You’re a smart and skilled leader with powerful potential. Still, in today’s high-speed, hypercompetitive business world, when key opportunities knock, you have little time to make a big impression. In face-to-face interactions in particular, you have to project credibility in an instant or risk squandering precious moments to stand out and succeed.
But what does credibility look like, really? And why do some smart, capable leaders project credibility, and others—who are just as smart and capable—don’t?
In studying this phenomenon with thousands of leaders, I’ve identified 25 specific visual and auditory cues—explicit behaviors for posture, gestures, vocal skills, and eye contact—that affect the perception of credibility. And unlike countless other cues, such as age or physical features, these 25 cues are within your active control. Moreover, whether you’re meeting one-to-one or presenting to a packed audience, small changes can make a big difference.
To see fast results, start with these five cues:
1. Keep your head level. In the dog world, renowned trainer Cesar Millan has exceptional “executive presence.” Dogs recognize his alpha status by the way he carries himself. In the business world, one of the best ways to project such presence is to keep your head level when speaking—no raising or dropping your chin, which can appear aggressive or submissive. The power of this one skill—to literally be levelheaded—can be transformative.
2. Keep your hands in the gesture box. In poker parlance, a “tell” is a subtle signal revealing the strength or weakness of a player’s hand. Similarly, in meetings or presentations, your gestures alone can send significant signals. A common tell of intimidation, for instance, is when your mouth is engaged but your body language isn’t. To appear confident, get your hands involved immediately, keeping them inside the “gesture box”—no higher than your sternum, no lower than your hips, and no wider than your shoulders.
3. Speak with optimal volume. If you’re a Seinfeld fan, you surely remember the infamous “low talker.” Likewise, in business settings a common problem with volume is speaking too softly or dropping volume at the end of sentences. The good news is that volume is the easiest vocal skill to adjust. First, however, you must know the difference between adequate volume and optimal volume. Most people err on the side of merely adequate. If you want to be a powerful voice, speak with a powerful voice.
4. Hold eye contact for three to five seconds. “Eye contact is the best accessory,” says writer Takayuki Ikkaku. It is also a key indicator of confidence and credibility. Still, there is a difference between making eye contact and holding eye contact. Duration is critical, and in the Western world, holding eye contact for three to five seconds is considered optimal.
5. Listen actively. Your credibility can be won or lost when you’re simply listening. Do you look bored or disconnected—or respectfully engaged? Attentive listening means you’re an active partner. It’s not enough to pay attention; you have to look like you’re paying attention. Keep your posture open, your head up, and your navel pointing toward the speaker.
Cara Hale Alter is president of SpeechSkills, a San Francisco–based communication training company, and author of The Credibility Code: How to Project Confidence and Competence When It Matters Most (Meritus, 2012). For more information, visit thecredibilitycode.com.