Years ago, pre-pandemic, I was conducting face-to-face coaching sessions with Creative Directors at an advertising agency in New York. One morning stands out to me now as I write about having presence because of the stark difference between the presence of two Directors in consecutive sessions.
The first one had what we call executive presence. He projected self-confidence and poise, he was decisive and clear when he spoke, he had a polished appearance and he seemed generally interested in connecting and listening – in other words he was present in our conversation. The next Director, while obviously very talented, arrived harried (and said he was always in a rush). He spoke quickly and breathlessly at first and was obviously distracted. He found it hard to maintain eye contact and constantly undermined himself as he spoke. The more comfortable he got in our conversation the more he relaxed. His communication became clearer and he became more engaged and present. However, the impression was already made and it was apparent that in his day-to-day, he struggled to signal to people around him that he was a competent, trustworthy leader.
Having presence can be beneficial to all of us – not just professional leaders – as it helps us to build relationships and achieve our goals, big or small. When you have a strong presence you are signalling to people that you are comfortable and confident in yourself and you are someone to be trusted and listened to.
Below is a breakdown of what I see as the three elements required to cultivate a presence that influences and engages the people around you. Yes, some people have a more natural ability to cultivate presence but this is not a situation where you either have it or you don’t. Presence is made up of a set of learned behaviours that can be built when focused and worked on.
The Right Mindset
A mindset is an established set of attitudes and beliefs you hold that dictates how you show up. The right mindset is at the core of cultivating presence. It is the foundation from which you can show up with self-confidence, poise and the ability to connect with people.
Firstly, and most importantly, you need a self-assured mindset. You need to believe yourself worthy to be there, to take up space, to have a voice. The most important work you can do on yourself is to identify, challenge and get rid of limiting beliefs and learn to trust, respect and be content with yourself.
Secondly, you need to have an authentic mindset. That is, you need to be genuine and conduct yourself by your own value system, not someone else’s. Humans are very astute at subconsciously and consciously picking up on inauthenticity and that will impact how deeply someone allows you to influence and engage with them.
And thirdly, you need to have an empathetic mindset. Having presence is in the eye of the beholder, it is something other people decide whether you have or not. So naturally, how you connect with people is crucial. Empathy is at the heart of all connections, it is what allows us to understand and relate to people. If you are showing up in a way that is self-focused and lacking in social awareness, you are not going to command attention and leave a lasting positive impression on others.
Projecting Self-Confidence & Equanimity
Projecting self confidence and poise or equanimity (the ability to be composed and calm, particularly under pressure) is crucial. This originates from a self-assured and self-worthy mindset but becomes evident to people through your behaviours and choices.
People pick up on your self-confidence and poise through non-verbal cues, body language, appearance, and overall demeanour. Most people start deciding whether you have a strong presence in the first seconds of interacting with you so, while some of the following elements may seem trivial, they are actually crucial signals of your self-confidence.
- Owning Your Space: A relaxed, calm (not fidgeting or trembling) body with good posture, controlled gestures that displays a sense of ease in its movements conveys self-confidence. A body that stands, moves and occupies space with purpose and ownership also signals self-confidence.
- Eye Contact: Eye contact makes people feel vulnerable so when you can maintain it (but not too much whereby you’re staring!), it shows you are strong and confident enough to open yourself up to be seen and to connect purposely with another.
- Genuine Smiling: Research shows that genuine smiles project self-confidence as it makes people believe you are comfortable and relaxed enough to be happy.
- Having a Voice: When you speak at a moderate pace, articulate your words, allow for silence and have the ability to speak up and hold your own in a conversation you project self-confidence.
- Relaxed Facial Muscles: A face free from tension or signs of stress projects calmness and confidence. A neutral expression can also signal composure (just be careful not to be devoid of emotion!)
Excellent Interpersonal Skills
When we witness a person with strong presence connecting with others it almost feels magical. They seamlessly engage, interact, influence and command attention in a way that feels elusive. However, just like we may watch a Professional Tennis Player or Olympic Gymnast and marvel at their magical abilities, it is important to remember that the ‘magic’ originates from the coming together of a set of skills and abilities that can be learned and built upon.
Here are some key interpersonal elements that create connection and strengthen presence:
- Learn how to actively listen (this is a skill!) to demonstrate genuine interest in another’s perspective.
- Have expressive eyes, along with eye contact, to signal your attentiveness to another person.
- Build Rapport to create a sense of mutual understanding, trust and connection and allow another to feel seen and heard.
- Communicate persuasively and compellingly by knowing when to hold your ground, when to let another speak, when to allow for silence and what tone of voice to use to command attention.
- Be adaptable and flexible in your interactions by adjusting your communication style to different situations and individuals to show your competence and capability in reading the room.
- Treat others with respect by acknowledging their opinions, even if you disagree, and avoid dismissive or condescending behaviour.
- Be attuned to non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language, to gauge the other person’s comfort level and adjust your approach accordingly.
Having presence is the gateway to influencing, inspiring and connecting with others that enriches your life and helps you to achieve your goals. Having a strong presence isn’t just impactful in professional settings for leadership and career advancement but in personal situations and relationships too where you want to show up as a credible and influential force.