Sometimes my clients teach me about communication skills.
“I have an associate that needs your help,” a law firm partner told me over the telephone. “He is smart and a great lawyer. But he lacks executive presence.”
“What do you mean?”
“Speaking to clients, he never inspires confidence,” the partner said. “Every time he speaks, I cringe.”
What a great definition of “executive presence”: the ability to inspire confidence.
So can we teach how to speak in a way that inspires confidence?
Yes. It takes four things.
Strong eye contact
Without good eye contact, you won’t look confident.
I worked with a computer consultant who was charged with proposing ideas to senior business executives. By all accounts, his analysis was brilliant. But when conveying ideas, he would only make glancing eye contact.
“When I’m thinking as I speak,” this consultant said, “I like to look up or down. It’s a way of gathering my thoughts. So I don’t really give good eye contact.”
The best practice is to start your statement with strong, unwavering eye contact. Don’t shift your eyes. Don’t look down or up. Lock in for three to five seconds. After that, you can look away briefly and then return to strong eye contact.
Cleanly organized messages
Here’s a classic test of “executive presence”. You’re in a meeting and someone asks you, “What’s happening with the project to expand services into Canada?”
If you respond with a “brain dump” spewing ideas at random, you’re not going to inspire confidence.
We recommend organizing your thoughts with an easy-to-remember, three-part structure: what’s happened so far, challenges, solutions.
“We think we can expand into Canada, but there are some issues. I’d like to touch on three things: what’s happened so far, the challenges we see with the expansion, and the solutions we propose.”
Then go through each of those three issues (what’s happened so far, the challenges, and the solutions), making sure to start each section with a verbal cue like “So let’s talk about what’s happened so far.”
The ability to report on matters quickly and simply is a classic example of strong executive presence.
Answer questions tightly
Tight answers have snap and inspire confidence. Here’s a simple recipe for answering questions with executive presence. Start with the simple answer in the first sentence or two. Give a little explanation. Then stop.
“How long will the project take?”
Poor executive presence:
“Well, we need to have a couple of meetings with people in the field first. During those meetings, we’re going to gather a lot of data about preferences. Sometimes their preferences can dictate a lot of extra work on our part. However, if their preferences are pretty straightforward, we probably won’t have to do much in terms of follow-up. If that’s the case, then we estimate that the project will take between three and six months.”
Good executive presence:
“We estimate it will take no more than six months. The key will be whether we can get the key data from field personnel quickly.”
Speak with passion
Intensity and passion sell ideas and inspire confidence. I love the quote from Thomas Fuller, an English writer from the 1600s who wrote, “Boldness in business is the first, second, and third thing.” A bold, energetic voice is a sure characteristic of executive presence.
So be bold. Make strong eye contact. Organize your ideas simply. And give simple answers. You’ll greatly improve your executive presence.
Joey Asher is President of Speechworks, a selling and communication skills coaching company in Atlanta. He has worked with hundreds of business people helping them learn how to communicate in a way that connects with clients. His new book “15 Minutes Including Q&A: a Plan to Save the World from Lousy Presentations” is due out in the fall.