In business, talent alone doesn’t guarantee success. It takes more than simple merit to bridge the gap between potential and realisation. That link is executive presence: a cluster of qualities successful professionals radiate which make others trust that once in charge they’ll deliver.
Part one of this series set the foundation of what executive presence is and how the wrong details, or ‘dissonant noise,’ can impair someone’s ability to thrive in their profession.
We described our coaching engagement with Melanie*, a coverage banker at a large European investment bank. Focusing on Melanie’s physicality, we analysed how specific aspects of her posture and body language were undermining her executive presence.
In part two, Templar Consultant Carolina Perez Sanz explores the communication dimension of executive presence: speaking and listening habits that help people predict executives’ ability to perform at a higher level.
In this part, we’ll look at the critical elements that can add ‘noise’ to communication.
NOISE IN COMMUNICATION
Melanie* had to present her team’s project at an upcoming investment committee meeting and wanted to use her second coaching session to polish it. With a perfectly measured, commanding posture, and body language that signaled, ‘I’m in charge,’ Melanie gave her remarks.
As we always do at Templar, we recorded her on video and played the clip back to her. Melanie’s first reaction was a surprised, “Do I speak too fast?”
She did. Both in terms of the number of words she uttered per minute and how the ideas flowed one after the other, uninterrupted.
*Fictional name, based on a real event.
RATE OF WORDS
How fast or slow someone speaks depends on their native tongue, dialect, culture, and crucially, personality.
Research in phonetics shows that excessively fast speakers sound more agreeable and, in turn, less assertive. Agreeable talkers seem intending to finish their thoughts quickly because they don’t want to impose on the listener’s time (or patience).
From a status perspective, speaking too fast positions the speaker as low status. If we were to compare speech with posture, speaking fast would be like trying to become smaller and appear less threatening.
Combined with excessively fast speaking rate, the absence of pauses in the speech sequence gravely damages the impression of leadership.
By taking long pauses, speakers signal they speak at their own pace because they follow their own schedule. Drawing a parallel with a commanding posture, speakers who leave silence in their speech seem to be saying, ‘This is my world and I occupy it as I please.’ And if I have to keep you waiting, so be it!
On the contrary, speakers who don’t pause appear less confident. This may seem counterintuitive, because one would think that uninterrupted speech makes someone sound more prepared – which is perhaps why so many speakers fill the silence with um’s, you know’s, like’s, and other discourse markers.
The reality is that silent pauses allow the listener time to process what they hear and form an opinion.
Speakers who don’t pause seem to be trying to prevent the listener from grasping the ideas and forming an opinion. They appear as though they don’t want to “hear” what the listeners think, which makes them seem not open to feedback and hence, not confident.
Along with the fast pace, Melanie noticed that, despite the commanding posture and body language, something about her physicality was still off. It was her eye contact. She looked up at the beginning of each key point and systematically looked down at the end.
Speakers use the pause as an opportunity to “read the room,” to gauge the impact their message has on the listeners. During that pause, eye contact elicits a response from them.
But when the speaker’s not looking, they don’t realise communication hasn’t happened and continue speaking, blinders on, oblivious of the confusion or disinterest their message is causing.
Therefore, good eye contact isn’t characterised by how much of it a speaker makes with the audience, but by when they make it. The crucial moment is right when the thought is being completed and a few milliseconds afterwards, when the audience is thinking in silence.
What listeners perceive when a speaker avoids eye contact is one of three things:
- They’re unsure about the message
- They fear the listener’s reaction
- They’re lying.
Melanie was just trying to decipher her notes, but seeing herself, she realised the poor impression her eye-contact habits made.
She was also eager to slow down her pace – say fewer words per minute and pause between ideas. But how could she do that, with a meager six-minute speaking slot and so many things to say?
INFORMATION AND MESSAGE STRUCTURE
Communication professionals have a mantra: “it’s not about you; it’s about them.” What we mean is that when someone speaks, their job is not to appear smart but to trigger some change in the listener.
At a fundamental level, any communicator wants their audience to learn or do something as a result of the communication, to stimulate a reaction.
Speakers who give too many details sound as if they were trying to get an A+, and extra credit, in the exam. We’ve all heard speakers say, “I know this is tedious, but I need to be thorough.”
But persuasive communicators don’t try to be thorough because they know that doesn’t help the listener. Instead, they ask themselves three questions:
- What does my audience need to know about this?
- How can I best say it, so they remember and act upon it?
- What do I want them to do about it?
Persuasive communicators build their messages around the answers to those questions.
A less detailed message, in turn, is more likely to trigger questions from the audience. Getting the audience to ask questions is ideal because firstly, it means people engage with the message: they’re listening and want to go deeper.
Secondly, inquiries from the listeners point to their areas of interest, which is useful information for the speaker.
Giving too many details seems a way to shut down potential questions. Our more junior clients are often tempted to do this because they want to prove to the boss they’re working hard.
Templar’s recommendation is to prepare great answers to the questions they expect, especially to those they wish no one asked.
HOW WE HELPED MELANIE
We worked with Melanie to restructure her presentation around the three questions mentioned above:
- The main takeaway
- No more than three key points, each validated by succinct evidence
- The call to action
Then, she created a page of notes that contained only 2-3 word thought triggers to enable recall.
Once she’d collected her thoughts (but not written a script), she practiced the presentation once again.
With fewer words to say, Melanie didn’t feel urged to speak at an excessively fast rate, but still tended to skip the pauses. Aiming to remedy that tendency, we had her say, “Did you get that?” in her head before starting each idea.
She found it extremely difficult to finish every thought and silently repeat “Did you get that?” while looking up. She felt it unnatural and believed she’d look ridiculous on screen.
But when we replayed the video, Melanie was impressed. She seemed much more poised, confident, and prepared. One could see she was in charge.
At Templar, we work with employers on diversity initiatives, female talent development and leadership programmes, as well as individual women on a coaching basis. Please see our Women’s Development Series for more details or get in touch to speak to one of our consultants.