I used to struggle with people taking me seriously.
Or at least I thought I did.
And unfortunately for me, so did my boss. I was 28 and living and working in London as an Account Director for a branding agency. I was young to be an Account Director. And I looked even younger. I was also short (still am). Sometimes I struggled to be taken seriously by more senior clients.
One day my boss pulled me aside to give me some guidance on how to deal with this ‘young’ issue. She said,
“Jane, I love your attitude and your ambition. But I must be honest – you look too young. You need to look the part. Pull
your hair back. Wear big earrings. Go buy a serious corporate shirt. This will help you look older, and more credible”.
“Ok. Ok”, 28-year-old me said nodding my head. And I went to buy the most corporate pinstripe, button up cuff and collar shirt I could find.
Now in her defence, my boss was probably right. I did need some guidance in looking more corporate. But what she didn’t realise is the other internal ‘adjustments’ I was making following that conversation.
Adjustment 1: You must stop smiling Jane. In my mind I was far too smiley. So, I decided to adopt resting b@t#h face instead. Much more serious.
Adjustment 2: You must be less friendly and chatty. I wanted an air of seriousness and gravitas to follow me into the room, so small talk became limited.
Adjustment 3: Less conversation, more formal presentation. I turned up the volume on my voice. My hands. My presence. I become bigger, louder, scarier.
And so, my ‘presentation persona’ was crafted, and it served me well for the next 10 years.
Until I moved back to New Zealand and became a trainer. Where I started to learn that this persona was actually getting in the way of me doing my job.
Well firstly it was tiring! I put a lot of adrenaline and energy into creating this persona, because in essence, I was performing. As soon as I got up to present, I was ‘on’. I poured bucket loads of energy into acting the part. Which was
tiring when you must be ‘on’ all day.
Secondly, I realised that this persona was getting in the way of my ability to listen. I was so focused on the energy I was giving out, that I often missed what was going on with my audience. I was too in my own head to observe when they understood a point, and when they didn’t. When energy was up, or energy was down.
I was also quite scary. I no longer had to try to look older. I was older! And I looked it. But I was still adopting the
resting b&t@h face when I felt nervous. I was serious, and cold. And therefore, hard to connect with.
How did I break through my presentation persona?
The first and most important step I took was learning to look at my audience. Like really look. One person at a time. Not at their foreheads. Or at the back of the room. But to make eye connection with them – just like I would in a
By training myself to talk to my audience, rather than at them, I was naturally using the conversational skills we use in everyday life. I learned to listen before I answered. I noticed when they were tired or turning off. I saw when a point
didn’t land and needed further explanation. I could also see when the audience nodded in agreement and comprehension, which meant I could move on. I wasn’t ‘up’, I was calm. Less on, but more present.
By talking to my audience, I was also remembering to be Jane. Real Jane. Not the serious, scary persona I had perfected over the years, but the one that my friends knew. That my family knew.
And slowly my armour was dismantled. I learnt to stop performing. And to start talking with my audiences. And with this change I became a far more effective communicator: one that could listen. Adjust. Teach. Connect.
In a nutshell, my focus turned from ‘performance’ to CONNECTION.
And to be honest, this is what being an effective business communicator is about. When our default setting is to adopt a different persona when we present, we put our energy into projecting this person to our audience. We focus on ourselves. How we come across, what we say. And often to the detriment of connecting with others.
A persona is great for the stage but can be problematic for the boardroom. When people come together in business, they need to collaborate, inform, persuade, inspire. To experience a two-way dialogue, not a one-person show.
Look, my presentation persona served me well in my earlier career, on many levels. I was a more comfortable and impactful communicator than most. However how effective was I?
My job was to create relationships. Sell ideas. Persuade. Inspire. And the environment was tough – often you
could cut the atmosphere with a knife.
Looking back on it, my resting b*4tch face probably wasn’t helping. It’s likely my seriousness was putting up barriers, rather than breaking them down. So many tense situations and meetings can be lightened
with a laugh, a smile, a connection! All those traits that I had perceived as signs of weakness would have helped, not
hindered. (Ah, hindsight).
“The energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship”.
Connection works every time.
Is your presentation persona getting in the way of connecting with your audience?
Stop presenting. Start talking.