineering organizations.
Women and people of color will face double standards. For example, black men in America often will be criticized for being assertive, where a white man making exactly the same comments in the same way will be seen as strong. A black man being angry is “scary”, whereas a white man being angry is “passionate”. Women face similar double-standards.
This can often lead to “you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t” situations. If you’re struggling with this, reach out to people who seem to be navigating it well and ask their advice. It sucks that you have to deal with this on top of the double-standard itself.
I’d love to hear how people have navigated this. If you have any resources you think will be helpful, please let me know so I can share them.
What else have you found?
Let me know your experiences with these tips. And if you have any other ideas to share, please do!
Alex Kroman, Bjorn Freeman-Benson, and Robert Goldmann taught me several of these tips. I learned a lot from an executive presence / public speaking class by SNP Communications – it was one of the best management training courses I’ve taken, though it was a while ago.
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