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Updated: May 16, 2019

If you can believe it, there was once a job I wanted, but didn’t get. I didn’t see this job as a reach. I saw myself as the most qualified person for this job and it was as good as mine. And yet.  When I got past the initial shock of rejection, I steeled myself and asked for an appointment with the decision maker to learn why. With great credit to this woman, she did not rattle off an HR-approved answer. She told me that I talked about what I do and how I do it, but not why. I appeared to her like a worker bee, not a leader. Although we didn’t have the vocabulary for it, she essentially said she did not see my executive presence.

Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett says executive presence is the missing link between merit and success. It is insufficient to be excellent at your job. If you don’t also project an image that tells people to identify you as a leader, as someone other people should listen to, you will not maximize the trajectory of your career.  You must inspire confidence in the people around you, especially your leadership and your colleagues. This shows in how you project energy, engage with a room, and demonstrate outwardly that you have value to add.

Let’s start with what you know, because you must be solid on your content. Capture attention by talking at the big picture level. Establish credibility by saying what it is about you – your work experience, education, where you have lived – that gives people a reason to listen to you on this topic. Always remember the So What. Why does what you are doing matter?  

Communication skills are vital to executive presence. Every engagement - from the podium, to the panel, to the media interview, to the sales pitch, to your staff meeting - is an opportunity to establish credibility and advance your message. You place yourself in the hierarchy of people around you with your content, word choice, pitch, tone, and pace.  Discuss top level goals in addition to next steps. Keep jargon appropriate to the audience. Reduce filler words. End declarative sentences on a firm note.

Executive presence relies on your professional image. Project confidence like Superman, not Clark Kent. Imagine a string pulling you up from the ceiling. Keep your head up, your chest proud, and your shoulders strong. Make eye contact. Open your arms and hands to demonstrate an inclusive approach. And smile! Smiling shows that you are confident in your abilities and you are looking forward to the event. Keep that smile genuine, or risk losing sincerity.

People have been shown to form their first impressions of our trustworthiness, competence, and likeability before we have said our first word. Our clothing, grooming, and body language speak for us long before we begin to talk. At the least, appearance should not detract from your qualifications.  At its height, your appearance will communicate your professional goals while reflecting the culture of your working environment and perhaps even showing your personal style.

Executive presence skills affect the success of your organization’s mission and the trajectory of your career. So go forth! Hold your head up high, project energy, demonstrate what you know, and your vision for the way ahead.  

Eileen Smith founded Spokesmith, a public speaking coaching firm. Her expertise is built on a career in diplomacy and her extensive study of public speaking, executive presence, and body language.

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