How To Command A Room Like Stephen Colbert

A speech pro explains how to establish gravitas using six key communication skills.

On the very first episode of The Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert satirized the concept of “gravitas,” saying, “If you have sufficient gravitas, what you say doesn’t have to mean anything at all.”

While Colbert was probably exaggerating to get a laugh, the essence of his claim is definitely on target: Gravitas is one of the most important qualities for leadership in all businesses today.

A 2012 study by communications analytics firm Quantified Communications gave empirical weight to that idea, showing that “a speaker’s tone, appearance, and demeanor” was a staggering nine times more salient than the actual content presented.

So clearly, gravitas is important.

In my 35 years of providing speaking coaching to leaders at companies ranging from major multinational corporations to small businesses, I’ve taught critical communication strategies that make owning a room significantly easier. To get you started, here are six concrete ways you can command attention at your next critical meeting and demonstrate the elusive “gravitas.”

1. Communicate with a singular focus

Sending mixed signals is a quick way to lose an audience. Some people exhibit behaviors such as nodding their heads while talking, striving to elicit feedback by mirroring the reaction they want the audience to have. Others visually comment on their own speech by, for instance, showing a look of frustration that does not connect with their proposal of a bold new strategy.

These types of behaviors distract audiences and communicate a lack of conviction. You must not worry about what you just said or if you chose the right word—be in the moment. Your body, voice, and words must be in sync at all times in order for your message to get through most effectively.

If you want to project gravitas, it’s essential to avoid mixed signals—think of yourself as a diver, whose body must be aligned perfectly so that she doesn’t make a big splash. Stay focused, and keep your speaking splash small.

2. Orchestrate your rhythms

Speaking is like music: You have to change pace from time to time to keep your audience interested. So, one great way to improve is by incorporating rhythmic builds into your presentation.

A rhythmic build is when you repeat the same words, in the same place, in three different sentences. For instance: “We have to strive for excellence in execution. We have to strive for excellence in service. We have to strive for excellence in profitability.”

Think of it as a crescendo: Rhythmic builds create sound patterns that rise in intensity and make your presentation sound natural and passionate. In addition, they’re great for highlighting the significance of a key point that you want to stress to your audience.

3. Make effective use of image gestures

Not all gestures are created equal. Energy gestures—when the speaker moves his/her hands in a show of excitement or nervousness—can be distracting and counterproductive. Gestures should relate to the message and not be a mannerism of the speaker. The most powerful gestures are image gestures: using your hands to create a visual image of the concept you’re trying to communicate. For example: If you’re talking about exceeding expectations, let one hand represent where your business is at now, and move the other one gradually past it, with your body getting into the act as well for added power.

But make sure to keep your gestures “in the strike zone,” so to speak. Getting too far outside the frame of your body will only distract your audience. Gestures can be great vehicles for projecting both strength and spontaneity, but they must be used purposefully in order to be effective.

4. Use movement strategically

Aimless pacing will only serve to bore your audience. Never move just for the sake of moving: Always have a purpose in mind. Think of movement as punctuation, as a visual manifestation of transitioning to a new point. Well-timed movements can be like paragraph breaks that signal to your audience you’re shifting gears. The key is to move strategically, never frenetically. Additionally, be sure to use movement in settings that may have line of sight issues. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: If you can’t see them, they can’t see you.

5. Make appropriate use of eye contact

Good eye contact is critical for projecting energy outward and forward to your audience. If you’re looking down or up or rapidly shifting your eyes, your presentation will seem flat, lacking in conviction and momentum. But how exactly do you make proper use of it?

One good tip is to divide your audience into segments, establishing eye contact with several people in one area (around five seconds per person) and then moving on to the next. But moderation is key—never breaking eye contact can be just as awkward as never making it at all.

6. Be relevant to your audience

Finally, in order to command a room it’s important to consider not just how you’re presenting information but also how relevant that information is to your audience. Connect to their own experiences by using stories from everyday life that are easily recognizable. Gravitas doesn’t mean talking about exotic endeavors; it’s about confidently sharing the ordinary encounters that resonate with your audience’s day-to-day experiences.

The use of the right visual imagery can be great for explaining concepts. I once had a client who spoke with a lot of hesitancy, always stopping to make sure he had the right words before continuing on again. He was an avid cyclist, so I framed my advice by telling him to imagine he was cycling up a steep hill. If he didn’t keep going, he would totally lose momentum. Similarly, unless he stopped hesitating with his speaking, he would also completely lose momentum. Using ordinary visual analogies like that are a great way to present information and connect with your audience at the same time.

Fundamentally, gravitas is not about being louder or more enthusiastic than everyone else. Gravitas is not about adding artifice. Gravitas is about concentration and integration. Gravitas is about establishing relevance with the right audience, at the right time, with the right message. Gravitas: Don’t leave home without it.

—Anett Grant is the president and founder of Executive Speaking, Inc., a global speaking coaching company for senior executives. Reach Anett at anett@execspeak.com

[Photo by Scott Gries (PictureGroup)]

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3 Comments

  • Great post. Of all of these, I think you saved the best for last. Connecting with and being relevant to the audience is essential. I like to ask questions, even those people have to answer in their heads, to increase involvement. I also like to be as interactive as is appropriate for the environment to get the audience more involved. Good stuff.