Gravitas – having presence

Gravitas – having presence

‘Peter Capaldi will be a Dr Who of gravitas and steel’ says the New Statesman on the time lord’s latest incarnation. Undoubtedly, but what does that actually mean – ‘gravitas and steel?’ Are the two qualities everlastingly linked? Is gravitas something a lucky few are born with or can anyone have it? What is gravitas? What was the best thing before sliced bread…?

Gravitas can best be defined as confidence, competence and credibility. Or to put that another way (and the temptation here to write ‘credibility, confidence and competence’ is almost irresistible) ‘grace under fire, decisiveness and emotional intelligence’ according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Dictionary definitions of gravitas include ‘dignity, solemnity and weight’ (from the Latin gravis) – this, of course, refers to a sense of grounding or connection rather than simply being big boned.

Think of someone who you deem to embody the qualities of gravitas. Great, now think of someone other than Barack Obama. Of course, President Obama does embody many if not all of these qualities but he is also POTUS and being POTUS carries with it a certain degree of gravitas (whoever you are). There are may other people in the public domain who exemplify these qualities and many more besides who each of us knows personally but who aren’t public figures.

Now think of another person who personifies gravitas but this time they must be of the opposite gender to your first person and if your first person was a public figure then your second should be someone known to you personally. So, let’s say my first person was Fiona Bruce, then my second person will be my father. Identify three characteristics per person to demonstrate why you have chosen them and compare with both.

Three words come up time and time again when doing this – confident, calm and controlled. If you look at anyone who seems to be able to effortlessly engage with other people and build rapport as well as leaving others feeling that they were the sole focus of their attention and actually analyse what they are doing you will soon see a pattern emerging.

Firstly, people with gravitas do not rush about like Mad Hatter, but rather conduct their lives more akin to Bagheera (if I may mix my children’s story comparisons). They are cool, calm and collected and move with an assuredness that comes with being very happy with themselves (or at least gives the impression thereof).

Note how they breathe. The cool, calm and collected amongst us do not waste effort on short upper chest half-breaths but engage their diaphragms fully and fill their lungs slowly and efficiently. This is nothing new by the way and is not some secret respiratory technique available only to those who actively seek it but rather it is the way we are born to breathe. If you have small children in your family, or have friends who have little people running about, watch them breathe (the children that is, not the parents – they’ll be too exhausted) and you’ll soon see what I mean by diaphragmatic breathing. While you are at it, look at how they sit and stand. No awkward drooping physicality there. Children naturally use their spines to support their bodies and, as a result, generally have a sunnier outlook on life than many adults. This is due also to the fact that they inhabit a world of blissful ignorance unencumbered by direct debits, software updates and historically inaccurate movies but I digress. The point is that those who have the gravitas labelled pinned firmly upon their lapels tend also to have positive and open posture and there is an undoubted link between good body posture and increased energy.

So, you’re standing tall, breathing like a baby and moving like a panther (I know panthers are quadrupeds but work with me on this) and feeling good about yourself. The next thing that gravitas-mongers have in common is a controlled and resonant vocal delivery. Why do we believe Mark Carney when he tells us that his new regime should boost the UK’s economic growth? The answer is not simply because he has a pretty decent track record behind him in these sort of things and can carry off a purple polo shirt and shorts combo without looking like a five year old, but also because he speaks with a measured voice, appropriate for his message.

As soon as you shout, you lose what gravitas you had. Keep the volume down generally as this actually forces people to really listen to what you are saying and speak at a measured pace. This will allow your voice to settle into its lower register and add depth to it and will also demonstrate that you are confident enough to speak slowly. Of course, don’t deliver everything like James Earl Jones giving his Darth Vader, that would be unusual, but rather use this as a starting point and vary your pitch and pace. When you speak, use gesture fittingly but sparingly. The bigger the audience the bigger the movement can be; in a meeting with a client you can create the impression of weight by being relatively still especially when listening.

Listening is a key area. Don’t cut people off or rush in but rather wait for your turn to speak and pay 100% attention to the person speaking. That is what those people who make you feel that there is no one else in the world for them at a given point but you do when they engage with you. Imagine how useful that is going to be in a meeting, at an event, on a date.