Executive Presence Post #4: Speaking with Confidence – Overcoming Fears, Fillers, and Forgetting

Woman Speaking Confidently

The #4 post in my series on:

Executive Presence: Insights for Boosting Your Credibility and Influence

Whether you’re presenting to a large audience or speaking at a meeting, you want your message to be clearly heard. You want people to believe in your credibility. Sometimes you just want to get through it without making a fool of yourself.

Public speaking is a greater fear than death for the average person, but fortunately, it is a learnable skill. It is also one of the keys to attaining executive presence and all of the benefits that come with that.

I have experienced “speaking anxiety” and maybe you have too – accelerated heart rate, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, shaky voice, blanking out. In middle school, I gave a speech on the insanity plea at a speech tournament and completely froze, forgot my next points, and couldn’t finish my speech. I remember seeing the disappointing and awkward looks from the judges and my fellow speech team members. I was devastated and feared public speaking, even speaking or reading aloud in my classroom, for years.

Once I entered the business world, I realized how important confident speaking was to influencing others and my own career success. I learned a few tips along the way from many sources including superb speakers like Allan Ackerman and Sarah Victory that today help me and my executive coaching clients speak confidently. These tips can help you as well.

#1: Practice Pause and Pace. When we get nervous, we often speak too quickly. We may also use fillers such as “um,” “like,” and “you know.” These fluency disrupters distract the listener from our real message, deflate our credibility, and get in the way of achieving our goals. We must get comfortable with silence and speaking slowly, let our message marinate, and allow the listener to take in what we are saying. Allan Ackerman recommends extinguishing the “ums” with this method. Whether for emphasis, to encourage a response, or to signal a shift in topic or tone, practice just being quiet for a count of three at least once every two or three minutes. As you gain confidence in using silence and pace as speaking tools, you will find the need to say “um” less.

#2: Become Self-Aware. Another way to eliminate the “ums” and speak more confidently is to become self-aware of your speaking style – how fast you speak, which fillers you use and how often, and how effectively you use your own tools such as eye contact, voice, posture, gestures, and movement. Many things to pay attention to, so you’ll need help. Have your presentation recorded or ask a trusted friend to provide feedback and tally your “ums.” I’ve even had my coaching clients record themselves speaking on a conference call to really listen to how their voice comes across while participating in meetings. Awareness of your specific challenges is key to accelerating improvement.

#3: Relax In the Moment. Moments before you’re about to present, introduce yourself, or make a point at a meeting, just as your heartbeat begins to speed up, use one of these techniques to calm your nerves:

  • Deep Breathing: Use 4-7-8 breathing or square breathing, proven techniques to bring your heart rate down and calm speaking anxiety. The main nuance in these techniques is to hold your breath at the top after inhaling, and either let out a long exhale or hold your breath again at the bottom after exhaling. You can do this during a meeting without anyone noticing.
  • Muscle Relaxation: Discreetly tense up various body parts like making a fist with your hands or curling up your toes for a few seconds and then release and visualize every cell in those parts relaxing. Repeat for more body parts as you have time. Speaking and performance gurus like Sarah Victory and Carey Powell learned this in theatre training.
  • Power Posing: If you have a few extra minutes alone in the restroom or hallway before a big presentation or meeting, try power posing, proven to increase hormones that give you more confidence. In the moment, merely sitting up straight with a strong posture and leaning in can give you a just-in-time confidence boost. If standing, lean in by moving towards the audience (thanks, Dad, for this tip). If sitting at a table, lean in by laying forearms on the table to expand your presence. Keep your shoulders back and chin up.

#4: Prepare Your Nerves for Success. You can also do things well in advance to increase the probability of calmed nerves while speaking. Practice these techniques on a regular basis or at least weeks before a speaking opportunity.

  • Mindfulness Meditation: Practicing mindfulness meditation can enhance executive presence and train your mind to be more in control of your thoughts, enabling you to suppress fears and worries (and resulting physical nervous reactions) generated by speaking anxiety.
  • Visualization: Imagine yourself successfully presenting or speaking like you’re watching yourself in a movie. Visualize the details of a positive experience such as how relaxed and confident you feel, how fluidly and dynamically you speak, and how favorably the audience reacts to you.

Speaking confidently is within reach. Like anything, it takes awareness and focused effort to become a more confident speaker.

If I can do this, I know you can too!



Executive Presence Post #3: Mindfulness Meditation Can Enhance Executive Presence

Businessman meditating on green grass

The #3 post in my series on:

Executive Presence: Insights for Boosting Your Credibility and Influence

It seems more people than ever are meditating or talking about mindfulness, the state of living consciously. Research on the benefits of mindfulness meditation is promising from slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s to enabling athletes to achieve high performance under pressure to helping students focus and cope with stress. No wonder mindfulness meditation is getting a lot of attention. But what does mindfulness have to do with enhancing Executive Presence? Everything.

As discussed in my previous blog posts, executive presence is a key ingredient to influencing others and being selected for and successful in leadership roles. As presence guru and author, Catherine Johns, says, “You must be present to have presence.” Individuals with executive presence and superior influence are mindfully present in the moment, and connect on a human level when interacting with others.

It Takes Being Present…to truly listen to others – body language and all – to read your audience. You must be present to be a keen observer of your own feelings and thoughts before regulating emotions for the situation. Practicing mindfulness meditation helps you stay in the present and control your thoughts and emotions even when you’re not meditating, which is the point.

Why We Need Mindfulness? Our tendency in today’s fast-paced, high-stress work environment is to feel overwhelmed or get distracted and lost in the clutter of our thoughts, whether it’s worrying about the future and our to-do list or recycling thoughts and negative memories from the past. Mindfulness meditation teaches you to be aware of these thoughts and feelings in a non-reactive and non-judgmental way, training your brain to remove distractions and show more compassion towards yourself and others. With mindfulness practice, you learn how to stay calm and cool under stressful conditions. You gain greater focus and clear thinking when you need it the most. You become more like people with executive presence who are calm, cool, and collected under pressure.

Skeptical? I must admit I was skeptical at first and struggled to fit meditation into my already busy day as a working mom. What sold me were the small but noticeable positive differences I observed in my daily life after just weeks of meditating 2-3 times a week. I had more patience walking behind slow cart-pushers in the grocery store, driving in traffic, and interacting with my kids on hectic school days. I got much less nervous in competitive tennis matches and while presenting to large rooms of people allowing me to focus on my game and important moments. While I’m still striving towards consistent daily practice, every little bit counts, which is why mindfulness meditation is one of the tools I typically recommend for my executive coaching clients. Even my dad at age 76 has gotten on board with weekly yoga practice, another way to build mindfulness, to help his brain and body stay young and flexible.

Getting Started. Countless good apps and guides are available to make it easy. Oprah & Deepak Chopra have a 21 Day Meditation Experience that may appeal to you. My new favorite guided meditation app recommended by an executive coaching client is Calm. I really like the woman’s voice guiding the meditation in addition to the micro self-help lesson incorporated into each session. You get to choose a scene to look at in the beginning of the meditation, which in itself is scientifically soothing. As a bonus, the app keeps good stats for those fitbit-wearing-measurement lovers, such as the days you meditated each month. I was astounded to learn this morning after meditating that I’ve logged over 10 hours of meditation in 50 three to 14 minute sessions over the past 5 months. Not bad for someone who doesn’t like to sit still!

If you want to be your own guide, here are some simple How-To Meditate instructions to get you started including other ways to incorporate mindfulness into your day.

Overwhelmed? Start small. Try for just 5-7 minutes for the first several sessions. Wake up 5 minutes early. Try it on the commuter train with headphones or in a parked car after work or while your child is at an after-school activity. You’d be surprised what a few deep breaths and thought-observation practices can do for your executive presence and your health. Here’s to your mindfulness!

P.S. A special shout out to Coach Carey at Score Tennis & Fitness for getting me started on meditation. Thanks Carey!

Executive Presence Post #2: Intentional Personal Branding – Setting a Vision for the Presence You Desire


The #2 post in my series on:

Executive Presence: Insights for Boosting Your Credibility and Influence

Whether we realize it or not, we do things that shape our personal brands – how others think and feel about us – every day at work and in our personal lives. Every interaction, communication, and how we show up in appearance and posture affects what others think and feel about us. This in turn influences the extent to which others want to trust us, buy or believe what we say, and interact with us at work.

How can you accelerate your path to executive presence to boost your credibility and influence? Put yourself in the driver’s seat of your reputation and leadership impact with Intentional Personal Branding to create more positive outcomes.

Intentional Personal Branding is being intentional about how you want people to perceive you and think about you and then doing things that align with that intention or vision.

We already know from decades of research that those who have clearly written goals have a greater likelihood of achieving success. Setting goals for your personal brand is no different.

I use Intentional Personal Branding with many of my executive coaching clients as a way to set goals to guide their path to executive presence. This personal brand vision serves as an anchor for making good communications and behavior decisions – intentional decisions on how they want to show up to others.

Here are the questions to ask yourself in setting your Intentional Personal Brand:

#1: How do you want to be seen by others? Do you want to be seen as someone who is an expert in your field, a leader who is true to your word, or a person who will do anything to help others? Or, do you have other core values and desired perceptions that are higher on the list?

#2: How do you want people to feel when they are with you? How someone feels in your presence is an indicator for how much time they want to spend in your presence. If you make people feel capable, inspired and important, then likely you will quickly build more followers.

#3: What do you want people to say about you? Now this is getting real! Writing down what you want people to say about you is making your goals more specific and descriptive, increasing the likelihood that you will make wise communications and behavioral choices that align with your goals.

Taking the time to answer these questions and set these goals will increase your chances for success as a leader.

In addition to being specific, be sure to create a vision for your personal brand that is achievable and aligns with your authentic self and core values. Creating a desired brand that is a 180 from who you really are as a person may not serve you well.

Last, don’t get discouraged when you have setbacks. Once you have thought about and intentionally articulated the personal brand you desire, you will become more aware of when you say and do things that are not aligned with your vision. Awareness is a good thing! How many people do things to hurt their reputation and aren’t aware of it? Be grateful for your awareness. Learn what you can from your mistakes, pick yourself back up, and keep moving forward being intentional with what you say and do and how you appear to others to be more successful.


Executive Presence Post #1: Power Posing – Aligning Body Language & Appearance for Leadership Success

Amy Cuddy,
Amy Cuddy, “Your body language shapes who you are.”

The #1 post in my series on:

Executive Presence: Insights for Boosting Your Credibility and Influence

Executive Presence is the “wow” factor. People with executive presence have a strong personal brand and ability to command a room. When you have presence, people gravitate to you. Management has confidence in your abilities. Clients and partners want to do business with you, and employees want to follow you. Some studies say it’s a big factor in what helps get people promoted. No wonder executive presence is a top development area leaders and emerging leaders want to work on.

Although some are born with a head start in presence, the good news is that executive presence is very learnable, and we can all get better at it. Let’s start by looking at how to align body language and appearance for leadership success.

Others’ first impressions of us are based more on our posture and body language than on what we say. Similarly, our posture impacts how we feel about ourselves. As social psychologist, Amy Cuddy, demonstrates in her research and TED Talk, “power posing” in a confident stance or retreating in a cowering posture affects hormone levels in the brain, impacting our confidence levels and likelihood for success.

Whether you’re striving to be perceived as more confident and competent or as an empathetic leader trying to engage others, align your body, vocal and facial language with your intent.

As an engaged listener, open your posture to and be laser focused on the speaker. When speaking about your business, team or point of view, help your passion come through by getting behind your words with full facial expression and voice inflection. Be aware of what your neutral face conveys to others. Some people are blessed with a joyful neutral face, whereas others’ neutral facial expressions come across unintentionally as angry or sad. This is fixable with self-awareness and a little “eyebrow-raising and smiling” practice in the mirror.

It may feel funny or even fake at first to tweak your natural instincts such as your body or facial language, but remember perception is reality to others. People make judgments on your competence and leadership abilities based on how they experience you, and this impacts their level of trust and faith in your ability to influence them. Even Margaret Thatcher worked with a coach to exude more confidence in her voice and body language as you can see in these fascinating before and after videos.

Last, examine the professionalism and style of your dress, grooming, and mannerisms to ensure they align with what you’d expect of a competent leader. Showing a sense of style while staying professional with body parts and body hair appropriately covered is a must. When in doubt, dress more conservatively than your boss and your client, and dress for the job you want. Ask trusted friends for their opinions if you look polished, professional and put together. Be mindful of your mannerisms. Do use hand gestures sparingly and intentionally. Don’t play with your hair when you speak. Watch videos of competent speakers and of yourself interacting with others for insight.

I will be speaking on this topic and other insights on Executive Presence this week at the ACA Business Club of Chicago’s professional development luncheon at Maggiano’s in Schaumburg, IL on Wednesday, August 12, 2015.

When you don’t get chosen, how can you pick yourself up?

Catherine Johns got gonged and asked me for advice. Her blog “I Got Gonged” can be found on her website. Here is an excerpt of her informative article.


For me, not being picked for a gig equals not being invited to Tom Robinson’s birthday party in 6th grade. Not having a date for prom.  Not being renewed at WLS (they called it “a likeability issue.” Sheesh.)  And a lifetime of other not-picked experiences.

Before you think I’m completely crazy, this is not unusual.  It’s the way the brain operates.  My brain, your brain, everybody’s brain.

Executive Coach Kris Lonsway says research proves that we feel before we think. So a business situation can trigger emotional memory before we cognitively know what’s going on. Thanks to that primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, feelings get activated immediately if they’re connected to some significant experience from the past.

For me, those emotional memories are about not being picked. For some people, it’s doubt about their talent or ability. They get a new client and instantly wonder if they’re really good enough to do the job. Others might have feelings about authority figures – their boss asks to see them and it triggers the emotion they felt being called to the principal’s office 35 years ago.

And it’s not just a business thing. Kris plays competitive tennis. “Some people quickly move on from a bad shot or a bad game,” she says. “Other people, who are technically better tennis players, get so bummed by losing that they can’t recover. One missed shot becomes a downward spiral because they generalize: I’m a failure. I can’t do anything right.”

Luckily, there are strategies for business owners and tennis players. Read more.

Catherine Johns coaches business owners and professionals who use speaking to get more clients, have more impact and increase their income.

Getting Promoted: Four Things Your Boss Wants to See

SMPS Heartland Regional Conference Keynote Presentation Preview, Posted by Hard Hat Hub, May 4, 2015

The original version of this story can be found at Hard Hat Hub’s blog. Hard Hat Hub is a careers site, dedicated to the construction, engineering and architecture industries.


Two people seemingly do the same job. One gets promoted, one doesn’t. Why? How can you make sure you’re next on the promo list? From years of working with managers at all levels, here are a few things that they’re looking for from employees:

#1:  You think like a business owner.

Do you know your company’s vision and strategic goals?  Do you know what your boss is measured on? Do you know what his/her goals are? Are your goals aligned with their goals?

Your knowledge of what’s important to the company and your ability to show how your work relates shows your boss that you’re thinking like a business owner and have their best interests in mind.

#2: You bring solutions with your problems.

When you present issues or problems to your boss, also present solution ideas or at least options with pros and cons. Management deals with problems all day long, from project and cost overruns, to personnel, to vendors and subcontractors, and they have to make quick decisions on a regular basis. If you do some of the thinking for them instead of just presenting another problem, they will appreciate it. Trust me.

#3. You build your network in the industry.

No matter what your role or level in the company, there’s no reason you can’t proactively attend industry conferences, local business associations, and professional networking groups, especially if you do so during some of your personal time. Who knows? You could help bring in new business to the company and pleasantly surprise management.

#4.  You have a career plan.

Whether your company has a formal process or not, you can take initiative to create your own plan and be the one to initiate career discussions with your manager. Here’s what you need in your plan:

o   Career aspirations and goals: This is what you want to do or be at different time periods in the future (5 years out, 12 months out, etc.) and why. Focus on the type of work you want to do and the contribution you want to make to the company as opposed to focusing on bigger titles.

o   Skills you want to build: Managers love when employees have the confidence to acknowledge what skills they’re working on. Seek feedback from your manager, peers and clients if you don’t know what you need to work on.

o   Accomplishments: Keep a running list of what you’ve accomplished every 6 months. When managers complete performance review forms, they often forget the things you may have accomplished earlier in the year. This is also a way to keep your resume current and to look for what’s missing that you want to achieve.

Bottom line, be proactive and don’t wait for someone to ask you to do things. Management wants to promote self-starters and go-getters, not order takers. Just ensure your actions are aligned with the company’s goals.

Tips to Inspire Employees: Define What Success Looks Like and How to Get There


All small businesses start with a dream.

What would it be like to have my own business? I could chart my own course, sell products and services that Ibelieve in, and hire the people I want to hire. I could control my own destiny.

As a small business grows, however, it gets harder and harder to communicate what’s important and what’s expected from employees. It gets more difficult to follow-up. At some point, you need employees to just know and do the right things. Short of a cool sci-fi way of doing this, how does this happen?

Pay Now or Pay Later

The key is clarifying what success looks like with your team. Investing the time now to define and communicate what success looks like and how to get there with your employees will save you time and grief later. Without clear expectations from you, inevitably employees will perform to their expectations.

It’s as Easy as 1-2-3

Defining what success looks like is actually an important part of strategic planning, but don’t let that scare you. Follow these steps for your whole business or just a component, and you’ll discover new hooks for aligning your employees with your vision.

  1. Start with the end in mind. Pick a time horizon….3 years, 5 years, or 10 years. Describe what success looks and feels like from as many perspectives as possible to paint a vivid picture of the future state. What revenue targets have you hit? What do people think and know about your business? How do employees feel working for you? Be specific.
  1. Break it down. Once you define what success looks like for the business, create distinct categories such as Customer Experience or Employee Engagement, and further break down what success looks like for those categories. For example, what does success look like for an Optimal Customer Experience? How are your employees “righting the wrongs?”
  1. Connect the dots for employees. If you include employee input to these definitions of success, you’re ahead of the game by making your vision their vision too. Don’t underestimate the need to make explicit connections between what employees do every day and how that links to the likelihood of achieving success as you’ve defined it.

There is no better time to begin defining what success looks like for your business. It will inspire you. It will inspire your employees. You will likely resolve a few obstacles in the process. And it might even remind you why you started the business in the first place.

Kristine Rand Lonsway is owner and executive coach for Lonsway Consulting (http://lonswayconsulting.com/) and a member of the   La Grange Business Association’s Education Committee.