Are you projecting your best self at work?
As anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of communication knows, our spoken words are only a small part of the messages we convey. From posture to eye contact and even what we wear, our nonverbal signals often carry more weight than what we say.
Angela Noble-Grange, a senior lecturer of management communication at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business, recently joined eCornell’s Chris Wofford to share ten tips for how to power up your personal presence in the workplace and increase your awareness of the image you project. Below is an abridged version of her conversation.
#10 – STRAIGHTEN UP
How do you look when you’re in a meeting, or even if you’re sitting in an office cubicle? How do you look if you’re at a cocktail hour with your coworkers? Are you a sloucher or are you someone who sits up and looks like you’re ready to participate and engage with the people around you?
If you’re kind of slouching when you come into a meeting or you look like you need coffee or didn’t get enough sleep, you’re really signaling to people that you’re not ready to participate or engage. You want to look ready. People form their impressions of you based on how you present yourself.
If you’re in a cubicle, you might think, “Well, this is my office space, why should I have to change the way that I behave?” That’s obviously your call but if others can see you, you should at least know that you might be sending a signal to your coworkers that you’re just not as engaged.
It’s funny; when I mention standing straight or sitting straight in my class, you’ll see a lot of slouchers in the room immediately straighten up.
#9 – SPEAK UP
Are you one of those people who hears a lot of conversation going on in meetings but tends to not participate? Often times, you might talk yourself out of participating by thinking your idea is too out of the box, or that your question isn’t smart enough?
If you’re that person who doesn’t speak up, the simple remedy is to give yourself a goal. Maybe you can decide that once a week, or once a day, you’re going to make sure that your contribution is heard. Commit to speaking up during a meeting, even if it’s just to say that you agree with another person or that you want to build off of something that someone just said. Even if you don’t have something important to say, just expressing curiosity about someone else’s viewpoint will help. That may seem a little bit less threatening than coming up with something completely on the fly.
Remember, if you don’t say anything, someone else may say the same thing you were thinking, and you’ll really be kicking yourself.
#8 DON’T INTERRUPT ME
Is the culture at your company such that people interrupt each other all the time? But you were someone who was taught that it’s not polite to interrupt, so you need a way to get the floor back?
If this happens to you, I have a couple of phrases you might want to try. Of course, remember to say these things with a smile because a little charm can go a long way.
You might say, “I only need one more minute to finish”, with a nice smile directed at the person who interrupted you. Then take your moment, and maybe even gesture with your finger so they realize that you’re serious. The same phrase delivered with a different tone, with no smile and no gesture, might be perceived as a bit aggressive and you risk being labeled with the B-word, which often happens to those of us who are female.
The other phrase you might want to try is something like, “Oh, I love your enthusiasm for the topic. I just need a minute more and I’d be happy to hand the floor over to you.” Again, it’s not just the phrase. It’s the phrase combined with the right tone and a smile, and making sure that you are looking at the person who just interrupted you.
#7 CLAIM CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
Let’s say someone takes credit for an idea that you just expressed a few minutes ago. How do you make sure that people know it was actually your idea? Sometimes you might just want to let it go but other times, particularly if this is happening often and it’s hurting you at work, you need a way to show that you are the one who had the idea.
Something like, “Oh, that’s the idea I just expressed a couple of moments ago,” or “I’m so glad to see that we are in agreement” often works. These phrases are non-confrontational but make the point. Another one is, “Thank you so much for reinforcing the point that I just made a moment ago.”
#6 SPEAK AUTHORITATIVELY
Are you someone who uses the words or phrases like “just, only, hopefully, I think, I believe” when you’re making statements? Do you say “I’m sorry” for things you really don’t need to be sorry about? Do you constantly seek validation from people?
When you use diminutive phrases before everything that you state, it takes away the value, the quality and the power behind what you’re trying to say.
For example, sometimes I’ll hear a student say, “I’m only a first year. I’m only a student. I’m just beginning to learn finance,” instead of, “I’m learning finance. I am a student.” or “I am a member of this team.” It can also be as simple as saying, “This is a great strategy” rather than, “This is a great strategy, right?”
Why does it matter? Deleting those diminutive phrases is all it takes to add a little more power to the statement that you’re making and increase your presence overall.
#5 VERBAL AIR POLLUTION
It might sound weird but this is one of my pet peeves. What I’m talking about when I say “verbal air pollution” is the use of little words like “um.” That’s the worst one. But there are others –“like” and “you know” are two good examples. Basically it’s anything you’re saying that doesn’t mean anything. It’s those things we say when we’re trying to buy ourselves some time to think.
Usually, people are not comfortable with giving themselves time to think. They feel like they have to fill every single moment in a conversation with words. You don’t have to. Try to think about this one from the standpoint of the audience member. They’re trying not only to listen to you but also make sense out of what you’re saying. If you’re constantly rushing and filling every moment with speech, you’re making it harder on them.
Get comfortable with silence. Kill the “ums.” If you use them, ask one of your coworkers to catch you every single time. Make an agreement in which you will pay them a quarter or a dollar, depending on what you’re willing to part with, each time they catch you spewing verbal air pollution.
#4 THE HEAD NOD
You may have seen the person in a meeting who is just constantly nodding their head. Maybe you are that person. But this can cause mixed signals. For women, a head nod often means, “I’m encouraging you. I support you.” For men, a head nod often means, “I agree with you.”
So, can you imagine being in a room with mostly men, which is typically the type of room that I’m in, and you’re nodding your head and the whole time they’re thinking, “Wow, she agrees with everything that I say, isn’t that wonderful?” But really, all your trying to do is signal your support, not necessarily your agreement.
Now of course I’m not suggesting that each company should create a culture where we say, “Hey everybody, nodding your head signals encouragement, not agreement.” Nor am I suggesting that we should stop nodding our heads all together. What I’m saying is that this is something you might want to be aware of. Are you an excessive head nodder? Are you signalling to others that you agree with everything they say?
Because when you do that, strangely enough, you get people thinking that maybe you’re not all that powerful because you simply agree with everything. You just want to pay attention to it, to make sure it isn’t actually getting in the way of what you’re trying to get done.
#3 DRESS UP
That is, dress up a couple of levels beyond where you are in your company right now. As you’re interacting with your coworkers every day and you’re dressing just to the level of your coworkers, your boss, and your boss’s boss, will only see you at that level. But if you dress a couple of levels up, you’ll make it easier for the people who work at those higher levels to imagine you in that role.
You need to be mindful of how you dress because, somewhat unfortunately, we form impressions of one another based on how we show up at work. Of course, not every work environment has to be formal. It may be that you’re in a super casual environment. If you show up in a really nice dress suit at a tech job in Silicon Valley, they’ll think something is wrong with you. But still, when you show up in your casual clothes, are they pressed? Are they neat, do they match? There are ways to still look good and dress up even in a casual environment.
Everything we choose sends off messages. The way we say things, the way we act, and the way we dress actually do leave an impression on other people. It’s not just about what you do, it’s how you are perceived.
#2 DECLARE YOUR THOUGHTS
This one is aimed particularly at the younger generation and is meant to help them overcome what seems to be an unfortunate habit called “uptalk.” That is, ending with a high tone when you’re making a statement. Uptalk makes everything sound like a question. If you are an uptalker, you don’t “declare” your thoughts.
You can imagine how this would detract from your presence and the quality of what you’re saying. It makes you sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about, that you don’t believe it yourself. If you are an uptalker, you can use the same strategy I mentioned for ending verbal air pollution. Ask somebody point it out to you. In my teaching experience, I have found many people are completely unaware that they do this. I’m not even sure that they understand what I mean by it because it’s such a big part of their culture.
But as you move up the food chain in the corporate world or wherever you are, you’ll discover that people will notice that something is “off” and you need to get it under control. We need to own what we’re saying and be confident about it so that the people around us trust us. If they really believe that we believe it, then it’s okay for them to believe it.
#1 GET OUT THERE
My number one tip for giving off a more executive presence and being taken seriously at work is to simply “get out there.”
That means saying “yes” to every opportunity that you can get your hands on. A lot of people don’t do this because they’re nervous when they’re given an opportunity to do something they’ve never done before. I’ve noticed that this especially applies to women.
At my school, there used to be a golf tournament every year. I would sign up for it because I’m a golfer and when I would go, there would be all these guys and hardly any women. I would ask, “Where are the women students? Where are the women faculty? Why aren’t they here?”
The answer was that they voted themselves out of this experience. They thought they didn’t play golf well enough, or maybe they’d never played it before, and they didn’t want to embarrass themselves in front of recruiters who could possibly hire them.
The guys, on the other hand, took the opposite approach. A lot of them knew nothing about playing golf either but they saw this as an opportunity to get in front of a recruiter and have a few beers when it was all over. Who cares what happened on the golf course?
I’ve seen this time and time again with speaking opportunities. People say, “Well, I’ve never really done that before, so I don’t think I should.” Or they say, “There’s probably somebody here who’s better at it,” and so on. Too often, we vote ourselves out of incredible opportunities by saying no. You need to say yes. Don’t think about it. Just say yes.
If your boss asks you to do something, say yes now and figure out how to get it done later. This becomes an experience from which you can build and become more confident in similar experiences by simply taking on an experience that you’ve never done before. The more of this that you do, the more confident you will be when it comes to new things.
If you’re living an exciting and wonderful life, new opportunities will come before you all the time. Take them up. It will help not only your confidence but it will help with your executive presence as well.
Want to hear more? This article is based on Angela Noble-Grange’s live eCornell WebSeries event, Leadership Communication: Power Up Your Presence. Subscribe now to gain access to a recording of this event and other Women in Leadership topics.
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