Not having quite the success you’ve envisioned for yourself? Wondered why the last promotion went to someone else when your numbers are better? Someone else just get that job offer when you had more experience?

Maybe you have a “presence” problem.

I’ve always hated this term because it’s so fuzzy, but keep coming back to it. Back when I ran recruiting for a corporate development group, many a candidate got bumped for “lack of presence”. I was never satisfied with this answer and made people articulate a more specific set of issues. They would look like: lack of confidence, goofy/nervous body language – even to the extent of awkward levels of sweat, talking too fast or slow etc. All symptoms or small things we roll up to “presence”. Well as I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to terms with the term.

I was just reading an interesting executive interview with Robert Selander (retiring CEO of Mastercard) in the NYT business section where this comes up. After commenting on attributes he values, like leadership and results, he mentions presence and gets into what he means:

Presence is learning to deal with different audiences in a way that allows them to get what they need out of this interaction and ensures that the well-being of the company is looked after.

Q. Isn’t that what some people describe as just good communication skills?

A. I think you can be a good communicator and you still may not have presence. There may be someone who is very articulate on a subject and they know levels of detail. When you get with a particular audience, it may not be appropriate to go into those levels of detail, or you may create doubt by even going into the subject matter. There’s inside information in a company, for example. You never cross that bright line, but you can get varying degrees of proximity to that line, depending on your audience.

Some people are not very good communicators, but boy, when you get them into their subject matter they know exactly where to go and how far to go. Others are brilliant communicators, but because of the connection between their thoughts and the synapses firing and the words coming out, there isn’t enough time and introspection. Therefore they will brilliantly communicate something that they shouldn’t be talking about. Presence is knowing what to communicate, and how.

I thought this was an interesting and useful way to think about it. Effectively communicating at the right level of detail, in the right manner to a particular audience.

To do this, you can’t have all the problems I mentioned above.  You need to know your content and be able to communicate it confidently.

He also mentions points in his career where some talented people were not fully appreciated because of their lack.

I realized this was probably the best branch manager I’d seen, but it would have been very easy for me to think he wasn’t, because he couldn’t communicate as well as some of the others who were fluent in English.

I think that was an important lesson. It is too easy to let the person with great presentation or language skills buffalo you into thinking that they are better or more knowledgeable than someone else who might not necessarily have that particular set of skills. 

So that was something that sounds obvious in hindsight, but as I was sitting there, boy, for me this was a thunderbolt. I think that’s another thing that sort of served me well, not letting the veneer distract you from the substance.

So what can we take from this?

Presence matters.

Whether you call it that, or confidence, polish etc. It sure helps. It’s not the only thing but it can sure carry the day in iffy situations. Pure content/expertise sometimes wins, but at the margin in a competitive environment (sales, interviewing, venture capital, promotions etc.) small differences matter a lot.  It affects how quickly you get opportunities and how (or even if) your voice is heard.

You can be petulant and say it shouldn’t matter, but we all make “lizard brain” level decisions about people without even realizing it. Gladwell talks about this in Blink and Cialdini gets into it in Influence. We are what we are cognitively. So you need to do what you can to help youself be as effective as you can.

 So if you think your presence could use improvement, work on it. How?

  • Ask five colleagues how you come across to them in person, meetings and as a presenter. You may need to be blunt in asking. People are often reluctant to tell you what they really think.
  • Diagnose some potential opportunities for development from their descriptions. See this older post on seeking and accepting feedback.
  • Pick 1-2 things from what they observe to work on.
  • Take stretch opportunities to work on them. Examples: If you’re a terrible speaker, force yourself to take speaking opportunities like toastmasters. If you don’t interview well, get a coach or find friends who are good to run you through the ringer. Nothing like having to do to learn.
  • Get follow up feedback.
  • Pick new things to work on.

I am NOT saying that presence matters more than content, execution and other important attributes. I AM saying it makes delivering easier and the lack of it may hold you back.

So work on your presence to improve your impact.

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