How to command authority with a strong vocal presence

In meetings, when delivering a speech or even talking on the phone, your physicality and tone are vital components of engaging your listeners and making sure your message lands fully.

Do you “speak with presence”?

In 2012, the Center for Talent Innovation published a now-famous study about executive presence.

The study, based on interviews with thousands of people, concluded that executive presence depends on getting three things right: appearance, communication and gravitas (itself a set of behaviors).

“How you look, how you speak, and how you act turn out to be critical to your success,” the report concludes, “at every step in your career journey.”

Now, in her latest book, “Presence, Amy Cuddy takes this a step further and shows us how our bodies lead and our emotions and minds follow. Remember that leadership pose she demonstrated in her first TED talk? Do that, and you will immediately feel more gravitas; your audience will, too. The same is true for sitting up straight and leaning in at the table in a meeting, or on the phone even when no one can see you.

The Center for Talent Innovation was clear that gravitas is partly natural and partly developed. Yes, some people are born with an inclination to communicate more effectively, with a more attractive face and a knack for speaking up at just the right time in the right way. Much of this is studied and learned, however. This is true for how you use your voice: If you want to convey more gravitas, you will have to work at it.

The muscles we now use to speak were originally developed to help us swallow and breathe. As natural as it seems to you to use yours to communicate, it took you two years or more to learn to do that. If it doesn’t do what you need it to do for you, you can create a better, more supportive voice.

A review of vocal habits led me to create the following list of skills to develop for more executive presence. (Warning: Most require practice, and all require awareness.)

1. Speaking with presence means aligning your words and delivery with a sense of purpose/intention and avoiding needless chatter.

2. Speaking with presence means using more “mask resonance.” Clearly, if you want others to hear you, much of your vocal presence depends on the volume, timbre and registration of your sound. Developing the best resonance involves exercising, just as developing a fit body does. People with executive presence usually know this and work at it.

3. Speaking with presence means breathing deeply and using your breath to project your words. Again, vocal fitness follows overall fitness. Learning to breathe involves developing your core and using it more effectively.

4. Speaking with presence means pausing more. Yes, I know that you want to speak up more, but gravitas can be found in the silence as well. Give people space to take in what you say. Add pauses to punctuate your ideas, too.

5. Speaking with presence means eliminating words that diminish your gravitas such as “kind of,” “sort of,” “hopefully,” “um,” and “you know.” If you’re on gmail, there’s a plug-in called (love this) Just Not Sorry, which will help you sort out the chaff from the gravitas. Doing this with your mail is a good way to practice doing the same in your conversations.

Kate Peters has coached voice and communication impact for over 30 years, and is the author of the book, Can You Hear Me Now? A version of this article first appeared on her blog, Kate’s Voice.

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