31 October, 2022

12 Simple Tips that will Give You Amazing Professional Presence


Do people notice you when you are in the room? Do you get the attention you want – and for the right reasons? This is the phenomenon of presence. It’s related to, but different from, charisma and gravitas. And every professional needs it. You need it.

Sometimes we refer to it as ‘executive presence’. But I prefer the term ‘professional presence’. It means that you, as a professional, have an impressive bearing and a positive impact on others around you. They immediately notice you are there, and they welcome the fact.

Professional Presence is a crucial skill. So, in this guide, we’ll break it down into 12 actionable tips. These are changes you can make and things you can do that will give you presence. They will make you someone that people notice and take notice of.

Before you start:
What methods do you know, to get noticed for the right reasons?

12 Simple Tips that will Give You Amazing Professional Presence

Our Professional Presence Agenda

In this article, I’ll cover four things:

  1. Why Do You Need Professional Presence?
  2. What does Professional Presence Look Like from the Outside?
  3. My Twelve Tips for Professional Presence
  4. Beware the Extremes that can Poison Your Presence

Why Do You Need Professional Presence?

In your role as project manager and project leader, you need people to:

  • notice you,
  • respect you,
  • listen to you, and
  • be influenced by your opinions.

This all requires presence: it starts with them noticing you. But my preference for the term ‘Professional Presence’ emphasizes one point:

It’s not hard to get noticed.

People will notice any fool who wears a silly tie or ridiculous earrings. But this doesn’t mean they will respect or listen to you – much less, find you influential.

If you want professional impact, you need professional presence.

What does Professional Presence Look Like from the Outside?

Here’s a little irony. If you want people to pay attention, listen to you, and hear what you have to say; then you need to make them feel like you are listening to them, and understanding what they have to say.

From the outside, people notice the body language that signals this. In particular, this is in three things, your:

  • Eyes
  • Position
  • Posture

So these will be three key elements of our 12 tips. But, before we move onto those tips, I want to answer a question that comes up a lot in live sessions on this topic

How does Presence Relate to Charisma and Gravitas?

These three terms all overlap to a great extent.

But, in many ways, I think presence is a little different from these. It is more fundamental because you cannot have either gravitas or charisma, without presence. Here are my working definitions:

Gravitas: a serious approach that conveys authority and gives weight to your opinions. It is a solidity of bearing that inspires confidence in what you are saying. With gravitas, people want your ideas and advice and take them seriously.

Mike Clayton’s working definition of ‘gravitas’ in a professional context

Charisma: a charm that acts as a kind of magnetism that makes people want to follow you. It is an attraction that inspires enthusiasm, affection, and devotion. With charisma, people want to be with you – and to be like you.

Mike Clayton’s working definition of ‘charisma’ in a professional context

Presence: a manner or appearance that makes people notice that you are there. It conveys a sense that you are 100 percent aware of the situation around you. With presence, people notice you and feel you’re paying attention to them.

Mike Clayton’s working definition of ‘presence’ in a professional context

So, here’s the best part…

Gravitas, Charisma, and Presence are all learnable. It’s not that there’s some magic that some of us have and some of you don’t. You can learn the techniques and, by practicing them, increase your gravitas, charisma, and professional presence.

So, this article is the second in a series of three on our site. After you’ve read it, take a look at:

I’ll remind you at the end!

Mike Clayton’s Twelve Tips for Professional Presence

With the necessary preliminaries out of the way, let’s get down to business. Here’s the good stuff: 12 simple and practical tips that will improve your professional presence.

1: Good Professional Presence Means Being Present!

So, the single, most fundamental secret to professional presence is simple.

The clue is in the word: it’s to be present. 100% available to the people you’re with. There, with them, in the moment.

This means, not being distracted by where you’ve just been, what you need to do next, or the other people you can see in the room, whom you may also want to speak with. And, let’s face it, we’ve all been guilty of that. You’re speaking to Chris, but you’ve noticed Aftan has just come into the room. And your eye movement and body language leak information and tell Chris that you aren’t quite 100 percent in this conversation anymore.

The two steps to becoming completely present are:

Step 1: Mentally Attune

First, bring your awareness to yourself: your breathing, your posture, and where your attention lies. We’ll talk about posture and its close relative, position, soon. Then, once you have rekindled your self-awareness, move your attention outwards. Take in the whole room; its sounds, sights, and sensations. Then gradually draw your attention to the person or people you are with.

Step 2: Engage

Now give those people all of your attention. And engage with them. Look at them, ask questions, and listen hard to what they say.

2: Give Focused Attention

Focus all of your conscious thoughts on the other person or people:

  • how they are,
  • what they are saying, and
  • what it means – to you and to them.

And the deepest, most-focused attention, is when you pay complete attention to one person at a time.

There’s magic in the first two tips:

  1. Being Present, and
  2. Focused attention

If you do these two, and you do them really well, then all of the other things will happen automatically. The next ten tips effectively document the changes that happen when you’re truly present and giving focused attention.

3: Make Good Eye Contact

Some people find eye contact really difficult. This is largely because they find it uncomfortable. Others among us find it easy and comfortable. And, as you’d expect, there’s a whole spectrum of folk in between.

But the good news is this… Maintaining eye contact is much easier when you are listening than when you are speaking. And listening is far more important to presence (and charisma, and gravitas, by the way) than speaking is. If you don’t find it comes naturally, then it’s a matter of practice and determination.

But, how much eye contact?

That’s the question I get asked the most when I’m discussing this in workshops, seminars, and talks. There is a little research that suggests a good guide is around three seconds. That doesn’t sound long but, if you find eye contact uncomfortable, it can feel like an eternity. So, practice.

But, the plain fact is that we are all different. One person’s preference may be for no more than a fleeting glimpse of eye contact. While another will be comfortable with and expect long periods (by which we mean 10 seconds or so) of eye contact. So, how do you know?

Well, it turns out that, when you maintain good eye contact, your brain subconsciously picks up subtle cues from the other person’s eyes, when they are starting to get uncomfortable. Called ‘saccades’, their minute eye movements will start to increase, and your unconscious will register this. That’s when it’s time to break eye contact for a while.

4: Adopt the Right Position

There are three aspects to your position that can affect your presence in a room and in a conversation. So, let’s look at them one at a time.

First Position Point: Where you are

This applies mostly to how people perceive you when you come into a room. Do you head for the nearest wall or worse, corner, so you can hide from people? In British English, we have the term ‘wall-flower’. Or, maybe you take an assertive – even dominant – position at the center of the room. This announces ‘I’m here’ (loudly!)

Perhaps the best approach is to identify the person or people you want to engage with and approach them directly, looking them in the eye as you approach. Then, adopt a position near to them.

Second Position Point: How near you are

This brings us to the impact of space on presence. If you are too far from the person or people you are engaging with, it will diminish your presence. But, if you’re too close, it will make them feel uncomfortable. So, imagine that we all have a bubble around us. If you pay attention, you can detect the moment when they sense your bubble encroaching on theirs. Take half a step back.

If you are speaking at an event or presenting in a meeting, people may ask you questions. Once you select someone whose question you’ll take, step towards them, to signal an increase of your attention towards them. And then, be sure to get your orientation right.

Third Position Point: Your angle of incidence

Your orientation to the other person matters. If you are speaking with someone. facing them directly signals that you are giving them all of your attention. If someone calls to you, turning your whole body towards them shows you are shifting your focus. Taking a step (or more) towards them says you are ready to give them your full attention.

One of the authors I often recommend is Leil Lowndes. In her book, ‘How to Talk to Anyone’, she calls this the ‘Big Baby Pivot’.

5: Create Presence with Posture

Another thing that signposts your levels of attention and presence is your posture. I’d characterize the ideal posture as:

  • upright and alert
  • symmetrical
  • square to the person or people you’re engaging with
  • relaxed but not droopy – an energetic relaxation, rather than stiff ‘standing to attention’

A lot of this is about holding your head up. The best way I know to help you feel for what’s right is to imagine you are like a puppet, with a string attached to the top of your head. Now imagine that there is a gentle upward pull on that string, so your head feels really light on your neck. This works for both seated and standing postures.

6: Add Poise to Your Posture

Good poise is a sense of composure and balance. People with poise seem comfortable with their posture, so don’t feel the need to make constant adjustments. It’s the constant adjustments that undermine your presence. People who constantly fidget or rock, or adjust their feet, seem to be more focused on themselves than on others.

So, fight your inner fidget, and find your stillness. Any excessive physical movements are distracting to other people and make them feel like you aren’t really paying full attention to them

It is the same, strangely, with verbal and non-verbal endorsements. One or two nods or ‘aha’s signal that you are paying attention. Too many look like you are seeking their approval by wanting too much to show that you are paying attention. They undermine the sense that you are confident enough with your listening to listen in silence.

7: Think about Your… Pace

A lot of project managers like to work at a fast pace, getting loads done. We are in a hurry. And some of us cannot easily work any other way. But this eagerness can come across as impatience. So, if that sounds a bit like you, then it is time to deliberately slow your pace down. Slow your pace down. This will help with gravitas too.

One thing that can help with this is taking some deep breaths before you engage. And then pay attention to your breathing while you are listening. Slower, deeper breathing will relax you – and make you more alert and able to focus for longer.

8: And… Pause

The ultimate in slowing down is pausing and waiting. The best time to practice this is when they have finished saying what they want to say, and before you start your response. Your pause here will indicate that you are thinking about what they have said – and also about what you will say next. The first enhances your charisma, and the second, your gravitas.

Silence

If there is one skill I think more professionals need to cultivate, it’s silence. The ability to be silent will give you more control over any situation that involves people. It’s hard. Silence is uncomfortable for people. And even a short silence weighs upon us. But if you are just a little more comfortable with it than the other person, then they will be likely to speak first to fill it. And you will get another chance to listen to them.

And part of the magic is that people who are comfortable with silence seem to be magically present in the moment… or asleep.

9:Project Professional Confidence

This brings us nicely to confidence. Because silence indicates the confidence to not blabber on, but to think and wait. If you can express confidence in yourself, without bragging or false modesty, this will add to both your presence and your charisma.

My tips for relaying confidence lie in the way you listen and speak. More about listening next.

Confident speech has little of the qualifying tag words and phrases like:

  • I think
  • Perhaps
  • Probably

and it also has fewer ‘um’s and ‘er’s. To do away with those. Slow down your speaking. This gives you time to think all the way to the end of your sentence, so you don’t need to pause to find the right word… And then fill the pause with, um, er…

A harder and more advanced approach is to train yourself to spot an imminent ‘um’ or ‘er’, and fill the gap with a silence instead.

10: The Number 1 Communication Skill: Listening

Listening is a skill all of its own. It means turning off that judgmental voice in your head and focusing hard on what the other person is saying – and what it means to them. Your goal is to suck out as much insight from their words, gestures, and tonality as you can.

So, the master attitude that makes this easy is curiosity. Be endlessly curious about other people:

  • what do they think?
  • how do they act?
  • which things are important to them?
  • what do their words mean?
  • and what might they be hiding?

How does good listening relay confidence?

Because if you pay attention to what I am saying, I may just change your mind. And being prepared to be influenced is a sign of confidence. It says that you are confident enough in yourself that being proven wrong will not undermine that confidence.

11: Use Your Voice to Project Professional Presence

Your voice is another way to indicate your presence in a conversation. A dull, monotonous voice says clearly: ‘I’m bored’. On the other hand, an animated voice coveys interest, enthusiasm, and excitement.

There are many things you can vary in your voice to inject interest into it. Some are quite technical and hard to practice. But three of them are not only the easiest to control, but also the easiest for other people to notice. So, they give you the greatest impact for the effort in practicing them.

In order of the ease I had in learning to modulate them:

Pace

You can slow down to indicate confidence, authority, or importance. Or you speed up to show enthusiasm and excitement. And you can vary the pace to keep your voice interesting.

Volume

The loudness of your speech is the next thing to vary. Try louder for clarity and for seizing attention (but take care you don’t come across as domineering). And try softer for intimacy, or to quietly summon attention. Speaking from a stage, nothing will draw your audience’s attention to you more than a drop in volume at the right time.

Pitch

The hardest of my three vocal levers is pitch. Lower-pitch voices seem to carry greater authority. In fact, good breathing and a relaxed demeanor will mean that your voice naturally settles to its natural lower pitch. With that, you will sound relaxed, confident, and therefore authoritative. Raising the tone of your voice conveys energy and excitement.

Getting it Right

Varying pace, loudness, and pitch appropriately is a brilliant way to signal your presence. It takes mindful control to do this on purpose. If you are genuinely engrossed, then your voice will usually modulate all on its own:

  • You will slow down and speed up to signal important and excitement
  • Your volume will match the needs of your audience
  • And you will be relaxed, so the pitch will settle to a natural level for you

12: Give off the Right Level of Warmth

The last tip on my list is warmth. Of course, it is possible to be present and yet not seem warm towards people. But it’s hard. There are lots of ways to be warm with other people, but nothing beats smiling.

And, if smiling works, it works best with smiling eyes that make good eye contact.

But long ago, I came across a fabulous double tip for conveying warmth

Tip 1: Listen as if they are telling you a secret
Tip 2: Speak as if you are sharing a secret of your own

Beware the Extremes that can Poison Your Presence

There is such a thing as ‘being too present’. And this happens at two extremes. You’re aiming for ‘the Goldilocks Zone’:

  • Not too cool
  • Nor too hot
  • But just right

The Cool End of Professional Presence

If you are too intense, you can come across as analytical at best and as a forensic interrogator at worst. All you wanted was to seem to be taking an interest!

You’ll seem cold and possibly manipulating. What you need, of course, is greater warmth. Give caring signals with animated facial expressions and inclusive gestures. Focus on giving positive endorsements over negative criticism.

The Warm end of Professional Presence

If you aren’t confident enough in yourself, it’s all too easy to come across like an eager puppy that wants love. You’ll lap up everything you hear, and therefore seem subservient and ingratiating.

So, you’ll need greater self-confidence and stronger power signals. Give fewer endorsements of what you hear, and ask more clarifying questions, to signal that you are thinking carefully about what you are hearing.

What is Your Perspective on Professional Presence?

Is presence something you have worked on in your career? If it is, we’d love to hear your tips and advice. Leave a comment below and I promise to respond to it.

You may also like this article from our library of professional skills:

And, of course, don’t forget to take a look at:

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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