In the eyes of most people, it's the ability to command the attention of others. Peter Brook, the eminent English stage director, expressed it this way:
One actor can stand motionless on the stage and rivet our attention while another does not interest us at all. What's the difference?
What other words, besides presence, come to mind when you think of these people? Here are the words we hear most often when we ask that question in our workshops: Inspiring. Motivating. Commanding. Energized. Credible. Focused. Confident. Compelling.
Kathy tells this story about working with an aspiring actor:
In the mid-1980s I played Hypatia in a production of George Bernard Shaw's Misalliance at the New Repertory Theatre. A young actor, playing a relatively minor role, had caught my attention in rehearsals but I was completely unprepared for what happened on opening night.
He stepped out on stage and simply seized the room. He was playing the part of the gunner who popped up out of a Turkish bath where he had been hiding. Without saying a word, he was absolutely hilarious. It felt like a full minute before he even opened his mouth and the audience was absolutely riveted by him and when he finally delivered his line there was another twenty-second round of laughter.
I remember the director, Larry Lane, commenting, "This guy really has what it takes to be a big success." It turns out Larry was right. The actor's name was Oliver Platt and he went on to make a name in films like Working Girl, Bulworth, and Indecent Proposal, as well as on television, including an Emmy-nominated role on The West Wing.
Presence doesn't have to be a billion-watt nuclear reactor. While some people, like Oliver Platt, can "fill" an entire room or auditorium, the presence of others may not be so large. But it's no less genuine, for these people may be great conversationalists, or they may lead great meetings. Even some actors who have great presence in an intimate medium like movies or television don't have that ability to fill an auditorium. And some great stage actors have trouble "pulling it back" for television or a movie.
Still, whether their presence is large or more intimate, they have it, and when you look at them, it may be with a pang of envy.
Does everyone want to be a billion-watt reactor? Most of us don't seek to be center of attention all the time. But when we join a group or enter a room, we want our arrival acknowledged. When we speak, we want others to listen. When we offer an opinion, we want it treated with respect. We want to be taken seriously. We want our existence to have weight and substance for others.
It's the same thing, just not writ quite so large. We all want presence because no one wants to be ignored.
What is presence?
A moment ago we said most people think of presence as the ability to command the attention of others. But "commanding attention" is only one outcome of presence, not its essence or even its most valuable outcome.
We prefer to think of presence in a different --and deeper -- way. For us, presence is the ability to connect authentically with the thoughts and feelings of others. Most people think you are born with presence, or without it, or that circumstances lead you, if you're lucky, to develop it at an early age. And if the right circumstances never quite align? Well, too bad.
Fortunately, that's not the case. Presence is the result of certain ongoing choices you make, actions you take or fail to take. In fact, presence is a set of skills, both internal and external, that virtually anyone can develop and improve.
However, when we say anyone can improve his or her presence, we don't mean it's an easy task. It requires you to give up habitual patterns of behavior that you maintain because they make you feel safe. Developing presence will require you to go places and do things that feel uncomfortable, at least initially. Given that hurdle, we're absolutely convinced anyone can develop his or her presence.
The premise of this book is that presence can be developed and you will be a more effective leader when you invest some time and energy toward that goal. Our purpose in writing it is to describe how anyone, including you, can increase your presence.
We know people can develop presence because we have been helping leaders do it for over a decade. Thousands of managers and leaders have gone through our workshops, or worked with us in one-on-one coaching, and improved their ability to connect with others.
More than just skin deep
Let's confront an assumption you may be making.
This is not a book about simply making a better impression. It's not the behavioral counterpart of Dress for Success.
Presence includes these things, and anyone working to develop more presence will pay attention to them, because others pay attention to them, but true presence goes far beyond such superficialities.
Just because you've won the lead in a play or a leadership title at work doesn't mean you automatically hold any more sway over your audience or your people. It is your "performance," in both the theatrical and the organizational sense, that will grant you the authority the title or role implies. The presence you bring to your role -- how you show up, how you connect, how you speak, listen, act -- every move you make on the corporate or real stage, combine to create the impact you have.
Presence comes from within. It begins with an inner state, which leads to a series of external behaviors. Sure, you can put on the behaviors, but by themselves they'll lack something essential. They'll be hollow noise and nothing else. We've all heard politicians say, "I feel your pain," when we know they're simply saying what they think we want to hear. Compare that to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech, which obviously sprang from his deeply held beliefs and motivated a generation to overturn four hundred years of assumptions and behaviors.
Presence varies with each individual. In our workshops we never use a cookie-cutter approach; rather, we help each person discover his or her own unique presence in all its richness and variety.
Learning from theater
The second reason we know presence can be developed is that there exists a whole group of people who work diligently and successfully to develop it. That group of people is actors, and their success, even their livelihood, depends on presence. They must excite us when they step onstage, or they will fail. For the actor and performer, presence is not a happy accident of genetics or upbringing, it's the result of training and practice. We will draw heavily on the acting profession for concrete principles, practices, and stories about the development of presence.
At this point you may be thinking what can "serious" business leaders or teachers or politicians or government managers hope to learn from actors? Sure, they can learn how to speak better, to project their voices, to stand up straight. But actors play for a living. They pretend to be other people. What could they know about the "real" world that a lawyer or a Fortune 500 CEO doesn't?
Think about the last time you were really moved by an actor in a live theatrical performance, a movie, or even a television program. We mean really moved to feel something deeply, to understand something more completely, to think about something from a new perspective or even, perhaps, to change your mind about something. Now think about the last time you were truly moved in the same way by a presentation made by a leader in your organization. We're not saying moved to tears but moved to understand a different point of view, be excited about a new possibility, or be motivated to adapt and grow with changing times.
Of course the goal of the actor or the leader in these instances is the same -- to connect with you in some fundamental way. Unfortunately most people will say that this experience is much more rare at the office than it is at the movies.
Copyright © 2003 Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar
Kathy Lubar and Belle Linda Halpern, cofounders of The Ariel Group, have instructed more than 30,000 executives from hundreds of companies through their workshops. Halpern performs worldwide as an actress and singer and has taught music students at Harvard University. Lubar is a professional actress and cofounder of Boston's New Repertory Theater. Both live in the Boston area, where The Ariel Group is based. For more information, please visit the author's Web site at: www.arielgroup.com.