In the current hypercompetitive economy, leaders must present an air of credibility, particularly when it comes to face-to-face interactions. Whether they’re meeting one-on-one or making a major presentation, leaders’ confidence and competence are constantly under watch.
But what does confidence and competence look like? And why do some capable leaders project such credibility, and others, who may be just as smart and capable, don’t?
Some say these qualities are rooted in leaders’ body language, with 25 specific visual and auditory cues — explicit behaviors for posture, gestures, vocal skills and eye contact — that affect the perception of credibility. And unlike countless other cues — age or physical features, for instance — these cues are within leaders’ control. Small changes can make a big difference.
Here are six do’s and don’ts of which learning leaders should be mindful.
Do keep your head level. In the business world, one of the best ways to project executive presence is to keep your head level when speaking. No raising or dropping your chin — this can appear aggressive or, in some cases, submissive.
Teaching Tip: Ask people to sit tall with their shoulders level. Then prompt them to scan the room like a camera on a tripod, moving only their head while keeping their torso still.
Do speak with optimal volume. Fans of the popular television show “Seinfeld” will remember the “low talker” episode, in which a character on the show sparks the attention of Jerry because of a habit of speaking at an absurdly soft volume.
Likewise, in business settings a common problem with volume is speaking too softly or dropping volume at the end of sentences. The good news is that volume is the easiest vocal skill to adjust. First, however, leaders must recognize the difference between adequate and optimal volume.
Teaching Tip: Increasing volume isn’t about ability; it’s about willingness. People who speak with low or merely adequate volume often have an internal metering issue. According to their ears, they’re speaking louder than they really are. To help such people recalibrate, videotape them talking with someone who speaks at optimal volume. Once they recognize the disparity, they’ll become more willing to increase their own speaking volume.
Do hold eye contact for three to five seconds. Some have said eye contact is the best accessory, akin to a watch or a sport coat. It is also a key indicator of confidence and competence. Still, there is a difference between making eye contact and holding eye contact. Learning leaders should be mindful of this when consulting their own.
Teaching Tip: To help people experience what holding eye contact and feels like, break them into small groups and ask each person to speak for about a minute. At the start, have all listeners hold up a hand. It’s up to the speaker to get each hand down, one by one, by holding eye contact for three to five seconds. Listeners should count off the seconds in their head.
Don’t use speech fillers. Speech fillers are superfluous sounds or words, like “um” and “you know.” A CEO, for example, may say to his team, “So, I actually sort of passionately believe that we have an opportunity to, uh, you know, sort of really take this platform to a new level. So we just kind of, uh, need to jump in, you know, with full force.” He may have intended to fire up his people — but his fillers extinguished his passion.
Teaching Tip: No one uses speech fillers deliberately. The key learning strategy is awareness. As a drill, sit across from people individually and ask several questions. Briefly raise your hand each time you hear a speech filler. People should quickly become aware of their own habits and, with practice, grow more comfortable with pausing while they search for the next word.
Don’t make extraneous movements. Extraneous movements — jiggling your knee, bobbing your head or shifting your weight — may weaken a leader’s personal power. One might say, “I can’t help myself. I just can’t be still.” Truth is, excessive fidgeting is a self-comforting behavior. Stillness, on the other hand, is an authoritative behavior — it sends a message that you’re composed and confident.
Teaching Tip: Nothing beats a thick, folded pair of socks to teach people to be still. Ask volunteers to balance the socks on their head while they talk about something they’re passionate about. The trick is for them to retain their energy and enthusiasm without losing the socks.
Finally, put individual leaders on camera. Remember, make sure to address behaviors rather than assess qualities. When it comes to providing feedback, “Keep your head level” or “Hold eye contact” is appreciably more effective than “Show more confidence.”
Cara Hale Alter is president of SpeechSkills, a San Francisco-based communication training company, and author of The Credibility Code: How to Project Confidence and Competence When It Matters Most. She can be reached at editor@CLOmedia.com.