I have a purposeful walk. I have heard this statement many times in my life and sometimes I reflect on how my walk is perceived as purposeful. My head is held high, my gait is quick and I am often not taking in all of my surroundings. I have somewhere to go and I am focused on getting there. People perceive that I am in alignment with my purpose to get there.

But what if my response to the statement was, “Really? I don’t have anywhere to be. I was just walking.”  The observer who made the comment about my purposeful walk may feel uneasy.  My cavalier response may cause them to question my authenticity.

Social science has taught us that when we meet someone, we almost instantaneously begin to create stories about them. We are experts at reading faces and stereotyping based on appearance. But we don’t often discuss that we are also perceiving how aligned someone is with their authentic self. If we meet someone dressed in formal wear, we assign them a certain amount of power and influence. Inside this person may be feeling insecure, tired, or otherwise off, but if they maintain eye contact and have a firm handshake, we buy into their power.

This is the foundation of executive presence. When we are aligned with the image we project, we have a presence that is experienced by another human being. If you happened to watch the TV show Mad Men, you know that Don Draper sets the gold standard for executive presence. He embodies power and influence, even if he was not feeling it inside.

Now that we know what executive presence is, how do we cultivate it? 

5 tips to cultivate Executive Presence:

  1. Understand the image you are portraying: Impressions matter so it makes sense to first understand what kind of image we are projecting. You can start by dressing the part like when Mark Zuckerberg showed up as a CEO to testify before Congress wearing a suit instead of his Silicon Valley hoody.
  2. Bring your ideas as yourself: Talk about things that matter to you. Authenticity is felt by others and if you are talking about something you care or know little about the person on the other end will feel it. Prepare your own talking points in advance based on your unique perspective. Share how you see the world with others.
  3. Fake it until you become it: Researcher Amy Cuddy, Ph.D. has studied thousands of students in a lab asking them to take a “power pose” to enhance their feeling of power and become more effective communicators. When participants take a power pose, expanding their physical body, their cortisol (stress hormone) decreases and their testosterone (power hormone) increases putting them at ease to take a risk.  This opportunity to be powerful and risk tolerant allows someone to be more articulate and successful in social situations. Amy further asserts that our bodies shape our minds and that practicing power posing can help build self-esteem and gain more personal power in social situations. Check out her TED talk here.
  4. Quiet that inner critic: Have a conversation with your inner critic to discover the negative truth it is affirming such as, “I don’t have the right degree or certification to do this job.” Then ask your inner advocate to give you an equally true statement that is positive such as, “I have more than enough experience to do this.” Share your positive truth with a trusted mentor or colleague or practice saying it aloud in a mirror. This practice refocuses your brain on what is good/working instead of what is negative/not working. Over time, you develop more of your wise advocate and quiet the critic.
  5. Connect with your audience: Powerful communication is far more than one-sided delivery. Your audience needs to feel like they matter to you and are engaged. You can engage your audience by asking questions, gathering feedback and reading verbal and non-verbal cues. When you are connecting with your audience you can change your cadence, tone or words to match their needs and become a more effective communicator and leader.

Cultivating executive presence is a tool that will instill confidence in others that you are well prepared for the task at hand.

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