What Is Executive Presence, and Can it Be Learned?

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“Executive presence.”

It’s one of those buzzwords we hear all the time when we’re discussing leadership abilities, and at a high level, it makes sense. But when it comes time to break down exactly what executive presence (much less talk about how to develop it), it’s not so easy.

But executive presence isn’t just some lofty, intangible “x factor” that indicates leadership abilities. It’s a skill—or, more realistically, a set of skills—that leaders have honed over the course of their careers.

And, like so many leadership capabilities, it’s grounded in communication.

We’re not just talking about what a leader says or how she speaks, though that’s critical as well. But every time a leader—or anyone, for that matter—enters a room, she is communicating with everyone in it. And the sum of the communication signals she sends makes up her overall executive presence (or lack thereof.)

Let’s break down, at a high level, the kinds of communication signals that factor into executive presence.

1.  Verbal Communication

Verbal communication refers to the words we say and the way we say them, and people with strong executive presence have a few verbal communication traits in common. Most often, they’re speaking confidently and authentically. They’re building trustwith their audience by taking responsibility for their message and providing clear, detailed insights.

But verbal communication goes beyond the words, themselves, and also includes the way a speaker uses his or her voice to demonstrate leadership abilities. A successful leader—someone with a strong executive presence—is speaking with a clear, well-supported voice and employing natural variations in inflection and tone to underscore her message. The rhythms and melodies of the speaker’s voice help the audience stay engaged and focused, internalizing the message’s key points.

Learn more about the power of voice.

2.  Body Language

Think about the last time you saw someone who was clearly nervous. Or excited. Or angry. You could tell by the way that person carried herself.

Audiences—whether they’re formal audiences or simply other people in the room—can tell a lot from our body language, whether we’re speaking or not. Our body language communicates quite a bit about our intentions, our state of mind, and our leadership style. Strong executive presence means carrying yourself like a leader, with upright posture, natural, measured movements and gestures, and facial expressions that fit the mood of the room and/or the message.

So, as a high-performer looking to build executive presence, focus on the nonverbal signals that will indicate to audiences that you’re confident, composed, and ready to handle the pressures of leadership.

Learn more about how your nonverbal communication can enhance or undermine your executive presence.

3.  Appearance

Finally, have you ever heard the phrase, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have?” As much as we may not like it, it’s important to recognize that physical appearance plays a big role in executive presence, because it communicates a lot about how a person perceives a given situation.

For example, when someone walks into a meeting with rumpled clothes and unwashed hair, it’s obvious they don’t consider it a priority in their lives—it’s not an event worth showering for. But someone who arrives well-dressed and put together is communicating a much more positive, capable message.

Now, none of this is to say that a leader has to be built a certain way or have certain features or wear certain designer labels; that’s not a game we’re interested in playing. But executive presence—and an audience’s perception of any leader or speaker—is affected significantly by what a person’s grooming and wardrobe choices communicate about his personality, dedication, and leadership capabilities. So, unless you’re running a Silicon Valley startup, if your goal is to build your executive presence, you might consider ditching the hoodie for a button-down and the tennis shoes for something a little more authoritative.

If those are the key facets of executive presence, then how does an aspiring leader go about developing these skills? “Practice” is the easy answer, and that’s critical. After all, how will we learn to appear confident and gesture authentically if we don’t practice?

But where to start? Well, if executive presence is grounded in communication, then the good news is it can be measured—and improved—through objective, data-driven communication analytics. The Quantified platform uses the latest in analytics and machine learning technology to enable leaders and aspiring leaders to measure their communication skills against peers, aspirational benchmarks, and industry leaders, using that data to create custom-tailored, actionable improvement plans designed to help users achieve their leadership goals through communication skills development. Now, you know exactly what to practice, and how.