Executive Presence is something I am crazy about. I don’t really know why it fascinates me so much. Perhaps there’s something tantalizing about a quality that is instantly recognizable but often difficult to explain.

I do know that it’s a highly valued leadership quality and one of the main reasons for hiring executive coaches. I’ve seen people who possess it transform themselves, their teams and their organizations. I do know that many people want to develop it so this article will help people see exactly what executive presence is and how to improve it.


Executive presence is how people experience us: what they see, hear and feel about us long after the online meeting, conference presentation or phone call is over. It’s also evident in every single email we write. The significance of presence is that it is a gateway to connection: connecting people to people; people to ideas, and people to organizations.

Two people come to mind when I want to illustrate Executive Presence: Satya Nadella, CEO of the mighty Microsoft Corporation and Michelle Obama, the former First Lady of the United States.

Nadella comes across as a cool, calm and cultured leader. He’s definitely not a high viz showman like previous Microsoft leaders. Instead, he has a gentle manner. When watching him in action he seems more at home in one-to-one interviews than large auditoriums. That said, in both situations, his presence is empathic, thoughtful and passionate.


READ ALSO: Todd Dewett – The Case for Authenticity


Michelle Obama’s leadership role as First Lady was unique: as hazily defined as it was high profile. Despite confessions of Imposter Syndrome her presence is consistently professional, engaging and authentic. There’s also a sense of fun about her: like she would be a great person to have coffee with. Her book, ‘Becoming’, reveals that she worked quite hard at developing her external presence because she learned the hard way that it mattered.¹ As image expert Jennifer Aston says,

‘When it comes to your image be the person that manages the signals you’re giving; take control and don’t leave it to chance. People will make judgments anyway so you might as well stack the odds in your favor and feel more confident doing it’. ²    

In my teaching and coaching work, I’ve found the following steps effective.




The presence audit is ultimately about having an authentic presence: one that reflects who you are and your purpose. You’ll need to create time for self-reflection to consider the question – what is my purpose? This may not be quick. It took me several days on an intensive coaching program to work out my purpose: I decided I want to help people soar. The idea of helping to unleash potential and uplift the human spirit is exhilarating.

In his book ‘Hit Refresh’ Satya Nadella describes his purpose as the empowerment of others.  His corporate mission is to empower every person and every organization to achieve more. It’s clear that Nadella’s personal and business goals overlap. He also reveals that he developed a more empathic leadership presence as a result of caring for his disabled child. He is now well known for his focus on listening and encouraging a growth mindset. Alongside developing a more empathic corporate culture, Microsoft has become more of a mobile and cloud company.3These changes have happened in the five years of Nadella’s tenure when the share price has tripled.4


READ ALSO: Your Business has the Potential to Change the World


Once your purpose is clear, a presence audit will help you live it. It’s a simple three-word description of your presence to guide you.

Conducting the presence audit aids self-awareness and self-development. Start with where you are now. What single words, adjectives, best describe your presence in recent meetings. Write them down on a blank sheet of paper.

Next, look to the future. Remember to stand in ‘the place of possibility’.5This is the thrilling place where you see your future self excelling in so many ways. When you view yourself AT YOUR BEST what single words describe your presence?

Include words that reflect your knowledge, gravitas, experience, wisdom, and strategic talents. This helps your presence audit convey style AND substance.


READ ALSO: Robin Sharma: Authentic Leadership


In addition to what you think about yourself get feedback from others: colleagues, friends and loved ones. What words would they use to describe you at your very best? What does their input reveal?

Throw as many words onto a page as you can to describe your presence. Then refine the audit to just three words: the words that best describe how you want to ‘linger’ in the minds of colleagues, clients, and other stakeholders.

Once you’ve finalized the presence audit lean into those precious words. Consider what you need to do to embody those words. Every email. Every meeting. Every call.

My presence audit

I was given a presence audit by a client. After I hosted a conference in the city of Leeds in The UK she wrote a note to thank me and described me as “assured, business-like and warm”. I was pleased with these words. Assured and business-like were important qualities for the high-powered business audience I was addressing.

 But I was particularly happy to see she included the word ‘warm’. It indicated that I had made a personal connection to the audience of over three hundred people. I have brainstormed many words for my presence audit and I find that I am really happy to use the ones generated by my client. Because I am picky with words I have used synonyms for assured and business-like. I have replaced assured with confident and business-like with professional so the presence audit for how I want to show up in virtually any business situation is:

·       Confident

·       Professional

·       Warm.6


Artwork by Christian Bailey

Start with heart. Before you communicate ideas, be clear how you want stakeholders to feel. This includes emails because that’s how we communicate most of the time. What do you really want people to feel? Interested? Excited? Concerned? Happy? Reassured? Intentionally use language, illustrations, and anecdotes to achieve the emotional outcome you want.

Consider the two sentences of apology below. How effectively is the language delivering the emotional objective?

1. I apologize for any inconvenience caused by this mistake. We’ll do what we can to sort it out.

2. I am deeply sorry that this has happened. I will find out where we went wrong so these mistakes stay in the past.

Sentence 1 has an unclear emotional objective. The indirect language comes across as a touch defensive or maybe uncaring. Sentence 2 feels like a more whole-hearted apology. The emotional objective is clearer: to reassure, to rebuild trust.


SEE ALSO: How to Manage Emotions in Organizations


Using humor and wit when speaking is another effective way to achieve emotional objectives.  A witty remark can accelerate connection to an audience and help people feel relaxed and more open to ideas. Humour has to be used with care though. If you’re not naturally funny it can feel forced so it’s essential to come across with ease and to avoid offending people. It’s remarkable how quickly humor can switch from being an asset to a liability.

However, you will always want audiences to trust you, have confidence in what you say and continue listening. This is much more likely to happen when the message is clear, concise and compelling. The three C’s are at the heart of effective communication. Without them success in executive presentations is unlikely.

Remember, people will forget what you said, they’ll forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.


When conveying ideas and emotions check your voice, body language, and appearance.  It’s easy to overlook the basics and the cost can be considerable. Audiences can switch off before you you’ve barely begun speaking.

Michelle Obama describes the painful moment when she watched a recording of herself speaking on the campaign trail. Yes, she gave a heartfelt and thoughtful message. But watching the video with no sound revealed a weakness. She says,

“My face … was too serious, too severe”.7

 The human face is a gift in its ability to support emotional outcomes. It’s capable of being so wonderfully expressive. Like Michelle Obama, make sure you know the ‘optics’ of your face, body language, and appearance. How are they impacting your presence?

And remember you don’t have a lot of time to get it right. Research tells us that within 30 seconds audiences will make judgments about a speaker’s competency, likeability, and trust. Those speedy judgments overwhelmingly remain the same after much longer time periods.⁸


READ ALSO: Importance of Communication Skills for Leadership and Management


It’s a good tip to watch a video recording of yourself speaking with the sound turned off to observe your face, posture, gestures, and appearance.

Also, try turning the sound up and the video off. This gets you focusing on your voice. Vocal variation is one of the things you are listening for. Research tells us that vocal variation is a key part of vocal attractiveness and affects whether we’re seen as trustworthy, warm, likable or powerful.9   Indeed, your voice should also reflect your three-word presence audit.

So, now you have three steps to presence.

Choose to be intentional about your presence every time you communicate.


  1. Becoming, Michelle Obama, Viking, page 334
  2. Executive Presentations: develop presence to speak with confidence and skill, Jacqui Harper Practical Inspiration Publishing, p 188
  3. How do you turn around the culture of a 130,000 personal company? By Simone Stolzoff , Quartz at work, https://qz.com/work/1539071/how-microsoft-ceo-satya-nadella-rebuilt-the-company-culture/, 1 February 2019
  4. Article reviewing Microsoft’s share price: http://fortune.com/2016/10/27/microsoft-shares/
  5. This marvelous phrase and concept comes from The Art of Possibility, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, Harvard Business Review Press, 2000
  6. Executive Presentations: develop presence to speak with confidence and skill, Jacqui Harper Practical Inspiration Publishing, 2018, p73
  7. Becoming, Michelle Obama, Viking, page 267
  8. Body Language in Business: decoding signals, Adrian Furnham & Evgeniya Petrova, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, p165
  9. How Do You Say Hello: Personality Impressions from Brief Novel Voices, Phil AcAleer, Alexander Todorov, Pascal Belin (2014) PLoS ONE 9(3): e90779. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0090779


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here