This article aims to help leaders, executives, and professionals understand and improve their presence. Presence, here, is the learned ability to secure impact and influence. To do this, we must understand how to engage, connect and influence through a set of skills. The physical, emotional and cognitive skills require awareness, mastery, empathy and influence.
Visualise the difference between two executives presenting a case. The first arrives late and is slightly chaotic. His shoulders are slumped, his head is down, and he has a scowl on his face. He starts presenting without looking up and establishing eye contact. He rambles and repeats. The audience starts to fiddle.
The second arrives early and is energised. She reaches out to introduce herself as people arrive. She is well-presented. Her posture is open and relaxed; she smiles and maintains strong eye contact. She welcomes and thanks the audience, starting the presentation with three clearly articulated points. The audience is engaged.
Mastering your presence is not easy. We learn various patterns throughout our lives with mimicry, trial, error and luck. It takes discipline and time to build your professional presence. Here are ten steps to work on.
1. Define your goal
In each professional interaction, multiple outcomes are possible. Begin by defining clearly what you want to achieve. Imagine the position of those you want to influence. What is their physical state? What are they feeling? What might they be thinking and planning for? Given this, how do you want to come across? What do you want your physical, emotional and mental signals to convey?
2. Prepare well
Just as an athlete prepares for a contest, your objective is to be ‘match fit’. Good sleep, relaxation, nutrition and exercise will set up your body and mind to have a more positive impact. During your exercise routine on the morning of the meeting, be sure to stretch out fully, raise your heart rate, and do at least three resistance (strength) exercises. This will optimise your hormones, reduce distress and clear your mind. Dress appropriately and check your posture in the mirror.
Work on your emotional state. This starts with generating relaxed energy. Seek the emotional state appropriate to the meeting. Expand your respect for those you are to meet and focus on what it will feel like to be successful.
Take a few minutes to clear your mind and remove distractions. Switch off your devices. Review the critical steps for the meeting, possible objections and variations and clarify the objective and why it is essential to you. Body, emotion and mind are prepared.
3. Secure the first second
Evidence suggests that the first 40 milliseconds determine how others respond or react to you. Set yourself up for that moment. Stretch out, open your posture while keeping it upright and relaxed. Don’t close your arms—or things—in front of you. Keep your hands open and visible. Seek a relaxed and warm smile with crinkly eyes. Look directly and respectfully at others. If you are too formal or dominant, you close the bond. Aim for calm, confident friendliness. Connect, then Lead is a good reference.
This is the hard part. With time pressure, risk and overload, self-awareness closes down, and we become reactive and fragile. I recommend the mantra for this critical function: ‘check body, check emotion, check mind’. Scanning your physiology, body, emotion, and mind must stay active. Learn to monitor your breathing, heart rate, posture, emotions and mental chatter.
Under pressure, the light of self-awareness drops away. You must keep it active. As long as you are conscious of your state (body, emotion and mind), you are in charge and can be responsive. This discipline must be practiced for years for it to be effective in a tough negotiation. Practice in safe environments. Name and tame. Rinse. Repeat. A coach can help. In time maintaining this biological insight will become natural and automatic.
5. Physical tips
The body is a big and loud signal. We have evolved to be alert to physical signals. A sharp inhale, quick withdrawal, tight jaw, lower eyelid, or fist elicit immediate changes in your state and those around you. A bulging jaw muscle can trigger a post-traumatic reaction in someone who might have grown up with an angry parent.
Take time to learn about your posture. Examine photos and ask those who know you what they notice. See a physiotherapist for a postural assessment. A regular massage will maintain flexible and relaxed shoulders and neck. Stretch daily. Be alert to how you are standing and sitting. Find a balance between slumping (withdrawing) and leaning forward (aggression). While you want your palms open and expressive, don’t flap about like a bird.
6. Emotional tips
Humans express a vast range of emotions with layers of subtlety. Your face and your voice are sending hundreds of signals at sub-second speeds. Emotions move us—fear into avoidance, anger into defence, and sadness into collapse. Others monitor our emotional signals so that they can react appropriately.
The foundation of emotional intelligence is to be able to perceive and master the play of these fleeting emotions. Learn to name your emotions. Make sure your signals are consistent. For example, to say ‘I’M NOT ANGRY!’ when your face is dark fury is confusing. Others do not feel safe, and trust collapses. You had no idea what you were feeling.
Learn to be finely attuned to these emotions. When conscious (name it), an emotion loses its compelling, reactive power. Now, one can ‘tame it’ and move toward a more constructive emotional state (reframe it). When emotions like curiosity, appreciation, gratitude and kindness prevail, we can attune to others fully.
7. Cognitive and language tips
One’s mind can be full of noise—an endless stream of mental chatter about this and that. Under the influence of fear, the mind runs into repetitive loops of worry about the future. When anger or sadness prevails, we ruminate repetitively on past events. When your mind is caught up in these mindless loops, consciousness fails. You cannot monitor your states, and you disengage from what is unfolding in others and in the process.
Hold your attention firmly in the present moment. Then you will be able to choose the right words to put your case clearly and effectively. Before you open your mouth, take a moment to ask what the best way to express what you mean.
8. Empathy versus empathic distress
In dialogue, the first priority is to feel safe. Then we want to know if we are being listened to. Finally, we want to confirm interest and care. Empathy is the process of making sure these signals are clearly received. With physical empathy, we step into the space of a conversation with warmth and confidence. Not so close or dominant as to threaten. Not too far back or distracted with devices. Demonstrate that you are fully present and engaged.
Meanwhile, pay close attention to the physical and emotional signals of the other person. What does their posture, facial expression or tone of voice tell you? Can you name and imagine what they are feeling? This is emotional empathy. Cognitive empathy helps you understand what they might be thinking. Check their body, emotion and mind.
We are designed to feel what we detect in others. Emotions can be strong and contagious. If a person is upset—panicked, furious or sad—the same emotion can infect you. If you are upset, you lose your ability to think clearly and solve the problem. It would help if you stopped the ‘empathic distress’. It leads to sympathy and overcare. Instead of encouraging them to solve their challenge, we let them off the hook. Even worse, we reward them with a treat or a bonus. This is poor parenting or management. At its worst, we lie. Instead of addressing the issue, we tell people, ‘everything is fine’.
Stay calm, positive and in control of your emotional state in difficult conversations. Do not let other people’s distress cause reactive emotional states within yourself.
9. Acknowledgement and resonance
You have fully engaged in a conversation. You are calm and positive. You have listened at all levels. You have an accurate read of the other person’s reality. The next step is to leave them in no doubt that they are safe, listened to and cared for. For example: ‘I appreciate and respect your honesty. It seems that you are feeling anxious and thinking we failed the client. Am I correct?’
You have acknowledged the other person fully and established what can be called resonance. There is a shared feeling of respect, honesty, support and trust. We have laid the foundations for powerful influence and leadership when these two are secured.
10. Flexible influence
Different people, times and situations require flexible influence and leadership. This is a super skill. You have secured your self-awareness (bottom left), mastered your own states (bottom right) and tuned accurately into others (top left).
Now, you are ready to step into influence and leadership. The challenge is to select the right style. Know when to be dominant and when to be more amiable. Know when to dial up the emotion and when to dial up logic. For example, if you are meeting the finance team, logic and amiable calm (guardian) will likely work best. If you are delivering a sales plan to the CEO, you will want to be more dominant and logical (driver).
If you are pitching to an entrepreneur, you will want dominance but also emotion (pioneer), and if you want the support of people and culture, you might be amiable and emotional (integrator). Knowing these styles and recognising the right match to a situation gives you the flexibility to secure a commitment from others in various circumstances. Again, it requires practice.
In summary, these ten disciplines can be practiced and perfected to help you put forward the best version of yourself and negotiate powerful collaboration with others. Rather than being unconscious and reactive, you will become self-directed, attuned to others and flexible enough to find the right solution to complex leadership.
Now, it is your turn.