Can You Be Cute and Perky And Still Have Executive Presence?

Recently we took a poll asking people to vote on who has more executive presence, Katie Couric or Diane Sawyer.

Diane Sawyer won hands down with a whopping 97 percent of the vote. How could this be? Both women have been at the top of the broadcast industry, even being the first at their respective networks to sit in the coveted evening news anchor chair, a position dominated by men since literally the beginning of television.

An interesting discussion ensued among my clients and colleagues as to why the vote turned out so lopsided. Some suggested that Sawyer’s demeanor was more serious and refined while Couric’s was often too perky— even, at times, bordering on silly.  So I asked the same clients and colleagues about some other women whose personalities might be considered more humorous—Meredith Vieira, Maggie Smith and Whoopi Goldberg.  They responded that these three particular women do inhabit executive presence.  Confusing, yes? It seems that we allow some women to inhabit a space where their behavior can range from serious to humorous, but we are rather parsimonious when deciding which women can do both. Being viewed as too cute or too perky cuts a woman’s odds of being granted a wider range of acceptable behavior.

Whatever the reasons, the whole discussion brought to mind the comments I’ve heard over the years from many women I’ve coached which go something like this:

“Peggy, when I walk into a meeting with my colleague who is 6”2, and I’m 5”1., naturally he’s the one who exudes executive presence by virtue of his height, and he’s the one who they’re going to take more seriously.”


“I’m young and have a bubbly personality. My boss has told me that he was surprised that I am ‘so smart and accomplished.’ My male colleagues got the respect immediately while I had to earn it.”

What? Is being vertically challenged or vivacious really to blame? I’ve been around some very dull tall men who can’t hold a room at all. On the other hand, I have seen many petite women take command of any crowd wherever they go.

So, no more excuses.

One of the great things about executive presence is that it’s not one size fits all. In other words, that elusive, often difficult to define quality that commands respect and trust, and inspires others to follow, comes in all shapes and sizes.

Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to poll the survey respondents as to why they voted the way they did. The important thing, I think, is to scrutinize our own biases, being ever mindful of the narrow band of communication and behavior into which we force women to conform.

While we’re doing that, here are some suggestions for all you “cute and perky” women out there to help you exude more executive presence:

Get Rid Of Upspeak
Upspeak is when you turn a declarative statement into a question (think Valley Girls, circa 1980s). This particular vocal tic almost always gives an impression that we are less intelligent, confident and experienced than we really are, so it’s worth trying to correct and as soon as possible. Record yourself in conversation (you can use your smartphone) and listen as objectively as you can to hear if you are using upspeak. Once you know what you’re dealing with you can prompt yourself to stop.

Lower Your Voice
Prior to her election in 1979, Margaret Thatcher underwent a voice-training program that resulted in voice that was less “shrill” and more calm and authoritative. From taped recordings of speeches made before and after, a marked difference can be heard. Like Maggie Thatcher, many successful women are plagued by a voice unpleasant to the ears. Lower tones connote authority, gravitas and confidence. If you have a high-pitched, squeaky voice, do what Maggie did and get help from a professional speech coach. You can be the smartest person in the room, but if you come out sounding like Minnie Mouse, all ears will be closed.

Limit Filler Words
In linguistics, a filler is a sound or word that is spoken in conversation by one participant to signal to others that he/she has paused to think but has not yet finished speaking. Popular filler words that are not doing you any favors (but are currently in favor) are “like,” “so” and “right?” along with the good old stand-bys of “ummm” and “ahh.”I know it seems like these words have become a normal part of our dialect, but trust me—they are making you sound young, nervous, and not as intelligent as you are.

Don’t Fill The Air Space
Being comfortable with silence gives you more gravitas. Not only that, audiences like silence. In fact, they need it. Use the prompts, “Silence is golden,” “Pause, breathe, and stop talking,” and “I don’t need to fill the air space” so that your audience can hear what you’re telling them and absorb it. In addition, silence is good for preventing those annoying vocal utterances (“ums” and “ahs”). It’s also very dramatic and often makes a point better than any word can.

Avoid Smiling And Giggling When Giving Critical Feedback
I haven’t run across many people who like conflict and even fewer who do it well. It’s really hard, it’s really scary, and if we could, we would ALL avoid it. But smiling and/or nervously giggling while you give critical feedback does not project confidence. You need to give critical feedback in a respectful, caring way—not undermine your message or your authority with nervous laughter or smiles.

Fake It ‘Til You Make It
If you’re truly excited to be talking to your audience, great! You’re way ahead of most people. But, what if you’re not excited? What if you don’t feel passionate about your message or the material? What if there are people in the audience who make you nervous? Or, what if you’ve just taken the “red-eye” and you’re sleep deprived, or you have a terrible cold, or your boss just announced that you won’t be getting that bonus you were counting on? Well, you need to do what actors and other successful professionals do: compartmentalize, leave your emotional baggage at the stage door and ACT AS IF—act as if you are delighted to be there in front of your audience…or, as a very insightful client put it, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

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