Vol. 45, No. 5

Virtual ABA BLI 2020: What is executive presence, and how can you strengthen it?

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Executive presence—the way a person presents themselves and their ideas live or on video—“is much more important than it was 20 years ago,” according to Brooke Vuckovic, a clinical professor of leadership at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

Indeed, Vuckovic noted, while a previous academic position involved teaching students, professors, and researchers to write clearly and persuasively, at Kellogg, video essays are assigned more frequently than written ones. Telling someone they need to write more clearly is too vague to be helpful, she believes—and so is telling them they need to project more executive presence, confidence, or gravitas.

But Vuckovic isn’t a fan of teaching leaders certain specific mannerisms or behaviors to help improve their executive presence. Instead, she told attendees of her webinar that was part of the virtual version of the 2020 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, she prefers a simple formula:

Executive presence = credibility + ease
                                                          ego

Vuckovic also likes to think in terms of an instrument panel with dials on it that can be turned up or down, depending on different situations. Among the three components of executive presence, credibility has the most dials, and they are the easiest to turn up or down. Ease has fewer dials, she said, and they are more challenging to turn—and ego is just one big dial that can be very difficult to adjust.

Drawing from her own expertise and the latest research in linguistics and social science, Vuckovic walked attendees through each of the components and how to make adjustments so they can be at their best in any speaking situation.

Credibility: Largely a matter of voice

“The foundation of credibility is expertise,” Vuckovic noted, adding that through expertise and preparation, “you have to focus on getting good before you earn the right to focus on looking good to other people.” That is, her tips were not meant to help cover for a lack of knowledge and effort, but instead to help convey those in the most effective way.

According to social science, she said, the voice is a critical place to start for anyone hoping to project more credibility. Researchers from the MIT Media Lab helped a call center that was trying to increase its agents’ effectiveness. The company was devoting most of its training time to the content of the calls and how the agents led people through the typical decision trees (“If the client says x, then you say y”). But the research team found that the success of an individual call and of an agent’s  overall career depended on two variables: the ratio of listening to speaking (more listening led to better results), and the amount of inflection in the agent’s voice.

Those who exhibited a wider variation in pitch, volume, and speed were described as being “more knowledgeable in depth and breadth of knowledge, more responsive, and more caring,” Vuckovic said, adding that it’s also hard to follow a monotone voice because the listener needs pauses and variations in order to process what’s being said.

While inflection is generally a good thing, two types of inflection will diminish your credibility, Vuckovic said. One is upspeak, in which every sentence ends as if it’s a question. “If you don’t sound sure,” Vuckovic said, “how will anyone else in the room believe what you’re saying?”

Another problematic type of inflection is called vocal fry, in which the back of the throat is used to vibrate the ends of sentences. A lab at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business found that job interview success rates decreased when the candidate exhibited vocal fry. When covered in the media, Vuckovic noted, vocal fry is often mentioned as a problem for women in particular, but in fact, it’s present in men as well.

Vuckovic recommended being careful not to speak too quickly, which she said can make it seem as if the speaker is nervous and can’t wait to be done. The best way to build in better pacing, she said, is to insert strategic pauses throughout your speech. These are also helpful, she added, in allowing your audience to catch up. “There’s a lot of cognition that needs to happen, often, between what you’re saying and the audience formulating a response to it,” she explained.

The Center for Voice Disorders of Wake Forest University found that listeners described people speaking in a lower to average pitch as being sociable, successful and smart, while those speaking in a higher pitch were said to sound too young, or annoying. But does that mean you should try to artificially lower your pitch? Vuckovic thinks it’s much better to work on breathing from your belly or diaphragm rather than your nose. This will naturally lower your pitch, she said, and will also allow you to project more volume when needed, and to sustain speaking much longer.

“It allows you to make the most of what your natural pitch would be,” she said.

While these fundamental aspects of voice are the most important factors in establishing credibility, Vuckovic identified two other types of habits that create distraction: using too much “verbal filler,” such as “I just,” “I actually,” or “I thought” (it’s natural to use some filler, she said—it’s only a problem when it becomes excessive); and fidgeting or fiddling with one’s face, hair, jewelry, and other objects while speaking. For those who are very kinetic, meaning that they must move while they speak, Vuckovic suggests doing stand-up meetings or walking meetings whenever possible.

Ease starts from a strong foundation

“I can predict that if you are sleeping little, existing on Diet Coke and Cheetos, and you never move, your capacity to regulate stress and demonstrate ease under trying circumstances is going to be compromised,” Vuckovic said. “There’s just no getting around it.”

While being “perfect” is not necessary, she explained, diet, sleep, and exercise are not “fluffy balance elements,” but instead are “highly correlated with being able to manage stressful emotions and stress responses” and are “foundational to sustained success and a stellar career.”

The fields of executive coaching and executive search and selection use the term “emotional agility” to describe the ability to regulate negative emotions and move from the amygdala—the part of the brain that controls emotional responses—to the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning. Also, Vuckovic said, the ability to cool down and to then be able to make difficult decisions, predict the consequences of your actions, and weigh competing commitments relies on your ability to identify and name your emotions.

With those fundamentals established, Vuckovic addressed a few more aspects of the ease component of executive presence:

  • Congruence. Do your words, body language, and emotions all match up, and do your voice and your manner align with the task at hand? Are you, for example, laughing nervously while announcing something difficult? Or saying one thing while making it clear that your emotions are very different? If the latter is true (say, for example, someone else was promoted and you need to express your support despite your own disappointment), then Vuckovic suggested identifying those emotions for yourself and then “calling yourself to something more, being committed to something more than those emotions—your values, your sense of teamwork.”
  • Connection, or what Vuckovic called the “presence of presence.” In Western cultures, she said, this is closely tied to eye contact: Are you able to meet and sustain other people’s gaze? When speaking to a large group, can you select individuals and make eye contact with them, to keep them engaged?
  • Authenticity, which Vuckovic called “the ease of self-assurance.” Are you comfortable in your own skin? Do you understand why you do the work you do, why it’s important, and what strengths, values, and motivations you hold? Can you share a certain vision for your team or for a task, and then help people come along with you?

Ego: It’s all about the quotient

When it comes to ego, it may be obvious how having too high a sense of self-importance can get in the way of effective speaking and leadership. But what about too little? Vuckovic returned to the executive presence equation:

Executive presence = credibility + ease
                                                         ego

Think of ego in terms of being +1, Vuckovic recommended: “When we divide by +1, nothing changes”—meaning that your ego will not diminish what you’ve already built through credibility and ease. If your ego is either too high (say, +2), or is so low that it’s a negative number, then this will diminish your quotient.

Whether your ego is a bit too high or a bit too low, Vuckovic said, bring it back to +1 by focusing on the overall mission.

“Think about yourself a bit less,” she advised. “Think about purpose. Think about why you do the work you do. Think about why it’s important for you to bring this work to the world.”

To learn more, and to practice

Every component of executive presence, even ego, can be adjusted if necessary, through self-awareness, study, and practice, Vuckovic said. She recommended the following television shows and movies as good places to see executive presence in action:

  • The King’s Speech, which shows the significance of voice;
  • Mad Men, The Crown, The Post, and Hidden Figures, all of which show how women and/or persons of color find ways to lead on their own terms, in realms where they are underrepresented; and
  • Spotlight, in which a newspaper editor’s executive presence seems fairly weak until it becomes clear that he is committed to a cause and able to withstand great pressure.

If you have certain aspects you need to practice, Vuckovic recommended doing this in everyday life, at times when it doesn’t matter how well you do. “The single last place where you want to focus your mind on practicing something is when you are in an event that is very important to you,” she said. Vuckovic recommended the following exercises to work on specific things:

  • If you speak in a monotone, read children’s books aloud to practice varying your voice.
  • If you use upward inflection, catch yourself doing this and notice how it feels in your body. Then practice saying a simple, declarative sentence over and over, with different inflection: “This is a chair?” “This is a chair.” “This … IS … a chair.”
  • If you fidget with objects too much or make distracting gestures, record yourself so you can see and hear it, and then work to eliminate it. “Video and audio recording do not lie,” Vuckovic noted.
  • To increase your ease, deliberately put yourself into brief, uncomfortable situations so you can practice calming down your stress response. One commonly recommended exercise: Set a clock for 90 seconds, look someone in the eye, and maintain eye contact for that length of time with neither of you speaking or breaking your gaze.
  • If your ego is too high and you know you’re taking up too much space and “airtime,” then “WAIT and listen,” Vuckovic recommended: “WAIT” stands for Why Am I Talking?—which means that you remind yourself to make sure others have a chance to talk, and that you’re listening.
  • If your ego is too low, then before an important event, take two minutes to “prime your ego” by thinking or writing about a time when your personal power was especially strong, about a time when you felt very happy, or about why you do the work you do and what it is you’re setting out to accomplish.

Need further information and tools? You can find them in Vuckovic’s Diagnostic Check Sheet and Resources.