Developing Executive Presence: Why Your Words Matter

To some extent, you can identify someone with executive presence by what they say and how they organize their words.

People with executive presence use words that are simple, clear and understandable. They participate and share their ideas fully, but they are efficient and don’t talk on and on in circles.

How do they do it?

First, think strategically

Speaking actually begins with thinking. While a person’s thinking is not visible, it shows up in what they say. People with strong executive presence reveal through their words that they are thinking strategically. They may also be very involved in tactics and execution, but people with strong executive presence can step back from the details and look at the broader picture.

If you have gotten the feedback that you are too tactical, that you need to be more strategic or that you need to look more at the big picture, then part of improving your executive presence begins in your head.

Strategic thinking can be learned. A good place to begin is by setting aside some time before an important meeting to ask yourself some “big picture” questions, then answer them. For example:

  • “Who will be in the room and what do they care about?”
  • “What are our long-term goals and how can today’s meeting help drive towards those?”
  • “What’s most important right now?”
  • “What’s going on in the company that’s most relevant?”
  • “What outcomes do I want from this meeting?”

Asking and answering important questions will exercise your strategic thinking muscles, so that when you do speak up, your words will reflect your deeper thought. You can take this a step further by using a similar approach to think about things like projects, initiatives or broad company goals.

Former Secretary of State George Schultz has an excellent practice that has served him well for decades. He carves out one hour every week to think strategically. This allows him to step back from day-to-day tactical issues and focus on the bigger picture.

Know when to speak up

Speaking up and fully participating in meetings is a key part of executive presence. Someone once said: if you say something a thousand times, it becomes the truth. But as a client of mine recently pointed out, the corollary is also true: if you say nothing a thousand times, that becomes the truth. You don’t want to develop a reputation for being invisible.

The people who work closely with you see you in action over time, and they know your skills. However, for people who are on the outskirts of your professional network—for example, partners in other companies or people you work with less frequently—if you rarely speak up, you are not creating any presence at all.

One tip is to make sure you speak up early in meetings. There’s something about getting your voice in the room early that paves the way for you to participate throughout the whole meeting. If you wait too long, you’ll likely find it harder and harder to finally speak out.

Use more confident words and limit “fillers”

I don’t believe that executives always need to sound totally certain about everything they say. That’s not realistic or authentic. But many would benefit from using more confident words more often.

I see many leaders who are confident in their knowledge and opinions but don’t manage to convey that with their word choice. Often the culprit is “hedging” words. For example, if you frequently start sentences with phrases such as “I may be wrong” or “I’m not sure if this is a good idea” or “maybe we should,” this can make you look uncertain and less confident. If you believe your statement is correct, don’t be afraid to be direct about it. Instead of saying “I may be wrong, but maybe we could think about whether cutting the budget would help,” say “We need to cut the budget.”

Also, try to limit using “filler” words, such as “um,” “so” and “like.” These words are a distracting interruption in the flow of your speech and can make you appear hesitant, disorganized or less confident. Of course, no one is perfectly polished all the time. Some hedging or the occasional “um” is normal. Just be aware that too much of these things can hurt your executive presence.

Structure your communications

Whether you’re giving a presentation, making a comment casually in a meeting, answering a question or writing an email, it helps to have a logical structure to your communications.

One tip is to begin with a key message, the most important thing you want your audience to hear. Instead of saving your most critical point for the end of your comments, start with that point. This allows your audience to see your main idea right away, which is more efficient. One way to think about this is: if you were only permitted one sentence to make your most important point to this audience, what would that sentence be? Start with that sentence.

If you have two or three points to make, it can be helpful to organize those ideas up front. So, you might say: “I have two thoughts about that. The first is X, and the second is Y. Let me tell you about X…” Structuring your communication makes it easier for others to follow your ideas.

Be brief

Another aspect of good executive communication is being selective in your choice of words. Nothing breaks down a sense of executive presence like someone who says much more than they need to say or who drones on and on, especially if they repeat themselves or speak in a disorganized way.

If you find yourself taking up most of the air time in the room, or if you’ve received feedback that you talk too much, this is damaging your executive presence. As a guideline, if you’re answering questions, most questions should be answerable in about a minute, even in high-stakes meetings and discussions. A good keynote speech or a presentation at an all-hands meeting is usually no more than 20 minutes.

Some leaders I coach talk twice as much as they should, and it’s hurting them. I help them become more brief by doing an exercise where I run a stopwatch while they talk. “That was four minutes. Now, tell me the same thing in one minute.” It takes practice, but it’s possible to learn to be brief.

Adapt to your audience

This requires you to think about your audience and then translate your message into language that will make sense to them. I can’t overstate how important this is for executive presence. People with great executive presence are able to talk in more technical language to technical people and in plain, simple English to people who are less technical or who are in different functions. Your goal should be to talk so that everyone can understand you.

You should also be able to speak more loudly or more quietly and to vary the pace of your speech, depending on the situation. It’s helpful to be direct with people who respond well to directness and to be less direct when more diplomacy is needed. I’m not saying executive presence requires that you talk just like everyone around you, or that you need to talk the same way most senior executives in your company do. The corporate world has room for a wide variety of communication styles. But you do need to be effective.

There’s a balance between adopting some of the norms of executive behavior in your organization, and authentically leaning into your own style. At best, you can continue to be authentic, but also expand your communication toolbox so that additional behaviors are available to you when they serve your purpose.

If you’re working on executive presence, ask yourself how well you’re doing in each of these areas. What do you do well? Where is there room for improvement?

For more on executive presence, see our posts on diversity and inclusion, listening, authenticitybody language and voice.