Presence: More Powerful than the Right Words

Presence is the ability to connect deeply with people and leave a lasting impression. The nice thing about presence is that it is not something you are born with, and it has nothing to do with your personality or title. This vital leadership skill can be cultivated.

There is a misconception that presence is the ability to command a room, to be the loudest voice. But presence comes from having the capacity to understand and feel what another person is experiencing by putting yourself into the other person’s frame of reference. Presence requires fully engaging in that moment, practicing mindful listening, and ignoring distractions. People can feel how much you care in those moments. Giving another person your complete time and attention can change the entire conversation and create a lasting impression. It also makes them feel included. If you are truly present with someone, they may not remember what you said, but they will remember how you made them feel.

The difference you make for anyone is directly correlated to how lasting your impression is with them. The bigger the difference, the longer your impression lasts.

Recently, I ran a Signature workshop and asked the 35 women in the room these questions: “Think of one person that sticks out in your mind from last week that made a difference. How did they show up? What was their body language like? Their facial expressions? How did they listen to you?”

Each group compared their notes, and the notes were very similar. But the common thread was body language, and in particular, how someone was listening. Mindful listening hears, sees, and feels what you are saying. When you are truly listening to other people, your body actually hears what is being said and responds. And when you are engaged in that kind of listening, you can sense the person’s emotions and respond accordingly. The ability to demonstrate how much you care is front and center.

As Mae West once said, “I speak two languages, Body and English.” She has it right. Body language is first on the list. You don’t have to find the right words, you just need to be truly present.

Each group also unanimously reported a smile as a memorable impression from this person. Here’s the great thing: this creates a positive cycle. Not only does your body language make big impact on how the other person sees you, but it makes a significant difference in how you see yourself. You have made a difference for someone else. And that gives you more confidence and a positive mindset.

Practicing presence can sometimes be difficult, even with the best intentions. In a recent conversation about this topic with Ellen Kullman, former CEO of DuPont, she quipped, “There are 150,000 things going on in your head, but when you walk into a room, the only thing that matters is what you’re in the room to do. You’ve got to clear your head and focus on the moment and get it done and not be distracted by everything else that’s going on, or the mood of the last meeting compared to the mood of this meeting. It’s an easy thing to say and it’s a hard thing to do.” Ellen would often stop and stand a few minutes outside the door of her meeting, taking time to think about who was in the meeting, what outcome was desired, and the needs of the individuals participating. This is a great practice to help develop your presence capability.

Allow yourself time and space to be focused and prepared for the next interaction. Think through how you want your audience to perceive you and how you must show up to create that impression. And then leave a lasting one.