It can be difficult to explain “gravitas.” It tends to be one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it qualities. It’s that certain something that makes a great leader. It’s a seriousness and gravity that’s conducted with grace, dignity and poise. If you think of someone you greatly admire or a celebrated leader from history, you’ll probably get the picture. For me, those who come to mind include Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King Jr.
If you’re looking to make steady progress in your professional life, I believe developing gravitas is an important part of the journey. In Cracking the Code: Executive Presence and Multicultural Professionals, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, author and founder of the Center for Talent Innovation explained the importance of gravitas, as it helps convey confidence, inspire trust and bolster credibility as a leader in the workplace. Nearly 70% of senior executives who were surveyed for the book said that gravitas was the core characteristic of executive presence.
As a leadership coach, I’ve learned there are some specific aspects you can work on to help you attain a reputation for decisiveness and integrity. Confidence without arrogance is imperative. Arrogance only exposes a person’s feelings of inadequacy. Self-importance has no relationship to gravitas. If you notice any tendency you have to slip into an air of overconfidence when you’re nervous or feeling left out, you’ll have to train yourself to quash that behavior.
Some of the concrete aspects of gravitas and key parts of developing your executive presence can be grouped into three main categories:
You are judged on the words you choose to communicate your ideas. Keep in mind that what you’re after is quality, not quantity. Talking endlessly is not effective. Don’t use 40 weak words when 10 strong words will convey the idea. If you have an important meeting coming up, don’t just wing it. Give the subject of the meeting some thought ahead of time. If there is a point you want to make or some input you’ll be expected to provide, consider how to effectively and efficiently express that information.
It is important to concentrate on the way you sound to others. Pay attention to the volume of your voice. If you speak with a voice that sounds weak or is too quiet, it gives the impression that you aren’t confident in yourself or your message. Practice speaking at a normal volume, and notice how assured you sound.
Also, watch your inflection. If your voice tends to rise at the end of a sentence, it gives the impression of a question and does nothing for your credibility. The pace at which you speak is also important. Don’t rush your words. It can make you sound excitable or anxious. A steady pace is desirable, and don’t be afraid to use a pause for effect. It gives your audience time to seriously consider the point of your last statement. Strive for clarity in your voice; mumbling won’t win you any points. Above all, eliminate “filler” words or phrases or any verbal tics you have. Nothing can undermine a solid speech or presentation like a plethora of “ums,” “you knows,” and “ahs.”
The image you create is significant. When people think of you, the image they conjure up should be an impressive one. They’ll remember the way you were dressed and how you held yourself. Body language makes a big impression. If your arms are crossed or your shoulders are hunched, it conveys disagreement or resignation. Concentrate on good posture with your shoulders back (but not up around your ears). An open stance shows interest, self-assuredness and a willingness to listen. Make eye contact with those you are talking to for an appropriate amount of time, but don’t stare. Looking the part of a confident executive will help you feel like a confident executive.
In the book Executive Presence: The Missing Link Between Merit and Success, also by Hewlett, she explains, “Executive presence will not earn you promotion after promotion, but lack of executive presence will impede your ability to get as far as you want to go.” She adds, “Quite simply, promotions are not just functions of ability, values, or the numbers you hit, but also rest critically on how you are perceived.”
I believe everyone can benefit from practice. To develop your skills, try asking a few people that you know and trust to give you some honest feedback on your executive presence. Don’t get defensive, but listen to what they have to say. If more than one person comments on the same flaw, that would be the challenge to start with.
Try filming yourself delivering a practice presentation, or ask a colleague to film you. When you review it, you might notice things you don’t realize you’re doing that are distracting or detract from your message. If you feel you need more help, there are organizations that can help you improve your public speaking skills. Developing gravitas and increasing your executive presence will be well worth the effort.
This article has previously been featured on Forbes