Do You Have Executive Presence? It May Depend on How Well You Speak

What you sound like in your head and what other people hear are very different things.

How you sound to others: We get used to ourselves, and if you never check (get a recording of yourself talking), you just don’t have the full picture of how you are coming across.

Whenever I talk about executive presence or personal brand, there is always a lot of interest because people are very motivated learn how to position and present themselves more effectively.

Don’t forget how you speak!

Whatever you are are saying, how you come across when you say it leaves as strong an impression as the content itself. (Or stronger.)

I’ve written about some of the things you can do on purpose to improve how you present yourself, such as:

Things that detract from your competence

In this article, I want to focus on what can distract people from seeing your competence because of how you say it.

Here are some things which lowered my opinion when I’ve interviewed people for executive positions:

  • Uh, um, ya-know, like, OK, yeah – too much of this is really distracting;
  • Speaking too softly – conveys a lack of presence and confidence;
  • Question tone – some people have a way of talking that always makes them sound like they are asking a question. It conveys uncertainty;
  • Sounding dismissive – this just pisses me off!

Here are some ideas to improve how you speak.

1. Record yourself

This is the most important thing. You need to hear what you sound like when it’s not in your own head.

When I worked at HP, I gave my self a goal of deleting the “uh’s” from my vocabulary. The most effective way I found to do this was to always copy myself on any voice mail I left that was more that 30 seconds long. I would then force myself to listen to my own messages.

Listening to a recording and cringing at what you hear has a big impact on your ability to improve how you speak.

If your work habits do not include voice mail you can copy yourself on, just use a digital recorder when you talk on the phone and play it back when you are in the car.

I am not perfect in my speech, but I improve all the time. I still say “uh” sometimes, but it’s not so often that it is distracting. I’m still working on it.

You have to force yourself to listen to yourself if you want to improve. If you don’t want to listen to yourself, why would anyone else?

2. Practice your opening and closing lines

Prepare. Say them out loud. Rehearse.

When you have a presentation to give, or you are preparing for an important conversation, actually plan and practice your opening and closing lines.

There is no shame in preparing and practicing ahead of time. If you are on the phone, you can even write it down and have it right there in front of you. I do this.

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3. Book-end your presentation on your strengths

I noticed that we all have a tendency to be comfortable when we interact with our team and our peers, but then get defensive when we present upwards.

Give yourself the chance to be comfortable.

For example, if you are comfortable with big picture ideas, start and end your presentation with big picture ideas. If you are comfortable with analytics, start and end your presentation with compelling data.

The important point is not about the content, that’s what’s in the middle. It’s about giving yourself 15 seconds at the opening and the close of your presentation to be completely comfortable and confident in what you are saying. I refer to this in my own mind as having a place to stand.

That comfort, and therefore the resulting confident tone, will carry through the content. Then if you run out of gas in the middle, you have a plan to end on a high note.

No matter what you have to present and to whom, allow your self to book-end your talk with things that put yourself in your best light.

While you are at it, keep a digital recorder in your pocket and make yourself listen to it later. (You’ll improve next time.)

4. Don’t try to sound impressive

This pretty much always backfires.

At best it sounds contrived and over-worked, and often has a tone of manic defensiveness. The best advice I got here was from someone who said, “I think of the person I am presenting to as a friend that I would like to help.”

I don’t think it gets better than that!

This was originally published on Patty Azzarello’s Business Leadership Blog. Her new book is Rise: How to be Really Successful at Work and LIKE Your Life.

Patty Azzarello is the founder and CEO of Azzarello Group. She's also an executive, best-selling author, speaker and CEO/business advisor. She became the youngest general manager at HP at the age of 33, ran a billion dollar software business at 35, and became a CEO for the first time at 38 (all without turning into a self-centered, miserable jerk). You can find her at patty@azzarellogroup.com .

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