Using Body Language to Command the Room: Executive Presence for Women Leaders

Master the executive presence secret weapon for being seen and heard in the boardroom and in your career.

Gender-diverse companies work better. It isn’t just about a healthier bottom line; they’re happier, more innovative, and better for the planet – yet we’re still a long way off achieving equality across the map.

One of the main challenges women face on their climb to the top is achieving the executive presence needed to be taken as seriously as their male peers.

Imagine walking into a room full of men, and you’re the only woman. Executive presence isn’t like a megaphone you use to shout above the noise; it’s a quiet confidence that makes others stop and take notice, to trust what you’re saying and have faith in your abilities. And it has as much to do with your body language as what you say.

The way a leader stands, gestures, or makes eye contact, even their facial expressions, can dramatically shift perceptions. It can position a person as a leader of conversations, projects, teams, rooms, or organizations rather than somebody who blends into the background.

Non-verbal cues speak for at least 50% of the overall message when we communicate,” says WeQual Executive and world-renowned marketing and communications expert, Mia Claselius. “Positive body language – the way you sit, how you engage with your body, your gestures – has the power to inspire and motivate teams.”

So, how can we incorporate the right non-verbal cues into the way we communicate as leaders?

Confidence and Credibility

It all starts with confidence. Say you’re leading a team meeting to discuss the launch of a new project. Your first step towards gaining credibility could be as simple as thoroughly researching the project’s scope, potential challenges, and benefits in advance.

However, confidence goes beyond knowledge and technical skills. “You might know your subject inside out, but it’s more about how you show up, how you speak, how you engage. That’s how you empower others and persuade them to share in your goal,” says Mia.

"Non-verbal cues speak for at least 50% of the overall message when we communicate."

Mia Claselius Global Marketing & Communications Executive

Communication Skills

Executive communication isn’t just about what you say but how you say it. Think of a nervous speaker who stumbles over their words and fills empty spaces with ‘ums’ and ‘ers’. Using clear, assertive language and avoiding filler words can significantly impact how your message is received.

For example, say you’re presenting a quarterly report to stakeholders. Instead of starting with ‘I just want to share,’ use positive language like: ‘Our team achieved significant milestones this quarter.’

Throughout the presentation, maintain eye contact with your audience, speak clearly, and use strategic pauses to emphasize key points. “If you’re leading teams and you’re going to go through a transformation, or you have a vision you need to get people on board with, you need to convey it in a compelling way,” says Mia. “Use storytelling techniques to paint a picture or create a narrative. This can help people connect with your message on a personal level.”

To use storytelling techniques, a leader might start with a strong hook – a statistic or powerful message to gain traction and emotional investment. The leader might walk the team through a narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end, helping them visualize the journey they are about to embark on. By personalizing the story, using success stories and plenty of interaction, the leader helps their team feel empowered to step forward together.

Being in the driving seat of your communication on all levels, at all times, helps your message land how you intend it to.

Maintain a Professional Appearance

When it comes to executive presence, your appearance speaks volumes before you even say a word. “It’s not about fashion. It’s not about standing out to get attention,” says Mia, “it’s about inspiring confidence. It’s about dressing appropriately for the role and the occasion, and also for the company setting and culture.”

So, in the same way, you’d plan your presentation ahead and think about what to wear in advance, so you’re not distracted by it on the day. If in doubt, always opt for formal over casual and wear the thing that makes you feel the most at ease. Are you able to move, sit, and gesture freely? Are you comfortable for the temperature of the day? These are all considerations that will ultimately aid your executive presence.

Beyond knowing what to wear, when and how, Mia says we shouldn’t be afraid to display our individuality. “Embrace femininity,” she says. “Don’t always wear black, blue and grey. Wear a pop of colour if it makes you feel confident. If you do wear a black dress, throw on a belt or some statement earrings that reflect your personality. Whatever makes you stand tall and feel good.” Just apply moderation so that the focus of any meeting is always firmly on your message, not your accessories.

Ultimately, if you feel confident and relaxed, it helps others to feel the same. It also sets a clear example for your team to follow.

Display Emotional Agility

Managing your emotions, especially in challenging situations, is a sign of a strong leader. “No one wants a leader that is overwhelmed and constantly busy,” says Mia. “Leaders with great executive presence are calm, cool and collected under pressure. They provide a safe haven where their team feels comfortable and supported.”

For example, instead of reacting defensively to a provocative comment, pause, take a deep breath, and acknowledge the emotion behind the other party’s statement. Then, calmly address their concerns, steering the conversation back to a constructive path. This ability to respond thoughtfully under pressure helps others feel safe and at ease in your presence.

Demonstrate Authenticity

Authenticity is a cornerstone of executive presence,” Mia says. “You’ve got to be yourself. That is your selling point, your uniqueness. So, I think you really need to take a deep dive into yourself, your values, what you stand for and your purpose, because with that comes authenticity, and with authenticity comes confidence.”

Instead of sticking strictly to the script, don’t be afraid to share a personal story related to one of the challenges the company is facing.

“When you display, for example, kindness and openness, your team feels more comfortable approaching you with ideas, concerns and feedback. You create a safe space,” says Mia.

This level of authenticity shows both vulnerability and resilience. By sharing this part of yourself, you connect with your audience on a personal level. Authenticity creates an environment of trust and encourages others to open up and share ideas, too.

So, how might this all look in practice? Here are some simple examples of specific ways you can tweak your body language to enhance your executive presence.

Eye Contact

Be aware of cultural norms regarding eye contact, as perceptions may vary, but generally, maintaining direct eye contact shows you are assertive and fully present.

“When you stand tall, maintain eye contact and use purposeful gestures, you gain credibility with stakeholders,” says Mia. “When you use more than just words to convey your intentions and attitudes, they hold more gravitas.”

Strategic eye contact involves not just who you look at but also how you allocate your gaze to manage attention and authority within a group.

Leading a roundtable with key stakeholders, employing a calculated approach to eye contact, and giving more visibility to quieter members by meeting their gaze more often – help encourage participation. At the same time, maintaining balanced eye contact with more dominant personalities helps manage their influence. This strategic distribution of visibility empowers you to steer the conversation, enhancing your leadership stature and giving others space to be heard.

Strategic Use of Space

The physical space you occupy and how you navigate it can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you.

As you enter a meeting room, intentionally choose a seat that positions you diagonally opposite the meeting lead, a placement that balances accessibility with authority. Ensure that throughout the meeting, your movements are deliberate; when highlighting a key point, you stand and approach the screen for emphasis, then seamlessly transition back. This calculated orchestration of space and movement subtly shifts the room’s focus and dynamics.

The physical space you occupy and how you navigate it can significantly influence others’ perceptions of you.

Adopt an Expansive Pose

According to Social Psychologist Amy Cuddy, adopting an expansive pose with an open, upright posture prior to an important meeting can make you feel more powerful and confident.

Furthermore, incorporating micro-expressions of your power poses into public speaking and interactions can subtly reinforce your authority and influence. For example, using open palms when speaking denotes honesty, and placing your hands on the table when listening denotes confidence and control. This seamless integration of power into your natural stance makes your authority felt, not just seen, resonating with your audience on a subconscious level.

Could it be purely psychological? Possibly – however, simply avoiding ‘contractive’ poses – poses that are slumped inward and make you smaller go a long way to preparing you to take up space in the meeting.

Mirroring

You may have heard of mirroring as a technique to connect to others during conversation. Advanced mirroring involves not only reflecting gestures but also synchronizing the tempo of your interactions to match the emotional state and energy level of your counterpart. This can play a huge role in enhancing executive presence.

In negotiations with a stakeholder, discern their pace of speech and pauses, and subtly adjust your own to match. This deeper level of mirroring – beyond mere gestures – creates a resonance, conveying a sense of understanding and alignment. Your ability to synchronize with their tempo disarms and encourages openness, paving the way for more rich, fruitful discussions.

Mind your Facial Expressions

Leaders with executive presence know the importance of aligning their facial expressions with their messages. A genuine smile, for instance, can bridge distances and warm up the room, making others feel acknowledged and valued. Conversely, maintaining a composed expression during serious discussions can cement your gravitas and command respect.

Controlled Delivery

Mastering the nuances of your vocal delivery – beyond clarity and confidence – can significantly enhance your persuasiveness and presence.

When discussing challenges with your team, consciously modulate your tone to convey urgency without alarm, adjust your tempo to inspire action without haste, and your volume to command attention without feeling overwhelming. This sophisticated vocal control resonates on an emotional level, motivating your team while reinforcing your image as a composed and dynamic leader.

“When I was the only woman at the table, I struggled a lot with controlled delivery,” Mia shares. “I had to work hard in some really challenging meetings to be able to deliver value through my voice and my message. The timing and the strength of your voice must be spot on to get your message across.” 

She talks about the importance of keeping your message simple, clear and measured, making sure everybody in the room can hear clearly and understand the language you’re using – which is of particular importance for diverse teams who do not speak the same native first language.

For Mia, learning to pause for impact, control her facial expressions and not over-use hand gestures were all tactics she learned to deploy for more impact when speaking. “And when you finish, just finish on the last word,” she adds.

In Summary ...

Executive presence is fast becoming one of the most valuable tools for women leaders. And body language really does have the power to make or break someone’s executive presence.

By developing and nurturing this vital tool you can develop your own executive presence or empower your leaders to gain momentum on their challenging climb up the career ladder, which results in a more diverse organization and better business outcomes.

 

To find out more about how WeQual can support you in your career, visit wequal.com

Thanks to our Guest Contributor:

Mia Claselius

Global Marketing & Communications Executive

Mia is also a WeQual Alumni and a Finalist of the WeQual Awards, EMEA 2022 in the Brand category.

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