At Spoken with Authority, we believe that you are constantly presenting at work, whether you are speaking in a conversation at the water cooler, on a phone call, in a meeting, or at a lectern at a conference or gala. And you can convey confidence in any of these situations by focusing on the five key elements of executive presence – stance, sound, smile, silence, and sight.
While these five elements are relevant in all speaking situations, there are certainly differences in degree. For example, you wouldn’t have the sweeping hand gestures or dramatic vocal variations in a one-on-one conversation or even a routine meeting that would be appropriate for a speech delivered on a stage.
So too there are nuances in executive presence when you present virtually. During this time of coronavirus when virtual meetings and online conferences have become the norm rather than the exception, it makes sense to explore those nuances.
Stance: To convey confidence when speaking, it’s always a good idea to open your posture and move purposefully. If you are delivering a speech virtually or leading a webinar, position your computer so you can stand up to deliver your remarks – just as you would for an in-person speech. This will increase your energy level and serve as a constant reminder that you are in public-speaking mode, even if you can’t see your audience. For meetings and conversations conducted by videoconference, sit tall in a structured office or dining chair (rather than a cushy couch or chair than can compromise posture).
In terms of gestures, use them to reinforce what you are saying and remember to avoid nervous movements (clicking pens, swaying, twisting in a chair, twirling hair) that are distracting. When you do use purposeful movements, make sure they are in the frame of your camera (viewers should see more than your head – chest up and a little wider than your shoulders is ideal). Avoid gesturing toward the camera; this distorts the size of your hands and looks awkward.
Sound: If you want to sound confident, your voice must be easily audible. This starts with excellent posture (hence standing or sitting in a firm chair) and requires full breaths between sentences (as sound comes from the movement of air over the vocal cords). Aim to speak in the low end of your natural range, at a slow rate, and crisply; all are best practices but particularly useful in computer-mediated formats which have been developed and optimized for lower vocal tones and which have the propensity to distort and freeze.
While your computer’s built-in camera is generally sufficient for video (make sure you remove anything covering the camera and clean the lens), computer audio is a different story. At the very least, use the earbud / microphone combo that came in the box with your phone to participate in virtual meetings. Don’t forget to mute yourself upon entry to virtual meetings and webinars so your background noises don’t cause distraction or embarrassment!
If you spend lots of time participating in videoconferences or if you facilitate meetings or webinars, you should invest in a high-quality microphone. Consider the Blue Yeti UBS Microphone and a pop filter (a shield that goes in front of the microphone to enhance audio quality, especially of “P” and “B” sounds).
Smile: Even serious professionals talking about serious topics look more assured when they have a “bright” face – a slight lift of the eyes, cheeks, and corners of the mouth. A soft smile not only makes your voice more pleasant to listen to, it disguises any nervousness you may be experiencing and makes you appear friendly, approachable, and enthusiastic. You want to use other facial expressions when delivering bad news so there is never a conflict between your verbal and nonverbal communication. But for good news, neutral information, or technical topics, throw on a smile. And remember in virtual meetings, everyone can see your face in the attendee gallery even when you are not speaking! So, maintain that soft smile when you are listening too.
Silence: When speakers avoid pauses, it often results in sentences that are littered with junk words, such as “um,” “ah,” “you know,” “kind of,” “like,” “so,” and “well.” These vocal fillers make you look unpolished, unprepared and unprofessional. Used in excess, they can even be distracting and can undermine your credibility.
Virtual presenters are particularly at risk for filler words. Without the visual feedback of your listener’s faces, a webinar facilitator or virtual speaker lacking in preparation is more likely to develop “inner chatter” and nervousness, which often manifests in junk words. To combat junk words, all presenters and especially virtual presenters should practice aloud at least six times to get confident with their material. Next, they should put their lips together briefly where there are commas and periods in their speaking or when they are thinking of the next thought (as these are places when junk words often creep in and you can’t articulate one when your lips are together).
Unlike live keynote speakers or trainers, virtual presenters have to be careful with long pauses. Audience members may be confused by the silence. So, announce that you are pausing and give listeners verbal directions on what they should be doing during a long pause and reinforce the verbal direction with written instructions (on a slide or in the chat box of the videoconference platform).
With long pauses in meetings, other participants might miss nonverbal cues that you intend to continue speaking and could cut you off. To prevent interruptions, prepare key points in advance and enumerate them (“there are three reasons why I support this recommendation”). If someone does interrupt, you can more easily regain the floor (“I promised three reasons, let me share the third before we move on”).
Sight: Lasting eye contact is crucial for building rapport with listeners and conveying confidence as a speaker. It’s also particularly difficult in virtual presentations because you need to position your equipment properly and stare at a tiny colored dot on your computer or an external camera lens to give virtual listeners the experience of receiving eye contact.
To support effective eye contact, first position your camera at eye level. If your laptop is on a desk or your lap, you will be looking down at the camera. Set it on a few thick books or on a study box on a table or desk to get it to your eye level. If you have a desktop computer, the camera may be too high, so you may need to lower it or raise your chair to achieve eye level.
Admittedly, it is hard to hold your gaze with a piece of camera equipment. To make it easier, you can arrange the gallery of virtual listeners on your computer screen right below your camera lens so you can look at images of audience members closer to your camera. You can also tape a small picture of a loved one or a toy figurine right above or next to your camera lens to remind you to look at the camera to give your virtual listeners the appearance of eye contact. If your speech is being streamed from a stage with empty seats where the audience member usually sits, you might find it useful to visualize people sitting in those seats. Or, do what this Italian priest did – he actually taped photos of parishioners to the pews, so he had still images of audience members to make eye contact with.
Setting: In most presentations, our setting is dictated for us – the conference room at our office, the breakout room at the conference where we are speaking on a panel, the restaurant where the networking event is held, the auditorium where our speech will take place, or the office or cubicle we are assigned at our place of work. But, for virtual presentations, setting is the sixth element of your executive presence.
You don’t need to create a fancy studio backdrop when you facilitate webinars or participate in virtual meetings. You do, however, need to curate an uncluttered and professional background. Standing or sitting in front of an organized bookcase is a safe bet that has more visual interest than a blank wall. While it is truly difficult with entire families working and going to school at home, try to use a space where you won’t have housemates in the background or interrupting you (but let’s all offer grace to the person who is interrupting or the colleague who is being the interrupted when the inevitably happens).
And, don’t forget to have decent lighting in your setting to improve your online appearance. The light source should be in front of you, not from the side or behind. If it is dark outside or if you are leading meetings or webinars, an LED desk lamp positioned at eye level can brighten your appearance on video.
By understanding the five elements of executive presence – stance, sound, smile, silence, sight – as well as their nuances and the added importance of setting in virtual presentations, you will be able to convey confidence and stand out for the right reasons in any online workplace speaking situation.