Cultivate and elevate your own executive presence, says Shannon Alter

“Everybody sells. And everyone makes an instant impression when they walk into a room. Make yours count.” This is what my favourite mentor shared with me early on in my career, while we were out having coffee.

I was in my first senior leadership role, and I needed some advice on getting my point across to the people who mattered most: our clients and our team. That’s when he uttered those impactful words that have stuck with me ever since.

At the time I replied that I was not in a sales role and didn’t do pitches. Wiser than me, he countered, “Ah, but you’re a leader. You communicate with your peers, your clients, and your team all the time. Don’t underestimate the value of learning what image you want to convey, right from the get-go. Believe me, you’ll use this skill.”

And he was right! He was talking about developing executive presence. I was lucky to work with this particular leader, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. Whether you’re up at the front of the room giving a presentation or meeting with a prospective client one-on-one, your ability to ‘own the room’ – to deliver both presence and impact – is key. It all comes down to how we communicate and present ourselves, even before we walk into a room.

Our nonverbal cues have a lot to do with what we believe about ourselves, in any conversation or presentation. Social psychologist Amy Cuddy popularised the concept of ‘power posing’ in her 2012 TEDGlobal talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are.” Cuddy shows us how this evidence of confidence and presence makes all the difference.

Give this exercise a try:

Next time you have a leadership meeting, get your team to view Cuddy’s TED Talk in advance. This is a great opportunity for your team to experiment with low-power and high-power poses. It’s a fun exercise to do that is sure to give your team added insight!

How You Can Own the Room

What happens when you’re in an important presentation and everything you planned to say flies right out the window? Of course, we’ve all had that feeling!

When we’re panicked, we naturally resort to whatever feels most comfortable. And whether you’re meeting with your team, your executive, or a client, they all want to feel that you’re confident, calm, and have everything under control. Cultivating and elevating your own executive presence will help you polish your presentations. Now it’s time to shift your focus to these factors when it comes to owning any room:

Command Attention

Think about how you enter a room. You don’t have to strike a pose, à la Madonna’s ‘Vogue’, but self-awareness is key. Most of us don’t give this much thought in advance. We may brush our hair and straighten our jackets, which is a good start. But there’s more:

Start by prepping yourself in a mirror. How’s your posture? Can you look people in the eye? Do you have a smile on your face? Is your demeanour open and friendly? All these things will help others see that you are leading the way in your conversation.

While you’re at it, ask a friend or colleague for their opinion too; it’s always good to have a second pair of eyes.

Boost Confidence

Recently, a colleague who was preparing for a big presentation asked for some tips to boost his confidence.

“I’m a bit nervous,” he said. “I don’t know everyone in the room and I’m a little worried.” He’s not alone. When I work with private clients and associations, one of the most common issues we work on is instilling confidence.

Of course, content is also key. You have to know what you’re talking about inside out, upside down, and even sideways. If you have a lot of confidence but little knowledge, it’s just bluster. But you can also have a great deal of knowledge and expertise and still feel a little hesitant.

Powering It Up: Your First Step

Think about the best presenters you’ve seen. What makes them compelling and exactly what made those presentations so successful?

I like to think of this as the ‘PLUS’. If you attend a conference and rave about one of the speakers, most likely it’s because of the relevant stories and examples they shared and the confidence, control, and credibility they exuded. They took the stage, but how did they do it? That’s the PLUS factor you want to achieve: the executive presence.

When you’re not confident and haven’t connected to your audience, they feel it. And when they feel it, you sense it too. And guess what? It only serves to make you more panicked.

Instead, try this: Stop and take an ever-so-slight pause. Then quickly assess the room and the audience. After that, you’ll have regained your composure and you’ll be ready to continue.

Do Your Homework

I love the acronym DYH – Do Your Homework. Early on in my career, I worked in the real estate department for a grocery anchor tenant. One of my favourite leaders there had actually started out on the shop floor, packing groceries, then worked his way up to a leadership role.

Whenever we asked him a question, he’d respond with “What have you found out? Do your homework!” He used this phrase often, and it’s pertinent in almost every situation, even when you’re not presenting.

If you don’t know your own audience or understand how to effectively set the tone, your presentation can fall flat.

Work the Room

One way to do your homework when you’re presenting or leading a meeting is to ‘work the room’. This is a great method to create instant rapport and build trust. No matter what type of meeting or presentation you’re in, and no matter how large or small your audience, there’s almost always an opportunity to meet people as they enter. Take it!

When You Want to Command Attention

Prepare in advance, then let it go. Your audience can read the information that you’ve provided for them on your presentation slides; they don’t need you to do it. Your job is to help them understand what’s between the lines, or what hasn’t been said. It’s your insight that’s key.

Have a Plan B, a Plan C, and even a Plan D! Stuff happens, whether it’s a technical issue such as the lights cutting out, tripping up on your way to the stage, or committing a faux pas. Unless it’s egregious, there’s no need to apologise; once you do, people start wondering what else may require an apology.

When You Want to Create Rapport and Trust

Personalise whatever it is you’re presenting or explaining. I find it’s most helpful when I can create rapport before the meeting or presentation. I call this the ‘meeting behind the meeting’.

How much time you spend building rapport with people isn’t important. The point is that using a personal touch adds to your ability to convey presence and, more importantly, builds trust. If you already know them, this will remind them of who you are and that they want to hear what you have to say. If you don’t know them, they will be pleased at the introduction and you’ll have a friendly face in your audience.

This article is in an extract from Shannon’s bestselling book, Be Influential: Surefire Ways to Improve Your Presentation Skills, available to order from

Shannon Alter, CPM has a degree in theatre arts and as a Certified Property Manager, she has leveraged her presentation skills and ability to communicate with anyone in the high-touch fields of real estate and hospitality. She speaks and trains leaders ... (Read More)

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