Do people notice you when you are in the room? Do you get the attention you need – and for the right reasons? This is the phenomenon of presence. It’s related to, but different from, charisma and gravitas, and every professional
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.
This 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.
In your role as project manager and project leader, you need people to:
This all requires presence: it starts with them noticing you. But my preference for the term ‘Professional Presence’ emphasises one point: it’s not hard to get noticed.
People will notice any fool who wears a silly tie or ridiculous ear-rings. But this doesn’t mean they will respect or listen to you – much less, find you influential.
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:
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
These three terms all overlap to a great extent. So, this article is the second in a series of three that will appear on our site. The first was about Gravitas, and Charisma is on our list!
But, in many ways, I think presence is a little different. It is more
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
With the necessary preliminaries out of the way, let’s get down to business. Here’s the good stuff: 12 simple and practical tips for improving your professional presence.
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.
This means, not 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:
Fist 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; it’s sounds, sights, and sensations. Then gradually draw your attention to the person or people you are with.
Now give those people all of your attention. And engage with them. Look at them, ask questions, listen hard to what they say.
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 upon one person at a time.
There’s a magic in the first two tips:
If you do these
Some people find eye contact really difficult. This is
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
That’s the question I get asked the
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.
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.
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’.
Perhaps the best approach is to identify the person or people you want to engage
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.
Position: Your angle of incidence
Your orientation to the other person matters. If you are speaking
Another thing that signposts your levels of attention and presence is your posture. I’d characterize the ideal postiure as:
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 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 r 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.
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 paying 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.
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.
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.
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 speach has little of the qualifying tag words and phrases like:
and it also has fewer ‘um’s and
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.
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:
Because if you pay attention to what I am saying, I may just change your mind. And
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, 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 are not only the easiest to
In order of the ease I had in learning to modulate them:
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.
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 in your audience’s attention that a drop in volume at the
The hardest of my three vocal levers is
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.
The last tip in 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.
Tip 1: Listen as if they are telling you a secret
Tip 2: Speak as if you are sharing a secret of your own
There is such a thing as ‘being too present’. And this happens at two extremes.
If you are too intense, you can come across as interrogating, rather than taking an interest. You’ll seem cold and possibly manipulating. What you need, of course, is greater warmth. Give caring signals with animated facial expression and inclusive gestures. Focus on giving positive endorsements over negative criticism.
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 seem subservient and ingratiating. So, you’ll need greater self-confidence and stronger power signals.
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.
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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