Do you have presence?

What does your physical presence in a room of people say about you? The way you carry yourself, the way you speak, your volume level, your amount of eye contact, your wardrobe, your facial expression, everything.

I’ve been around a lot of people in my career and I’ve always been impressed by people who have an instant presence when they walk into a room. And then they impress even more when they speak.

The advertising industry attracts extreme personalities. Bubbly extroverts, gloomy introverts, arrogant people, shy people, brash and pushy people, and a host of others. There are people who dress like hipsters and people who dress like the janitorial staff. There are smilers, frowners, arguers, whisperers, shouters, jokesters, laughers and painfully awkward people. 

All of these character attributes affect our work. They can hold us back or propel us upward. So when you walk into a room, what’s your presence? When you speak and interact with others, what signals are you sending?

I’ve given this a lot of thought over the years and I’ve taken a lot of mental notes. The things that give people a powerful presence are actually amazingly simple. There’s no voodoo or mystery at all. 

Here is a shortlist of things that I believe make a huge impact on our personal and professional lives. They might seem obvious but, shockingly, most people don’t follow them.

1. Smile. This is one of the most effective weapons in our arsenal. A genuine smile is disarming and friendly. Any tension in the air will immediately dissipate. Plus it’s infectious. It literally compels others to smile back at you. Conversely, a scowl or straight face repels people. It makes them not want to hang out with you after work, because you are presumably a boring or rigid person.

2. Give a firm handshake. It goes without saying, but a firm handshake implies confidence and dependability. To clients it shows you aren’t a pushover. On the flip side, a limp, squishy handshake implies timidity and insecurity. So don’t be afraid to squeeze.

3. Keep good eye contact. It’s easier to do this when you’re listening to someone speak but doing it when you are speaking is powerful. It communicates intensity and conviction. Practice it on your spouse, your friends, your dog, a wall. It’s even more powerful with fewer blinks. One of my good friends uses laser-focused eye contact while he’s speaking and it elevates everything he says. I believe he really means what he says.

4. Give the gift of validation by nodding while others are speaking. It doesn’t necessarily mean you agree, it means you are giving them your full attention and you understand what they are saying. Try this game: next time you’re in a conference room full of people, give validating head nods to the speaker. You will find that their eyes eventually settle on you more than others. This is because you’re giving them what they need: validation. And, surprisingly, I’ve found that it makes it easier to make a rebuttal. Perhaps because they truly feel you heard them thoroughly. After all, most people (especially clients) just want to be heard.

5. Learn the art of small talk. This one didn’t come easy to me. I’ve been shy since childhood. But I’ve learned the power of casual conversation. The key is having something to talk about and there are only three things: (1) Yourself, (2) the other person and (3) topical subjects. It’s easy to talk about yourself but it’s better to get the other person talking about himself/herself. However, the best thing you can do is listen to news radio or read the newspaper (or the online equivalent.) It makes you informed and gives you something to talk about. 

There are many more things you can do, but these five will give your life and career a big boost. If I were to add one more, I would say increase your volume. Many people (including myself) are soft talkers and sometimes get drowned out or interrupted. 

Lastly, the above principles are ultimately only effective if you have something relevant and valuable to contribute. Otherwise, it’s all for nothing.