What is Presence?

How do you develop your Speaking Presence? First, you have to work out what Presence means to you… which is quite easy if you use this exercise.

When I talk to people who want to improve their public speaking and their presentation skills, they often say that they want to improve their “Presence”.

But, what is Presence? How do you define it?

And if you can’t define Presence, how can you possibly hope to improve it?

Without a good understanding of a concept, without a definition, we don’t know what we’re aiming for when we work to improve our voice and presentation skills.

In this article and corresponding video, I help you to clarify what Presence is and what it isn’t. Then, I give a simple exercise that you can use to construct your own personal definition of Presence — one which is actually helpful for you — which you can use to become a better speaker who speaks with more Presence.

Why Most Definitions of Presence Are Wrong

If you were to search online for some definition of Presence, or if you were to read some books on presentation skills, you would often find that people’s definitions of Presence fall into one of two categories:

1. Overly Vague Definitions of Presence

The first type of definition is what I think of as “vague” definitions.

People say things like:

  • Presence is a person’s natural magnetism.
  • Presence is charisma.
  • You can’t teach Presence, Presence is authenticity.

Now, I think there are elements of these statements that are true.

The problem is that these are also very vague terms.

They use one vague term to try to define another vague term. As a result, I don’t think these type of definitions are very useful.

Imagine. It would be like someone coming up to you and saying: “I think you’re a person with lots of Yogeltrob.”

Then, when you ask them: “What’s Yogeltrob?”

They say: “Oh, it’s a type of Wangeltarp.”

You would be left none the wiser as to what they actually mean!

This is a common problem when people talk about a lot of these qualities in public speaking: Presence, Authority, Charisma, etc.

The terms are too vague for us to understand what they mean, specifically. And if we can’t understand them, we won’t be able to develop these qualities for ourselves. We might be able to recognize them in other people but we don’t know how to get there because we don’t specifically know what we’re talking about.

2. Overly Prescriptive Definitions of Presence

The other type of definition you’re likely to find has the opposite problem. It’s too specific.

Some people will say things like: “To speak with Presence you must speak slowly with a very deep voice.”

This can’t be true!

After all, I’m sure you can think of examples of people who speak slowly with a deep voice who don’t have much Presence when they’re giving a presentation. I can certainly think of people who have both of those qualities — plus some of the other qualities that people use to define Presence — and they don’t have Presence at all!

So, such a prescriptive definition also can’t be right. It can’t just be a case of “Presence = X + Y + Z” otherwise we’d all be able to learn to speak with Presence.

How to Develop Your Own Definition of Presence

How to Speak With PresenceThe problem is that we all have our own idea of what Presence means.

My definition of Presence might be different to your definition of Presence.

But, we don’t usually take the time to specify our own definition.

To be able to develop our own Presence, we need to form a definition of it that makes sense to us personally. Otherwise, we don’t know what to aim for. It’s like wanting to have a more pleasing speaking voice without knowing what “pleasing” means.

So, here is an exercise that you can use to try and build your own definition of Presence. You can then work from that definition when you’re working to improve your public speaking skills.

Pick Two Speakers You Like

First, think of somebody who you think is a great speaker, someone who has Presence when they’re giving a presentation. Name that person now.

Now, think of a second person who you think has good Presence on stage.

When you’ve got the names of two people, go to YouTube — if these people are on YouTube — and watch a presentation that they’ve given in front of an audience.

Identify What Gives Them Presence

When you’re watching each video, write down at least three specific things that those people are doing that you think contributes to their Presence.

For example, when I first did this exercise I chose Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin. These are both people I think are good speakers. Specifically, I think that they’ve got Presence when they talk.

One of the things that I realised when I was watching Malcolm Gladwell was that, when he makes a mistake, he’s very easy about it. You wouldn’t even notice that he made a mistake at all.

Many of us, when we make a mistake on stage, we freeze up. Not Malcolm Gladwell. He is very relaxed and easy about it. I thought that this contributed to his Presence.

Use Your List As a Blueprint

When you’ve watched both videos (one per speaker, or more if you like) you’ll have a list of at least six qualities. Some of these qualities might be the same for both speakers.

Your list will contain the specific qualities that you think contribute to a person’s Presence.

It defines what Presence looks like for you.

You can then use these qualities to build your skills as a public speaker.

 

For example, one of the skills that I noticed that both Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin had was that it felt like they were talking to just five or six people. In actual fact, they were speaking to an audience of hundreds of people, but it felt that they were talking to a very, very small group. They were so intimate in the way that they spoke.

I used this insight as a starting point for building this skill when I was presenting.

When I rehearsed any presentation, I would imagine I was talking to a small group of people.

When I went out on stage, instead of thinking “Oh my god there’s loads of people!” I would imagine I was speaking to just a few people.

Even when I moved my eye contact across the whole crowd, I taught myself to feel like I was talking to just a few of them.

This certainly helped me to generate that particular quality that I feel contributes to Presence.

 

Use Your Definition to Build Your Speaking Skills

For each quality you have listed, ask yourself: How is this different from the way I speak now?

For me, I am particularly impressed by speakers who are very relaxed and subdued.

For you, it might be different. You might favour people who are very energetic, who run around the stage and use lots of volume when they speak. Maybe that’s what Presence means to you.

If your definition of Presence is different from mine, that’s absolutely fine. In fact, it’s totally normal.

Forget other people’s definitions of Presence! You now have your personal definition of Presence to guide you.

So, take your definition with you as you continue to build your speaking skills. Make a Voice Goal Plan to boost your skills even further.

Don’t try to copy those speakers you watched, just use your definition as a blueprint for the type of skills that you would like to develop in your public speaking.

 

Good luck! Let me know how it goes in the comments below.

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