- Ever seen a speaker deliver a presentation that holds the audience spellbound?
- Know anyone who expresses their viewpoint in such a confident way that they manage to convince others to agree?
- Remember being in a room where someone seemed to effortlessly command all the attention?
Those people have learnt the secret of presenting with gravitas. This article gives you practical tips to help you do the same.
What is gravitas?
To begin, let’s start by examining the word ‘Gravitas’. The dictionary definition is ‘weight, seriousness, solemnity’ and if you go back to its origins, it denoted statesmanship. These days, gravitas has a broader appeal. My definition is your ability to command respect, get taken seriously and ensure your voice gets heard, while retaining your authenticity.
“Gravitas is the ability to command respect, get taken seriously and get your voice heard.”
Gravitas is important because leaders need more than just a job title or conferred authority. To lead effectively, they also need to inspire, communicate, collaborate, influence and develop meaningful relationships.
When you are perceived to have gravitas, you’ll be able to command respect, increase your personal visibility, build stronger relationships, win more business, get promoted more quickly, lead better, communicate better and network better – in short, you’ll get better results.
One of the skills that gravitas gives you is the ability to present powerfully. That means gravitas is crucial for leaders and people wanting to further their career. In addition to compelling content, your delivery style is crucial, and it can be highly effective if you adapt this for different size groups, whether in person or online.
“If you’re presenting with confidence, you can pull off pretty much anything” – Katy Perry
Presenting with gravitas to small and medium-sized groups
There are three main aspects to consider when you’re presenting to a small or medium-sized group or making an announcement to your team.
Controlled breathing will help calm your nerves, increase your vocal range, and give you a strong and powerful voice. To practice this, sit or stand in a relaxed neutral position. Place your hands at the base of your ribs with your middle fingers touching. Take a deep, steady breath in. Rather than breathing into the top of your lungs so your shoulders move upwards, concentrate on expanding the air into the bottom of your lungs (lower than your hands). You should notice your fingers moving away from each other.
A voice without gravitas can be thin, reedy, high-pitched, flat and monotone. A voice with gravitas is deep and resonant, with a rich and measured tone, and clear, unrushed delivery. To be clear, this isn’t about women trying to sound like men, these tips are for everyone.
Warm-up your voice. Before you go on stage, find somewhere private where you can take a few deep breaths, chew imaginary gum, say ‘Mmmmm’ in a way that projects from your whole body as well as your mouth, and exaggeratedly read a favourite poem out loud.
Vary the pace according to the content. You might speed up when you tell funny stories, and slow down to emphasise key points.
Vary the volume. When you speak loudly, it expresses passion and intensity. When you speak quietly, it will draw your audience in.
Use highs and lows to illustrate the ups and downs of your message. But avoid the rising inflexion as it makes statements sound like questions, makes you seem uncertain, and therefore reduces gravitas (except where it’s the norm, for example, in Australia and New Zealand). This is known as Upspeak or High Rising Terminal.
Harness the power of the pause – a moment of silence is a great way to demonstrate gravitas, whether you are using a moment to collect your thoughts or allowing the audience time to collect theirs.
To present with maximum energy, it’s best to stand up. If you’re presenting remotely, use a standing desk.
Stand tall. Don’t slouch into one hip or cross your feet, as this makes you look unsteady and unsure. Instead, plant your feet directly under your hips. This keeps you balanced and grounded, conveying strength and solidity. It also encourages your shoulders to relax down and back.
Use arm and hand gestures. For a formal presentation, start by holding your arms in a neutral position, not by your sides or behind your back. Gesture outwards to emphasise your points. The bigger the gesture, the bigger the emphasis. For example, if you’re talking about a “massive” increase in sales, stretch your arms right out to the sides. Note that gesturing with palms down may convey seriousness and trustworthiness, while palms-up gestures convey weakness and diminish your status.
“You can have brilliant ideas, but if you can’t get them across, they won’t get you anywhere”
Presenting with gravitas to large groups
In addition to the advice for smaller groups, there are a number of techniques that will help you engage with big crowds, both on-site and online.
When I delivered my TEDx to a large audience, situated in tiers in an auditorium, I was using these techniques.
Make eye contact. To make the best connection with a large audience, don’t fix your eyes on one spot, and don’t sweep your eyes from side to side. Rather, divide them into sections (in your mind) and imagine you’re talking to a friend or colleague who’s sitting in each section. Hold their gaze for as long as it takes for your point to land, and then move to the next person.
Practice projecting. If you’re in a large room (without an AV system), use some of your rehearsal time to try ‘throwing’ your voice to different parts of the room. Invite a friend to sit in each chair and check they can hear you OK.
Adapt your energy. Plan how you want your audience to feel and adapt your energy accordingly. For example, build in rapid movements to express enthusiasm. To portray vitality, put a spring into your step and increase your vocal variety. To add ‘weight’, slow down your speech, deepen your tone and use more deliberate movements.
Use spatial ‘anchors’. Associate key points or stories with different parts of the stage. For example, when talking about the past, stand on the audience’s left (and on their right when talking about the future).
Keep an ’open’ posture. Don’t hide behind the lectern, turn your back on the audience, or fold your arms.
Presenting with gravitas online
It can be tougher to maintain audience members’ attention when you’re presenting online because you are competing with off-camera distractions. These tips will help and for an example of a virtual presentation, take a look at a pre-recorded keynote I was invited to deliver to the PPPA virtual summit here.
- Speak directly down the camera lens. For each attendee, it will look as though you’re making eye contact with them individually
- Pretend you’re talking to your number one fan – this will create warmth in your delivery
- Move to one side or the other of your screen to create ‘anchors’ (as suggested above)
- If you’re sharing your screen, perhaps to show slides, regularly switch back to speaker view in order to maintain engagement
- Check your gallery view from time to time (unless it’s a webinar where you can’t see anyone)
- Invite participants to ask questions or add comments in the chat box
While developing these techniques will enable you present with gravitas, the most important thing is to share your own expertise and your own authentic examples.
Don’t be tempted to emulate someone else or put pressure on yourself to be perfect. Audiences warm the most to a presenter who has an important message to share, is brave enough to be themselves from the stage, and who shares their own, lived experiences and opinions.