Could your Presence be driving Misperceptions too?

Three Ways to Develop Strong Leadership Presence


A few years ago a client complained that I was aggressive. Ouch! Feedback isn’t always easy to hear, is it? This was a first for me in the ten years I’ve been working as a Communication Specialist. I pondered why that team of high-powered male financiers had perceived me this way.


I didn’t understand and the term aggressive didn’t sit well with me at all. I’m assertive, yes. But aggressive? Surely not. I began to think that perhaps I didn’t line up with their expectations? I began to think that my gender and race might have had something to do with it. I began to feel angry.


Navigating that thin line between being seen as assertive, not aggressive, is no easy feat for women. Particularly if you're a woman of colour. There's even a term for it, The Double Bind.


But then I reminded myself that perception is reality, and their perception was the reality I’d be well served to better understand. I interact with a wide cross-section of professionals across industries and it’s in my interest to communicate in a way that doesn’t lead to negative misperceptions.


No doubt some of the men in that room had stereotypes in their minds that I challenged. No doubt I went into that session with my own set of biases that influenced how I showed up (my presence) and impacted the way I was perceived. None of us are exempt, unconscious bias is present in us all.


I acknowledged that it was possible that I had encountered a roomful of unconscious bias.

I also acknowledged that it was possible that I had not.


Knowing that feedback is a gift and lessons often come in disguise, I tamped down my defensiveness and set off in search of the lesson.


Not all drivers of perceptions are under our control, but some are. Our communication style is a major driver of perception and it is ours to adjust. Ours to enhance. Ours to elevate. I asked myself whether there was an aspect of my language use (verbal and non-verbal) that could have contributed to the misperception that I was aggressive.


At first, I drew a blank. Then I thought some more. Finally, I smiled to myself as the answer crystalized in my mind.


While D&I training increases in our organizations, more of us become aware of the challenges posed by our collective unconscious biases and we are learning strategies to combat them. We are becoming more self-aware and cognizant of the limitations of those around us. This is fantastic!


Raising our awareness and knowing the limitations are not enough though. When we use these insights to inform the way we communicate, we will better navigate the challenges posed by unconscious bias.



Here are three ways to strengthen the way you communicate to build your leadership presence.


1. Build Strong Presence with your Non-Verbal Communication

What we say is important and we’ve all been cautioned to pay attention to how we say it. Tone, gestures and facial expression communicate loudly. These non-verbal signals and many others help our audiences to know how they should feel about our words.


Let’s look back at my situation with the high-powered financial executives who thought I was aggressive. I concluded that it was because of my facial expressions. I don’t smile as much as I could. It’s the Jamaican in me, I swear. It’s just one of our many cultural differences!


I am passionate about communication. I saw how my passion could be misinterpreted as aggressive. Now, I simply make an intentional effort to better signal my openness and approachability by smiling more than was previously my custom. This small adjustment on my part led to a big impact on my audience, while not compromising my authenticity.


What about you? How are you showing up? On an every day basis? In those high stake moments? Are you aware?


2. Build Strong Presence with your Verbal Communication

When our audiences are distracted by verbal habits that don’t serve us, they have trouble hearing anything else. Can you think of anyone who would write something like this?


“Ahm… I’m just throwing it out there. Ahm…. hopefully you’ll agree… it’s like literally the only reasonable course of action, right?”


Probably not. Although you likely know someone who routinely speaks like that in the workplace. It can be hard to know what words we use (overuse) and the impact our voice has on our audience. When last did you receive feedback on your verbal communication in the workplace? Last week? Last month? Last year? Never?


For many of us, this sort of potentially trajectory-shifting feedback can be hard to come by. For a whole host of reasons that are completely understandable. This is a problem though, because it’s very difficult to fix an issue that we may not know exists.


Put intention behind removing any fillers or weak language choices that have infiltrated your speech and practice these three ways to more effectively use your voice to signal how you want your audience to respond.

  • Speak up.

  • Pause more.

  • Express yourself!


3. Build Strong Presence by Managing your Nerves

Our nerves remind us what’s at stake and provide us with adrenalin to seize the moment. Sometimes our nerves get the better of us though, and we fail to engage when it counts.


Knowing when our nerves are likely to strike allows us to anticipate and strategize how best to handle them. If we look at each time nerves present themselves as an opportunity to experiment - we quickly come to understand which strategy is our most effective.


Until we live and work in a world that is free from unconscious bias, one important way to combat these biases is to improve our ability to project strong authentic leadership presence by being more intentional with our verbal and non-verbal communication and learning how best to manage our nerves. I encourage you to put your communication style under the microscope and learn to make whatever small adjustments are needed to develop strong leadership presence.


If you want help knowing how your presence is affecting your personal brand and ways to strengthen it, choose one month in 2020, find a partner and we can work together on this and other aspects of your communication in the Captivate your Audience Online Course. Register before December 15, 2019 to receive a bonus coaching session with me.

Communication is complicated.

Your approach shouldn't be.