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4 ways to improve your executive presence

All of us have had these things happen at one time or another: A zipper that is down. Mustard on your cheek. A label sticking out of your shirt. While minor, these little things are distracting and take away from your image and message. And fortunately, even perfect strangers, let alone friends and colleagues, will let us know we need to “fix” them.

Beyond spinach in your teeth, there are four things that may also be taking away from your presence and message. These things are also blindingly obvious to other people, but you may not be aware of them at all. And, it’s not really socially acceptable to bring them up, even among close friends. Giving closer attention to these things will help ensure your message gets across and you are seen as the capable, competent professional that you are.

Here are my best tips for improving your executive presence:

1) Voice: Speak like you mean it!

While on the surface it seems that your voice is your voice and you can’t do a lot about it – you can actually do plenty. Well, maybe not if you are Fran Drescher, but most of us are starting from a better place. Beyond speaking confidently and at a strong conversational level, consider whether or not you do these things:


  • Speak from your core, drawing on the lower end of your natural range. Women and men put greater trust in lower voices.
  • Make statements with confidence and, unless asking a question, speak in declarative sentences.


  • End declarative statements on a high note, as if you are asking a question. This undermines you and gives the impression you are looking for approval.
  • Speak in a frantic tone or at a frenzied pace. It causes people to want to step back from you.

2) Your Posture: Take up space!

Generally, men take up space naturally. They lean back in a chair and put their arms behind their head. They put their ankle on their knee. All of these things make them look confident and like they “own the room.” Women often have to work harder at taking up space. The best message on posture is this TED Talk by Amy Cuddy. Watch it, and share with others. A few quick notes:


  • Be vertical. Stand tall, look forward, and walk with purpose.
  • Put your hands on the desk in front of you. Take up space.


  • Slouch. Don’t curve your shoulders in and have your face angled down.
  • Hold your head at an angle or a downward tilt while speaking.

3) Eye contact.

Have you ever had a conversation where the other person just won’t look you in the eye? I don’t know about you, but when someone can’t look me steadily in the eye, especially when talking about a serious subject, I have trouble trusting them. They don’t seem confident, and it doesn’t seem like I’m getting the whole story.  Regarding eye contact:


  • Use full, frontal eye contact.
  • When speaking to a group, look people in the eye, not over the tops of their heads.


  • Use sidelong glances as a way to make eye contact.
  • Avoid the senior people in the room.

4) Smiling: Just enough, but not too much!

Believe it or not, you can smile too much. Beware of using smiling as a defense mechanism, or a way to cover up your real feelings.  Too much smiling may send the signal that you aren’t serious, or you’re a pushover.


  • Smile warmly when appropriate.
  • Allow your smile to reach your eyes.


  • Smile all the time, especially when the smile is at odds with the circumstance or your personal feelings.
  • Use smiling as a way to please others or to try to soften bad news.

How do you know how you come across? Well, you can ask people. You can also videotape yourself in a meeting or while giving a presentation. And, if you’re really serious about ensuring you have executive presence, you can work with a terrific coach like Catherine Johns. I’ve had the pleasure of learning from her, and much of the above message came from what she teaches.

Too often we spend a lot of time working on what we wear and how we look. It’s our presence – our voice, our language, our eye contact – and many other things, that really impact how we are perceived.

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