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Making heads turn

29 May 2017

Building your presence in a room

Have you ever stood at a cocktail party and seen the whole room turn to look at one person? Have you attended conferences where one person just ‘held’ the audience? These people are often unusual, rare in some way. They exude confidence and charisma. In short, they have presence.

Presence is one of those esoteric things that some people just have. But most of us have to learn it.

Suzi Dougherty

Suzi Dougherty (above) is a WAPPA trained actor and founding member of Bell Shakespeare. She has most recently been seen on our screens in Foxtel’s The Kettering Incident and has a recurring role in Home & Away as Cheryl Braxton.

The Ruby Connection talks to Suzi Dougherty about her top tips for building executive presence.

“Having presence is having potential. People want to listen to people with presence. We notice people with presence. People that change the world have a powerful presence. 

“Presence is made up of four key factors: your voice, how you look, your stance and your body language.”

Your voice

Why was James Earl Jones hired to say “This is CNN”? Some voices are just better to listen to and are therefore more compelling – creating presence. The good news is that we can all work on our voices. The first step to developing a voice that makes people listen is to learn how to use it as an instrument.  The best tip – read out loud, whenever you can. Read to your children and use big, bold, funny voices. Read punctuation to punctuation in one breath. Your voice is only as good as the quality of your breath. The aim is to develop your diaphragm to increase your capacity to project your voice with strength, ease and relaxation.

How you look

Being well prepared and appropriately attired just helps you feel relaxed and comfortable. It is very hard to have presence if you feel uncomfortable. People with powerful presence are present or in the moment. More than being physically in the space, it is about bringing your awareness into the space. Being still and being neutral. If you study people with high status (Penny Wong MP is an excellent example) they are still and relaxed, when they move they move deliberately but with ease. Watch Barrack Obama walk to a podium to address the press. He is the master of being “present”. Present people are captivating to watch and listen to because their body language gives nothing away – they leave us wanting to know more. 

Your stance and body language

Most people get nervous if they have to present to a group of people regardless of the size of an audience. But it is not just about presenting. It can be attending a party on your own, a work function where there are important work people to impress. Do you get red, or get the shakes or get sweaty? These are all physiological responses to being nervous. The best way to counter these symptoms – Breathe.

Most signs of nervousness are not obvious to your audience, so don’t apologise for it. Being well prepared with both your content, what’s expected of you and your audience all help counter nerves. Enjoy being in front of an audience and they will enjoy you being there.

Think about how you stand and your body language and then consider the message. Our body language gives a lot away. The people with the most presence tend towards neutral. Feet parallel, hip width apart, hands by your side keeping your body open. Standing in neutral is the most economic and stress-free way for your body to stand, and it leaves you open and vulnerable to the environment. And there is enormous strength and appeal in being both open and vulnerable.  Avoid “holding your own hand” and shutting off your body.

People with presence are appealing and compelling. Charm is appealing.  Charming people assume rapport. People with powerful presence remember people’s names, are not late, write thank you notes. Having appeal is all the things your mother told you to do when you were young like sitting up straight and making eye contact.

The final piece in the presence puzzle is demonstrating the ability to adapt.  People with powerful presence can adapt to different situations and different people. People with presence can play high status, low status and neutral status depending on the circumstance. If you look at Michelle Obama, she engages with comfortable ease with people from all walks of life – she is happy to give status to others.    

Go to tips for presenting with presence

Practice reading out loud – whenever you can. It strengthens your diaphragm, which strengthens your voice.

A great exercise for developing your breath is breathing in and out through a straw. It is like a dumbbell for your diaphragm. Start with breathing out to the count of 10 and work up to 15. 

Warm your voice up before a presentation by humming and then give it a workout with tongue twisters – An annoying noise annoys an oyster; What gall to play ball in this small hall

When entering a room – match your entrance to the situation

Start slowly and clearly – this grabs attention and establishes rapport

Remember to smile – it shows you are relaxed and confident