The term “executive presence” is used to describe someone who can command a room, and in surveys, senior managers say that executive presence counts for 26 percent of what it takes to get promoted. I recently spoke to Vanessa Wasche, a communication coach for Executive Speaking, a Minneapolis-based company dedicated to helping business leaders and other professionals develop executive presence and improve their public speaking skills. Wasche runs the company’s Leadership Speaking Bootcamp 360 programs, and she shared some tips about what makes a speaker a compelling communicator.
Wasche uses her background as an actor to help clients understand how to manage their emotions and make sure their body language and expressions match their message. She coaches people on how to take what they have and improve with a set of skills and tools. She’s very clear that authenticity is the key to effective communication – being yourself, but your best self.
“Confidence is one of the traits people admire in executives,” she says, “and we work on both physical techniques like breathing, and mental techniques such as changing the way you talk about your experience.” For example, she says, when you tell yourself you dislike public speaking or you’re not good at certain kinds of communication, you’re probably not going to improve. Tell yourself instead that you’re excited about the idea of speaking; it’s part of the “fake it ‘til you make it” concept that will eventually help you overcome your fears.
During the two-day boot camp that Wasche runs, participants give a 3 – 4 minute presentation that she plays back on an 85-inch screen. Many speakers don’t have an idea about what they really sound and look like, she says, and the point of playing back their presentation is to make sure what they think they’re doing is what the audience is really seeing. She gives specific feedback about what the speaker might need to add to her baseline strengths to be more effective. Or what he might need to take away. “It’s important to get your energy level right for the room,” Wasche says. “For a big room, you need lots of energy; for a small conference room, you’ll need to dial it down a bit.”
She works on body language and posture along with behavioral changes that allow speakers to stay focused and relaxed. She also helps them hone their messages down to the most essential points. “The biggest mistake most people make is delivering too much detail for their audience,” she says. “We help them develop key messages early, deliver just enough detail to keep people’s attention, then get back to your most important message.”
The boot camp also builds skills for dealing with hostile questions from a less-than-friendly audience. The key to success, Wasche says, is to align yourself with the questioner, making sure they feel heard, then diffusing their negative energy. “The same principle applies to martial arts,” she says. “You don’t meet an aggressive charge with equal power; you control and realign the negative energy, using a minimum amount of your own power. In other words, remain relaxed and calm, and return as soon as possible to your own message.
Executive Speaking has also helped politicians, preachers and others who need to become more persuasive, but the majority of their clients are mid to senior level executives. Find more at executivespeaking.net.
Candace Moody is vice president of communications for CareerSource Northeast Florida. Her column appears every Wednesday in the Times-Union, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.