Executive Presence in a Virtual World

“Authenticity, honesty, and personal voice underlie much of what’s successful on the Web.”
Author of The Cluetrain Manifesto
Online business meeting

“Virtual presence is problematic, but that doesn’t mean that the fundamental skills no longer apply.”

Ladies and gentlemen… your attention please…

Impact, Charisma and Presence are essential qualities in a Senior Executive. If a leader wants to influence peers, enthuse employees, or inspire confidence in regulators, it is vital that they express themselves fully and with a sense of conviction. Presence, then, is a key attribute that effective leaders possess; one that enables them to motivate others.

It is hard enough to build rapport and demonstrate gravitas when working with people face to face, but when trying to do that via a laptop screen many additional difficulties arise. Overcoming those challenges takes hard work and commitment to learning new skills.

Start with the fundamentals of Impact and Presence

Virtual Presence is problematic, but that doesn’t mean that the fundamental skills no longer apply. The basic techniques are still as central to engaging effectively with people as they ever were. Those core skills have a long history. The ancient Greeks highly valued public speaking and over 2,000 years ago Aristotle identified “the three persuasive appeals” that combine together to make a powerful argument that inspires people to act, they are:

  1. Ethos: being credible as a speaker: demonstrating expertise; being thought of as trustworthy and knowledgeable
  2. Pathos: building emotional connection to the audience through establishing common ground or linking to key values
  3. Logos: having logical arguments supported by data, facts and analysis

Much of what is taught today in respect of presence goes back to these
writings on rhetoric (or the art of persuasion) by the ancient Greeks.

For example, in their June 2012 HBR article Antonkis, Fenley and Leichti on Learning Charisma, note that while leaders can pressure people to do as they ask because they have the power to reward or punish employees, it is the ability to demonstrate charismatic leadership that really inspires people to give of their best. They go on to highlight twelve ancient rhetorical techniques as being especially powerful for modern leaders. These include…

Rhetorical Questions to engage people e.g. “So, what does good performance look like?”

Expressing Moral Conviction (setting standards for right or just behaviour) e.g. “This quality problem is damaging our relationships with our customers, it’s our issue to resolve and we need to take ownership for fixing it as a group.”

Reflecting the Group’s/Audience’s Sentiments – even when they are negative – as they show empathy and help the group to ‘connect’ with the speaker e.g. “I know how disappointed and upset you are about this decision…it is a bitter pill to swallow after all your hard work…”

Setting Challenging Goals – giving people a clear, compelling objective to focus on e.g. “this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon”, John. F. Kennedy (May 1961)

Two issues with Remote Executive Presence

When working remotely there are two main issues that need to be addressed when demonstrating Ethos, Pathos and Logos:

  1. Building Trust. Getting a ‘connection’ with people has a lot to do with eye contact, facial expressions (in particular smiling) and open body language, but these things are hard to do in a virtual environment.
  2. Establishing Credibility. Power gestures, small talk, looking professional, and demonstrating knowledge all contribute to establishing a professional presence, but this can be ‘tricky’ when trying to do it through a laptop screen.

So, if a ‘face to face’ meeting is like a 3D theatre play with actors facing a live audience, ‘in the flesh’, then a virtual meeting is like a 2D TV show, with a presenter, sitting in a studio, and talking into a camera. So, successful Executive Presence in this context, in part, involves adapting the techniques used by presenters on the evening news to build trust and establish credibility remotely.

Look the part – master your production values to establish credibility

As noted above, a key element of Executive Presence in a Virtual World, is to appreciate the importance of looking and sounding professional on the screen.
This involves:

  1. Looking good on screen. Adjust your lighting levels to create a clear, sharp image. Make sure your light source is coming from behind your camera i.e. from in front of you. Use the Touch Up My Appearance and Adjust for Low Light, features to fine tune your image and consider buying a professional photographer’s lamp. Frame yourself as a head and shoulders shot; don’t have too much ‘empty space’ above your head.
  2. Curating your background. Look at your video preview and clear any clutter in camera view; set up a professional looking background, or have an appropriate virtual background e.g. maybe use your company’s logo.
  3. Sounding good. Test your laptop speaker and microphone and use the “Suppress Background Noise” feature. Think about buying (and using) an external microphone that blocks out background noise.

Make friends with the camera – to build trust

Positive body language is a key aspect of demonstrating charisma; especially adopting an upright, relaxed posture, coupled with steady eye contact and a warm smile.

What this means for Virtual Presence is that eye contact has to be simulated by talking into the camera (and not to the person’s image on the screen). So, when talking focus on the camera light and imagine that you are looking at a person and chatting with them as you do so. This feels very ‘odd’ at first but in time you do get used to it, so persevere. It helps to lift up the camera (by using a stand or stack of books) so that the lens is at eye level.

Also, sit up straight on your chair (don’t slouch), and when not talking give active listening signals such as head nods, smiles and (maybe) the occasional thumbs up sign. Act as if you are on show at all times, which you are! Actively manage your reactions and expressions so as to demonstrate courtesy to all people at all times i.e. no eye rolling, or head shaking.

You can’t use gestures as much on-line as you do in a face-to-face setting (it makes you look frenetic), but they are still an important part of the communication mix, and when used to highlight key points they are very effective e.g. doing a ‘two handed chop’ gesture to emphasise a message or statement.

Have a script; make sure you have a message that’s worth listening to!

In their book Leadership Presence Halpern and Lubar make a link between what is required of a top performing senior executive and the actor’s craft. They note that actors don’t expect to be ‘born’ with charisma, but train, using specific ‘drills’, to be able to capture an audience’s attention and to have people focus completely on them.

In addition, they also note that a good performance based on a poor script doesn’t impress anyone: presence captures people’s attention and gets them to take the speaker seriously, but the content of the message must also be compelling.

So effective leaders don’t only make their point with energy and conviction (pathos), they also have something to say that is worth listening to (logos). They plan what they want to say, making sure it’s logical and mentions facts and figures that convinces people of the correctness of the case they are making. This applies not only to a formal ‘key note’ speech, but also to more everyday comments, such as making a point in a meeting. Plus, again like a good actor, they rehearse what they are going to say, so it comes across fluently, without undue hesitation or the appearance of doubt.

Putting it all together

Virtual Executive Presence starts with understanding the classic fundamentals of capturing attention and being convincing, namely; Ethos, Pathos and Logos.

It’s then a question of coming to terms with the media and accepting we are working in a TV style format and acting accordingly i.e. by getting a grip on the production values and becoming comfortable presenting into the camera.

Finally, it’s about taking the time to script and rehearse what you want to say so that you are making points that are clear, logical and supported by facts and figures.

So what’s next?

Reflect on how effective you are at working via your laptop screen. What messages are you sending through your production values and body language? Consider what changes you might make.


Read this Short article giving examples of Ethos, Pathos and Logos in speeches


Watch… this YouTube clip (5 minutes) on 6 body language tips for conducting a video call


Take a look at our Executive Presence in a Virtual World programme (an intensive remote training course, for a maximum of six delegates per programme).


Or maybe review our ‘one to one’ executive coaching services to get some tailored guidance on developing your personal impact in the virtual space.


Or give us a call on 0844 394 8877 (UK)
or email us at coaching@boulden.net and we’ll be happy to discuss how we can work with you.

And we end with a quote from the Economist, Author and Expert in Talent Management, SYLVIA ANN HEWLETT…

“There are six elements of gravitas critical to leadership: grace under fire, decisiveness, emotional intelligence and the ability to read a room, integrity and authenticity (people don’t like fakes), a vision that inspires others, and a stellar reputation.”