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Mind the Gap

Senior gravitas – making a powerful impact

Posted by Anne Hamill

If you want to be credible for senior positions, you need to understand and work on your ‘gravitas’ or presence. Making a powerful impact is critical both at interview and when leading others. This article looks at what might be undermining your impact and perceived suitability for senior leadership positions.

When discussing people’s suitability for senior positions, the word ‘gravitas’ is often used. ‘Gravitas’ derives from the Latin for weight, heaviness (hence gravity!). Applied to a person, it describes dignity, presence, impact, and influence. The question is whether you are seen as a person in the room whose words have weight; who is listened to; whose lead others follow.

People can have gravitas early in their career, and this marks them out for special attention. However, the benefits of gravitas really flower later in your career when you are in a leadership position. Senior leaders don’t just have to win the hearts and minds of people who meet them on a daily basis and have learned to trust them. Often, they are leading through layers of managers and need to have an instant impact on people on first meeting. They need to create the impression that this is a leader to be trusted; someone to follow. Senior specialists need non-experts in positions of authority to trust their recommendations even where they don’t fully understand the issues. And in senior roles you may be representing the company externally. All of these situations require gravitas.

Do you have natural gravitas? Check out the following.

Do you give considered opinions?

Typically, people with gravitas spend time listening before they give their point of view. This allows them to size up the sentiments in the room and be able to back up their thoughts. Introverts are often rather good at this, as it fits their thinking style; they prefer to work out what their viewpoint is and then convey it. Extroverts, in contrast, tend to do their thinking out loud – which means that they will typically share a half-formed idea often adding to their point as they think of something new, as they develop their final view. This can make their judgement sound less definite and more prone to shift – lowering their gravitas.

Action to improve: Listen and summarise first, before making a strong contribution.
Be prepared; have given thought to items on the agenda of your meetings. If nobody speaks, have a question or two to start the debate. If you have a real skill at thinking on your feet, that’s great – but relying on this and not taking the time to prepare your thinking will reduce your gravitas.

If someone asks you a question and you don’t have a thought-through answer, ask them to elaborate on their thinking – summarise what they are saying – only then give your own thoughts.

In a meeting, be the one who listens to the debate, summarises and jots down key points. Instead of arguing a point, raise questions that steer the debate. E.g. “How might this decision be seen by our customers?” Your most powerful contribution will often come in the second part of the discussion, where people are ready to start working on solutions. Because you’ve listened well, people will often give you the stage when it comes to proposing solutions.

Do you hold people’s attention?

There are several parts to this. First, can you claim the stage – or do you find it difficult to break into a conversation and find people talking over you? Extroverts are often good at spotting the tiniest window and seizing the floor, while introverts can wait in vain for a polite pause! And second, when you get the stage do you talk compellingly? You’ll know you talk compellingly if people turn to look at you, stay attentive, and don’t interrupt you.

Action to improve: Signal, claim the floor and only then make your point.
To claim the floor you can lean in, rest your wrist on the table and slightly raise your hand, while looking at the speaker. This movement often alerts the speaker to the fact that you want to say something – and they will slow down and look in your direction, handing the conversation to you. If this doesn’t work, you can aim to talk into a gap – but NOT with your main point, as this will often be talked over and will lead to an awkward moment where you have to regroup and start again. Claim the stage first – say something like “Can I make a point here?” Then when attention comes to you, you can position your contribution, and then start making your point.

Action: Slow down – and talk in soundbites.
If you are a fast talker, words can hit your audience at such a speed that they can’t process them – they’ll switch off and lose track of what you are saying. If you think this might be you, consciously slow down and try making just one point at a time. What difference does it make? Are you more influential if you claim the floor and deliver one point slowly, than if you try to make three points all at once?

Also consider whether you talk in complete sentences, or whether you tend to hare off in different directions. It’s good practice to summarise your key point in a simple punchy sentence. Pause, and then elaborate if necessary. Talking in complete sentences is a skill that you can learn; in media training, this is called ‘talking in soundbites.’ It is powerful because the things that you say can be edited into short punchy statements for use in articles or video reports.

Do you project your voice confidently without raising its pitch?

Leaders often need to be heard in large meetings and thus need an actor’s skill of voice projection. Are you naturally quietly spoken? Or do you feel that ‘shouting is rude’? When most people raise their voice, they do just that – their voice becomes not only louder but higher. In general, voices that are pitched low are perceived as calm and in command; high pitched voices convey panic or less seriousness. People will typically lower the register of their voice when talking about weighty matters – you can see this in action when watching serious or lighter-pitched news shows. If you want a reputation for weight and presence, experiment with controlling the pitch and projection of your voice.

Action: develop your vocal control and ability to increase your volume.
Experiment at meetings with projecting your voice to be heard very clearly by the person furthest from you. Develop your ability to speak more loudly while keeping the same tonality. If you find this difficult, there are voice coaches and acting coaches with many techniques that will help you.

Do you look serious?

Sometimes people’s gravitas can be undermined by habits of frequently smiling and nodding. You may do this because they are nervous, or because you want to build rapport, to show you are listening or to defuse criticism. However, this body language sends mixed messages. Your words are serious, but your actions appear to be approving and light-hearted. Or you may appear nervous, fidgeting or uncontrolled in your movements rather than calm. You are not trying to change ‘who you are’ here – but you do need to ask yourself if you are stuck in one mode rather than using the whole range of communication, able to be lively, friendly OR serious as the occasion demands.

Action: If you want to be taken seriously, look serious.
Ask yourself if you have a serious, powerful mode that will signal to others that you have an important point. Develop your ability to drop your smile and project your voice; try this out in meetings. Does it increase your impact? Make an active decision on when you want to be likeable and when you want to be respected; approach the two situations differently.

The Takeaway
Take stock of your gravitas – you are likely to have a number of strengths. Where can you improve? At senior levels you need to be able to consciously shift into a mode where you have gravitas and can command attention.