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Gravitas – having impact and presence

Written by: Luan de Burgh
Published on: 15 Aug 2013

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Professional public speaker and presentation coach Luan de Burgh of the de Burgh Group advises on how to come across as credible, confident and competent.

‘Peter Capaldi will be a Dr Who of gravitas and steel’ says the New Statesman of the time lord’s latest incarnation. Undoubtedly, but what does that actually mean - ‘gravitas and steel?’ Are the two qualities everlastingly linked? Is gravitas something a lucky few are born with or can anyone have it? What is gravitas? Do you have to have steel to have gravitas? What was the best thing before sliced bread…?

Gravitas can best be defined as having confidence, competence and credibility. Or to put that another way (and the temptation here to write ‘credibility, confidence and competence’ is overwhelming) ‘grace under fire, decisiveness and emotional intelligence’ according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Dictionary definitions of gravitas include ‘dignity, solemnity and weight’ (from the Latin gravis) – this, of course, refers to a sense of grounding or connection rather than simply being big boned.

Those who have gravitas tend also to have impact and presence, but it is worth noting that there are those who have impact without gravitas and that impact isn’t always positive. So the question is, what are the extra ingredients that add the icing on the gravitas cake? In equal measures - credibility, trustworthiness and authority. That’s all very well, but if you don’t have a credible track record propping you up because you’re just starting out, what can you do? Well, first off don’t be tempted to make stuff up, you’ll be caught out. Rather build on your achievements, show what you can do and try to work closely with and for those who have the qualities you aspire to in order to gain credibility by association. Above all take note of the words of Plato, “a wise man speaks because he has something to say, a fool because he has to say something.”

Think of someone who you deem to embody the qualities of gravitas. Great, now think of someone other than Barack Obama. Of course, President Obama does exemplify many if not all of these qualities but he is also President of the United States of America and that office carries with it a fair amount of gravitas. There are many other people in the public domain who demonstrate these qualities and more besides who each of us knows personally and aren’t public figures. When you have your person, think of the qualities they display which brought you to your choice.

Three words come up time and time again when doing this – confident, composed and controlled. If you look at anyone who seems to have an effortless ease with others and leaves everyone they engage with feeling that they were the sole focus of their attention and actually analyse what they are doing you will soon see a pattern emerging.

Firstly, people with gravitas do not rush about like the Mad Hatter, but rather conduct themselves more akin to Bagheera (if I may mix my children’s stories). They are cool, calm and collected and move with an assuredness that comes with being very at ease with the world (or at least gives the impression thereof).

Note how they breathe. The cool, calm and collected amongst us do not waste effort on short upper chest half-breaths but engage their diaphragms and fill their lungs. This is nothing new by the way and is not some secret respiratory technique available only to the enlightened, but rather it is the way we are born to breathe. If you have small children in your family, or have friends who have little people running about, watch them breathe (the children that is, not the parents – they’ll be too exhausted) and you’ll soon see what diaphragmatic breathing is. While you are at it, look at how they sit and stand. No awkward drooping physicality there. Children naturally use their spines to support their heads and torso and generally have more presence and a sunnier disposition than many adults. The point is that those who have the gravitas label firmly pinned to their lapels tend also to have an aligned and open posture and there is an undoubted link between good body posture and increased positive energy – after all, have you ever seen a downbeat ballroom dancer?

So, you’re standing tall, breathing like a baby and moving like a panther (I know panthers are quadrupeds but work with me on this) and feeling good about yourself. The next thing that gravitas-mongers have in common is a controlled and resonant vocal delivery. Why do we believe Mark Carney when he tells us that his new regime should boost the UK’s economic growth? The answer is not simply because he has a pretty decent track record behind him in these sort of things and can carry off a purple polo shirt and shorts combo without looking like a five year old, but also because he speaks with a measured tone of voice, appropriate for his message.

When people shout, they lose what little gravitas they had. Keep the volume down generally as this actually forces people to really listen to what you are saying and speak at an unhurried pace. This will allow your voice to settle into its lower register and thereby add depth and demonstrate that you are confident enough to speak slowly. However, this doesn’t meant that you should aim to deliver everything like James Earl Jones giving his Darth Vader, that would be a touch unsettling, but rather find your natural voice and vary your pitch and pace.

When you speak, use gesture fittingly but sparingly. The bigger the audience the greater the movement can be; in a meeting with a client, however, you can create the impression of weight by being relatively still especially when listening. You don’t see Fiona Bruce waving her arms about like a road-side inflatable tube man when she’s asking an excited member of the public how long they’ve had that antique chamber pot in the family.

Listening is a key part of gravitas. Don’t cut people off or rush in but rather wait for your turn and pay 100 per cent attention to the person speaking not least by making focussed eye contact with them. That is what those people who make you feel that there is no one else in the world for them but you do when they engage with you. Imagine how useful that is going to be in a meeting, at an event, on a date.

Other things you can do – take your space and ‘enfold’ others within that space – when actors go on stage, they imagine casting a net over their audience to bring them in (please note this is something that should be done mentally and not literally). Act powerfully by making sure your non verbal communication is deliberate and certain i.e. don’t fidget or fiddle and make sure you look the part. Take care of yourself physically and dress well. Go to the gym, walk up the steps instead of taking the lift where possible, manicure your nails (yes, you read that correctly), wear quality shoes and keep them clean – people DO notice, and always be courteous.

Finally, there is a particular mental attitude that you need to adopt – you need to focus on how you want to make people feel because how you make people feel will affect whether they want to do business with you. Take what you do seriously but don’t take yourself too seriously, have a sense of humour and you could do worse than heed the advice of George Clooney who offers this suggestion – to get that certain twinkle in your eye all you need to do is have a little secret!

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