Presence: How to Get It – Working Voices

Or recounted a story to friends and had one of them say, “Oh! I don’t remember you being there.”  No?  Just me.  Ok then, maybe I’m an extreme case.  But since those days, I have been giving Talks (yes, with a capital “T”), delivering training and giving lots and lots of private coaching.  Nowadays I often (ahem) get the compliment “you have such presence”.

So I must have learned it, eh?  Or maybe “naturally” developed some Presence (with a capital “P).

Yes, you can learn Presence.  Actually, it’s only ever learned.  I would suggest that those for whom it seems to be an inherent trait, learned it early on in life, as children learn, without even noticing that they’re learning (see www.playengland.org.uk).   Or they’ve had really great teachers and coaches who brought it out in them long enough ago that now they are naturals.

So lets get down to brass tacks.  How do you learn to have Presence?

When I help people to develop their own presence, we start from this Very Important Premise: you are magnificent just the way you are.  It might be a funny thing for someone to say who’s job it is to help you be better than you currently are. Still, it’s absolutely true, and essential to success. You have Presence.  You might not know recognise when it’s shining out of you; you might not remember where you put it last, and so can’t always find it when you want it.  And you might not believe me when I tell you that you have it.  That’s fine.  That’s why I have this job. My job is to help you develop Conscious Presence.  This is when you are aware, as you walk into a very important meeting, that you want to have presence (even if you’re not the main speaker), and you know that you know how to do it. There are some people who can do this with ease.  I have studied them, and how they do what they do, since 1989.

There are 3 things people with Conscious Presence do:

  • they know what they want to say
  • they have justified confidence and commitment to performing their message, and themselves
  • they use the previous 2 things as a platform for being Present in the moment.

So how can you do what they do?  Well, here is what the best do.  Once you understand how it works, you can create your own method.

1. Know What You Want to Say

Great speakers, and great actors will have a script, or something like it.  We all need a clear, well-formulated message that we can get behind, whether it’s in the form of 3 key messages, the best bits of a chat we’ve had with friends, or the words of Shakespeare.  They will memorise it, forwards, backwards, fast, slow, and sometimes in another language, to ensure that it’s deep in their bones.  As they turn the words over and over in their minds and their mouths, they discover connections to the meaning of those words.  They develop the thinking that makes those words necessary.  And if they don’t, we can tell, and we call it bad acting.

2. Commit with Confidence to Your Performance

Great speakers and actors rehearse.  They can spend hours a day, for weeks on end.  First they find ways to embody their message, then play with the other actors, finding ways to honour their message in the wider environment of space, objects, and living things (also known as other actors, and sometimes there’s a dog). They work hard to achieve agility with the performance of their message. They constantly explore new ways of communicating and experiencing the message. Most importantly, they commit, at the outset, to finding the performance that communicates what they intend. This committed practice leads to a certain confidence in their ability to deliver the performance needed. If they don’t commit, you can sense it, and we call this bad acting.

3. Be Present

Because of all that hard work, and commitment, great speakers and actors can then be alive to the present moment as it happens.  All that preparatory work is for the sake of delivering something to a live audience.  When the audience is there, actors focus not on their words, the script, the set, what they should have said/should say next, or how nervous/tired/distracted they feel.  They have earned the right to be present.  Attentive to what is happening in the now. Responsive to the gifts of immediacy.  Even then, actors (being human) are likely to slip into focusing on themselves. This is the wrong thing to be focused on when you’re trying to make a connection with someone else.  The rule is 10% focus on yourself (to be sure there’s no toilet paper sticking to your shoe) and 90% focus on the source of your success and happiness – the one(s) you’re trying to reach, aka your audience.  And this is where great actors shine. These are people who have developed ways of noticing when they’ve become distracted, and bringing their attention back, over and over again, to the present moment. When they do this, we can sense it.  This is what we call great acting.

So can you learn to have Presence? Of course you can.

As I see it, we can do our homework and get the step one and step two right.  Sure, it’s easier with good guidance from a trainer, coach, director, or teacher.  But we can do that.  The really challenging bit is being present.  Think of it this way: if you don’t know why you’re at the meeting (message), if you’re unsure how you should be in that meeting (performance), it’s going to be difficult to be present.  Once you’ve decided those things, you at least have a chance.

So you can see, it’s possible to learn great presence.  It takes some attention, and it takes time.  But the prize can be yours.  But what if you can’t devote all that time to practicing?  And what if you’re not

Would you like a shortcut?  Of course you would.  Here it is:

When you show up to that meeting, or that date, or to do that talk, and you don’t know quite what your message is, and you don’t know quite understand how to perform it well, just decide, and keep deciding, one thing:

Decide to be present.

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